Highland Survivor: The Story of the Far North Line

‘The severity of what Beeching proposed was reflected in the Scotsman’s coverage, occupying almost the entire front page.’

Completed in 1874, the 168-mile Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick and Thurso, is one of Britain’s most remarkable rail survivors. Having faced extinction in 1963, when Dr Richard Beeching published his infamous report ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, in this extract David Spaven investigates the background to Beeching’s controversial proposals and outlines how the Scottish press responded.

Extract from Highland Survivor: The Story of the Far North Line
By David Spaven
Published by Kessock Books

Chapter 8: Dr Beeching Prescribes – and the North Revolts

‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ – ‘the Beeching Report’ – was published on 27th March 1963. Closure of ‘unremunerative’ lines had been gathering pace nationwide for several years and there was widespread expectation that Beeching would propose many service withdrawals. But the sheer scale of the proposals in his 148-page report came as a shock. Passenger services were to be withdrawn from 5,000 route miles, and over 2,000 stations would be closed across Britain. The pessimists in the North had been proved right – within the 35 pages of lists of routes and stations which were to lose their passenger services was the entire rail system north of Inverness.

But there was logic underpinning the closures element of the new strategy aimed at creating a profitable railway. The latter would largely be based on bulk and container freight innovations and fast inter-city passenger trains to meet the challenge of road transport. The third chapter of the report – ‘Analysis of the problem’ – succinctly summed up the basic characteristics of railways and the circumstances which were likely to make railways ‘the best available form of transport’:

‘Railways are distinguished by the provision and maintenance of a specialised route system for their own exclusive use. This gives rise to high fixed costs. On the other hand, the benefits which can be derived from possession of this high cost route system are very great.

‘Firstly, it permits the running of high capacity trains, which themselves have very low movement costs per unit carried. Secondly, it permits dense flows of traffic and, provided the flows are dense, the fixed costs per unit moved are also low. Thirdly it permits safe, reliable, scheduled movements at high speed.

‘In a national system of transport we should, therefore, expect to find railways concentrating upon those parts of the traffic pattern which enable them to derive sufficient benefit from these three advantages to offset their unavoidable burden of high system cost. In other words, we should expect the provision of railways to be limited to routes over which it is possible to develop dense flows of traffic, of the kinds which lend themselves to movement in trainload quantities and which, in part at least, benefit from the speed and reliability which the railways are capable of achieving.’

A dispassionate analysis at the time would have struggled to find any such circumstances on the Far North Line. From a purely commercial viewpoint, the railway was a ‘dead duck’, as was the Kyle line. While this was a strictly financial approach to the problem – ignoring environmental, regional development, road congestion and social impact issues – this was ‘all’ that Beeching had been asked to do by a Government alarmed by BR’s mounting losses.

The Reshaping Report did not hide its light under a bushel, and, coming from a business background, Dr Beeching was perhaps naive in not foreseeing the political storm that such a transparent announcement of drastic surgery would cause. Part of that transparency was a fascinating portfolio of 13 detailed maps, with Map 3 of ‘Passenger traffic station receipts’ revealing that only four Scottish stations in the highest revenue category (£25,000 and over per annum) were listed for closure – Galashiels, Hawick, Stranraer and Thurso. As the map extract shows, however, the large majority of the Far North Line’s stations – unsurprisingly, given population levels – fell into the lowest revenue category (less than £5,000 pa), with only Dingwall, Invergordon, Lairg and Wick in the medium category. Here was practical confirmation of the key point made by Iain Skewis in his 1960 report at Glasgow University: that low population totals provide only limited traffic, whose revenues must cover charges on a considerable length of track mileage.

The most notorious of the maps was Map No. 9, ‘Proposed withdrawal of passenger train services’, which featured prominently on the front page of the Scotsman on 28th March under the headline: ‘The lines that stay and the ones that may go’. The paper reported that 6,720 Scottish jobs were to be lost, and that the rail route network would be cut by 41% to 1,350 miles. Also 435 of the then 1,150 stations (of which 669 served passengers) would be closed.

The severity of what Beeching proposed was reflected in the Scotsman’s coverage, occupying almost the entire front page plus pages six and seven. Little specific mention was made of the Far North Line, and rail passengers in the Highlands would have drawn little comfort from the news that ‘The National Trust for Scotland is already taking an active interest in the possibilities of acquiring disused railway lines which run through areas of special beauty or interest.’ And was it a mischievous sub-editor who inserted on the front page a holiday advert which exhorted readers to ‘Make it French Railways. They have so much to offer.’?

Highland Survivor: The Story of the Far North Line by David Spaven is out now published by Kessock Books priced £16.99. Highland Survivor was awarded the 2017 Railway Book of the Year by the Railway & Canal Historical Society.

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