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12/12/2015 - Timber from the Flow Country – rail conference delegates hear of ambitious plans

Ambitious plans to transport timber from the Flow Country in remote North Sutherland to Inverness via rail instead of road could pave the way for other projects in rural communities throughout the UK, delegates were told at a rail stakeholder conference organised by HITRANS, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands.

HITRANS is co-ordinating investigations into the feasibility of the proposal, called Branchliner, which would see a major new facility created at Kinbrace to freight the timber to southern markets via an expanded siding at Inverness railway station.

It is deemed to be a pioneering project that could be mirrored in other rural communities in the United Kingdom.

An estimated windblow of 230,000 tonnes of timber needs to be harvested in the Flow Country. Kinbrace is situated in the heart of the target area - between Helmsdale and Melvich. The value of the wood at the mill gate is estimated at between £8 - £10 million. Its value if left to rot is zero.

Presentations were made by Colin Mackenzie, projects consultant to the Highland Timber Transport Group, and Frank Roach, HITRANS Partnership Manager, highlighting the potential of the project.

Preliminary studies had been carried out; key stakeholders had been briefed and it was hoped that a potential operator of the Branchliner project could be identified early in the new year.

HITRANS Chairman Councillor James Stockan said: “This is a very exciting project that has the potential to protect our hard-pressed roads, protect the environment and importantly in North Sutherland boost the local economy and create jobs. In the New Year we hope to continue progress towards identifying the necessary funding from partners and secure an operator. It is a pioneering project that could be mirrored in other rural communities in the United Kingdom.”

A later presentation by Fiona Hesling of Transport Scotland on the Scottish Government’s rail freight strategy highlighted that the deployment of one freight train would remove 76 lorries from the road.

Delegates were also advised of progress being made to open a new rail station at Inverness Airport, Dalcross. The first phase of development would feature a single platform on the north side of the railway line. A 150-space car park would be run by HIAL, who own the airport, and a free shuttle bus operated between the car park and the airport.

A consequence of the new stop would be the closure of the nearby level crossing to avoid adding to journey times between Inverness – Aberdeen. A traffic survey during the summer had identified daily use by only 71 vehicles and 8 pedestrians.

Initial findings from a business case review was that the station would return £5 for every £1 invested. It was hoped that when the business case and traffic assessment were completed a planning application could be submitted next year. Local consultations would be at the centre of the process.

Keynote speakers included Phil Verster, the Managing Director of ScotRail Alliance, which combines ScotRail Abellio and Network Rail, and Peter Strachan, Managing Director of Serco Caledonian Sleeper, which has its new base in Station Square, Inverness.

Mr Verster said his aim was to bring the Highlands and Islands closer to the central belt, putting customers first. By 2019, it was planned to reduce travel times through investment in modern rolling stock, including high speed trains. An hourly service to Perth would be extended to Edinburgh and Glasgow. A £2 million upgrade of Inverness rail station was included in spending plans.

Mr Strachan said Serco would be introducing 75 new sleeper coaches by April 2018. He unveiled images of the compartments which he said would provide “a high quality customer experience”. Serco were pleased to have chosen Inverness as the headquarters of its sleeper operation and sourced much of its catering products from the Highlands.

Delegates were also brought up to speed with progress being made by Network Rail to improve journey times on the rail network in Scotland and upgrade rolling stock and rail stations, including Forres and Elgin.

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