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Caithness Transport Forum update, 19th July 2013

As you may already know, in December 2012 Caithness Chamber of Commerce took over facilitation of Caithness Transport Forum from Caithness Partnership, with funding support from the Highland Council and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

As part of our work with the Forum, which brings together a range of local transport stakeholders and operators to promote a strong, inter-connected transport network for Caithness, we will aim to deliver a fortnightly update on our actions with the Forum as well as some general information about local, national and international transport news.

General

We’ve been busy working on our actions from the last Forum meeting this week. The Chamber has written letters on behalf of the Forum to a number of MPs and MSPs to raise concerns over the Serco NorthLink ferry contract, following the catastrophic breakdown of the MV Hamnavoe at the end of April, and over a new Border Force Agency checking regime for cruise ship passengers which is likely to impact disproportionately on remote and rural ports such as Scrabster.

We also continue to lobby on behalf of the Forum for an expedited process for making the Berriedale Braes a “shovel-ready” project. While we are delighted that, at long last, things are moving ahead with URS having been appointed as the consultant to carry out a feasibility study on the work, we are concerned about the projected length of time it will take to complete the study.

Road

There was concerning news today regarding a projected 5p-a-litre rise in fuel prices. This is obviously likely to disproportionately affect Caithness and other rural areas, where fuel prices are already higher than the national average. We will continue to monitor the situation and give our input where appropriate.

Other than that, recent road news has been generally positive. This fortnight saw the lifting of speed restrictions on the Kessock Bridge, following months of upgrade work. We also received an update at the last Forum meeting that BEAR Scotland will be carrying out a number of upgrade and repair works to the area’s roads over the summer, which is welcome news.

Finally, we are in the process of drafting a response to Iain Gray MSP’s proposed Bus Regulation (Scotland) Bill, which contains a number of proposals appropriate to rural areas. We’ll post the response here when it’s complete

Sea

There’s been a lot of positive news in this area recently. The first of the seasonal cruise ship visits to Scrabster have gone well, bringing hundreds of people into Thurso town centre. We were also delighted to hear that Wick Harbour has received major new funding from the NDA and HIE. There’s been good news at Scrabster too, with the first phase of their ambitious infrastructure development programme now complete.

Looking towards the long term, the European Commission recently proposed legislation requiring large ships (over 5,000 tons) using EU to monitor their carbon dioxide emissions. While the legislation is not proposed to come into force until 2018, we will continue to monitor its progress and consult with our partners in the maritime sector on any potential impact of the legislation.

Rail

There’s been a lot happening in the rail sector recently, with Network Rail publishing a new Technical Strategy and the Office of Rail Regulation launching a consultation on their draft determination of outputs and funding for Control Period 5 (2014-19). The ScotRail franchise process continues, with three bidders now named for the Caledonian sleeper train service and OJEU notice to bidders for the main ScotRail franchise due to be issued this month.

Closer to home, Dornoch Rail Link Action Group (DORLAG) has re-formed itself as North Line Action Group (NoRLAG), with Transport Scotland’s recent indication of willingness to consider accessibility and social inclusion as factors when considering railway improvement projects giving new hope to plans to build a rail spur over the Dornoch Firth.

DORLAG have been a fantastic and pro-active member of the Forum, and we look forward to continuing to work with them in their new form over the coming years.

Air

Wick John O’Groats Airport continues to post impressive passenger numbers, boosted by continued oil and gas traffic through the airport. Both the Chamber and the Transport Forum are ready to give any assistance necessary to help retain and build on this recent growth.

Further good news for the air sector came from easyJet’s announcement that they will be retaining the Inverness-Gatwick departure and landing slots purchased from Flybe. However, the episode has highlighted the fragility of air services in the region and the Forum will continue to work with its partners towards a long-term solution.