21st August 2020

At the latest meeting of the Caithness Transport Forum, held virtually on 13 August, members were pleased to hear of a range of positive developments relating to transport infrastructure and services in Caithness.

The Forum heard from Scrabster Harbour Trust on the forward plans for the port, including the ambitious £18.5m redevelopment of the St. Ola Pier. Despite delays to construction due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Trust has made good progress on the project and has awarded the construction contract to a Highland-based contractor, RJ McLeod.

Members were updated that the project has community benefits written into the contract and that it is expected to bring significant economic benefit to the region as a result of both the construction and operation of the pier.

Forum members also heard from both Pentland Ferries and Serco NorthLink Ferries regarding their respective passenger services across the Pentland Firth. Pentland Ferries highlighted that the MV Alfred, their new vessel, had been performing well to date, and updated the Forum on the gradual increase in passenger numbers as a result of easing of restrictions. Welcome news was also heard on a commercial charter for the MV Pentalina, carrying plant and equipment from Gills Bay to Lyness, and on planned improvements to the marshalling area and terminal building at St. Margaret’s Hope.

Serco NorthLink Ferries updated the Forum on the significant effort that has been made to ensure a safe return to travel for passengers and staff, including new physical distancing measures, extra hand sanitation points, and extra cleaning and sanitation onboard vessels and at terminals. They highlighted that they have been working very closely with Scottish Government and NHS on the reintroduction of onboard services in line with the Transport Transition Plan, and that passengers could always find the most up-to-date information and guidance on their website.

Positive news was also heard from the ScotRail Alliance with regards to future plans for the Far North Line. Members were updated that the design phase is in progress for future works on the line, including a much anticipated passing loop at Lentran. The Lentran design options are due for completion by the end of the year, with the process then moving on to the allocation of funding to specific projects. While details of projects are not available at this stage, members were assured that the line would see investment in infrastructure improvements in the coming years.

Further welcome developments on the Far North Line were also noted with regards to an ongoing trial service to move timber by rail between Caithness and Inverness. Funded by Scottish Government and taking place over six weeks, the trial will move around 6,000 tonnes of timber – equivalent to 250 lorry loads. The work of HITRANS in enabling this trial to happen was commended to members.

BEAR Scotland provided an update to the Forum on their works on the trunk road network north of Inverness. Of particular note was the progress made by RJ McLeod on works at Berriedale Braes, with the new road alignment now in place and remaining resurfacing works hoped to be completed by the end of August. Members were also updated on BEAR Scotland’s plans for erection of new signage relating to the North Coast 500 route, expected to start in mid-September.

The Forum was also pleased to hear that additional funds have been provided by Transport Scotland for works in the region, and that BEAR Scotland was proposing to use these to carry out five additional resurfacing schemes on the A99 between Latheron and Wick.

Trudy Morris, Chair of the Caithness Transport Forum, said:

The challenges presented by COVID-19 over the past several months have had a significant impact on transport providers in the region, and we commend the hard work that they have done to keep lifeline services running safely during this difficult time.

While the future remains uncertain, and we are sure that there are new challenges to come, we were pleased to hear so much positive news and plans for increased investment in the region’s transport infrastructure in the coming years and months. As a Forum, we will continue to work to bring transport operators and stakeholders together and to lobby for continued investment in and development of transport to, from and within Caithness.”

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