28th June 2023

After more than three years of preparatory work, a voluntary committee has been successful in its application to the Scottish Government to have the Caithness and Sutherland section of the Far North Line (FNL) designated as the 9th Community Rail Partnership (CRP) route in Scotland. The announcement was made by the Scottish Transport Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, at an event to celebrate community rail across Scotland held in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday the 24th of May.

This designation should bring real benefits to the local communities along the line and also create opportunities to promote the line, its communities, and the attractions that it connects. CRP status provides an opportunity for greater community involvement in planning, development and operation of the line. The main aims will be to increase passenger footfall in local communities, promote social inclusion, increase the use of sustainable travel, and bring about improvements to the stations and services of the line, hopefully growing passenger numbers.

The FNL CRP will help communities to develop and deliver community projects, events, and activities that will encourage visitors to slow down and enjoy our amazing villages and settlements, creating economic opportunities as well as moving people away from the tourism hot spots and the speed of the NC500. This will be done by recruiting and coordinating a group of active volunteers in each community which in turn will offer opportunities for our local businesses which are essential to the sustainability of our fragile communities and crucial in our aims to reverse depopulation and create younger, more dynamic communities in the future.

The added benefit, and another crucial aim, is that through promoting sustainable travel by developing low carbon transport initiatives (including promoting cycling and walking opportunities that start and finish in our local communities) as well as encouraging people to use the train, we will help our climate challenge aims and reduce emissions, helping to move towards the goal of Net Zero.

  • Designation of Far North Line Community Rail Partnership announced Michael Willmot (left) and David Watson flank transport minister Kevin Stewart.
    Michael Willmot (left) and David Watson flank transport minister Kevin Stewart.

Scottish Minister of Transport, Kevin Stewart MSP said “Community Rail Partnerships are the embodiment of very passionate and dedicated people who volunteer on our railways. The work they do improves stations and lines across the country, bringing together communities, and giving greater local buy in to Scotland’s Railway. That is why I am delighted to approve and welcome the new Far North Line Community Rail Partnership.”

David Watson, Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust Manager and FNL CRP Chair, explains: The Far North Line is a world class but underperforming asset. The journey itself is an amazing experience with an incredible variety of natural and cultural assets along its length.  Although it is restricted by its engineering it presents an amazing opportunity to help sustain the communities that it serves. The CRP will form a link between the railway and local communities, bringing together a range of stakeholders, including local businesses and services, along the rail corridor to develop and promote the line, the local communities, and its attractions.”

It is also hoped that the Partnership can boost tourism and make the rail service more responsive to local needs.  There is renewed interest in sustainable transport not just between train and bus but through use of other transport resources such as e-bikes, and community transport schemes. Michael Willmot, Director of Helmsdale Station CIC and CRP secretary says: “recognising there has been growing concern about the number of cars and motorhomes that have been attracted by the success of the North Coast 500 promotion, this CRP should help to develop alternatives to private vehicles for exploring the North Highlands Region as well as providing improved public transport for local communities. There are amazing opportunities for visitors to slow down and immerse themselves in the unique culture of Caithness and Sutherland.” 

In delivering its ambitions, the Far North Line CRP will work in partnership with ScotRail, the local rail user group – the Friends of the Far North Line, and representatives of communities and tourism organisations along the route. David Simpson, ScotRail Service Delivery Director, said: “I wholeheartedly welcome the establishment of the Far North Line Community Rail Partnership. “We look forward to the journey ahead and the positive impact that the CRP will undoubtedly bring in enhancing the route’s potential as a vital lifeline and catalyst for economic growth throughout Caithness and Sutherland.”

The current members of the management group include a number of experienced community development professionals with a track record of raising external funding and delivering successful community projects. The group also has representation from Venture North (the Destination Management Group for Caithness & Sutherland) and the North Highland Climate Hub, to ensure that we are truly promoting sustainable tourism development with environmentally responsible projects to help the future of the communities of Caithness and Sutherland for years to come.

If you are interested in receiving further information or in joining the CRP Management Group, please contact Michael Willmot at helmsdalestation@gmail.com

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