Book: Highland Survivor
Review by Mark Bartlett
David Spaven's new book on the Far North line, "Highland Survivor" is a fascinating read. Although other books have covered this railway this one is written from a unique perspective as David's late father Frank was a leading light in the behind-the-scenes Scottish Office lobbying to prevent its closure under Beeching, and after the reprieve in promoting its use. David himself enjoyed two summers in a temporary post in the Invergordon Area Manager’s office in the early 70s, which led to a career in the rail industry. These factors, and some in-depth research, have led to a book which brings a new insight to the early years, wartime, recent past and possible future of the 168 mile line that threads north from Inverness.
Invergordon: Until the 1982 displacement of Class 26s by Class 37s (the Class 24s having left Inverness in 1975), the only other locos seen regularly north of Muir of Ord were the 1,000 horse power Class 20s, hauling oil trains from Bowling (on the Clyde) to Invergordon Distillery. Here, one of the class accelerates a southbound empty tank train out of Invergordon loop in the summer of 1973. David Spaven //1973
The line was built over a period of fourteen years by five separate companies and in terms of long distance UK railways only the West Highland line is younger. The book outlines how the circuitous route was influenced by powerful people and some decisions taken during construction have hampered the line right through to the present day. It charts the development of the main line, the branches that were linked to it and also the lines that 'might have been' if the money hadn’t run out. Wartime pressures are also covered with vastly increased traffic, including some transferred from coastal shipping, and the loss of staff to the military.
Although I was aware of the Beeching proposals it was a surprise to learn that closure had also been considered by the LMS Railway. The pressures of working this long line meant it was an early candidate for dieselisation and David covers the work done by the Sulzer powered Type 2s taking over from steam and the improvements they brought.
There is a section on the Beeching proposals and the establishment of the Scottish Rail Development Association that Frank Spaven served for forty years. Highland Survivor chronicles the arguments and counter arguments that were made drawing on original letters and minutes from the time. The 'MacPuff' campaign, coordinating opposition from various sources, is covered and David draws out the local and national politics that were in play at this time, particularly around the remote Scottish and Welsh lines under threat.
The post line reprieve closure of lightly used intermediate stations is also covered objectively as is the subsequent re-opening of several of them. The freight boom of the 60s and 70s is a particularly interesting section of the book, illustrated with contemporary photos and tales from some of the railway characters who David met during his summer jobs.
Moving through to the present day other notable events are covered including further motive power changes, the impact of the Invergordon smelter closure, the collapse and rebuilding of the Ness viaduct, the saga of the non-building of the Dornoch Firth rail crossing and the introduction of the RETB signalling system. This is clearly a railway that has always brought challenges and required ingenuity to overcome them. I thoroughly enjoyed this account of its history and recommend the book to rail enthusiasts and also those interested in the life and times of this part of Scotland. I conclude this review with the author's final paragraph of realistic optimism.
"For 142 years the Far North Line has been a great survivor. But its fascinating history, unique qualities and considerable potential have been routinely under-appreciated. I hope that in the decades ahead it will take its rightful place as a leader in rural railway innovation, and that, once again, it will become central to the economic and social life of the 168 mile corridor it has served since 1874."
Review by Mark Bartlett / 4 October 2016