Underground trains for the Kyle of Lochalsh?

A proposal to convert part of Scotland’s scenic Kyle of Lochalsh line to LRT status – to enable road and rail vehicles to share the same right of way – has drawn a tepid response from Network Rail.

The plan has been drafted by HITRANS, the Highlands & Islands Transport Partnership, which also wants to use redundant London Underground D78 stock on the line.

But Network Rail says the scheme would raise serious technical, safety and operational issues. Abellio ScotRail has not commented on the scheme.

The 63 mile Kyle of Lochalsh branch joins the Inverness to Wick/Thurso Far North line at Dingwall, and it parallels the A890 road along the troubled, avalanche-prone section between Strome Ferry and Strathcarron.

Road and rail are shoehorned between the mountain side and the shoreline for about eight miles.

Rock falls close the road for lengthy periods. In December 2011, the road was out of use for several months forcing motorists to make a 130 mile detour. To avoid future disruption HITRANS is examining the possibility of converting the section to LRT status to facilitate mixed road and rail usage.

Between Strome Ferry and Strathcarron the road and rail routes are shoehorned between the mountain side and the shoreline (OS map).

The A890 between Strome Ferry and Strathcarron was constructed during the 1970s. Before then light vehicles  used the minor road on the northern shore and crossed Loch Carron by the ferry at Strome. When avalanche falls close the A890 the ferry is sometimes re-activated but this is an unsatisfactory solution as it cannot accommodate large vehicles and is subject to weather disruption.

Project manager Frank Roach is the driving force behind the LRT scheme. He told 21CR: “The abandonment of the road way could allow a retaining wall and no man’s land to be created. The (Highland) Council is liable for any rockfall that goes on to the railway.”

The road is narrow and it is not known at this stage how the combined traffic flow would be managed or separated.

There is a precedent for road/rail sharing in Scotland. The Connel Ferry rail bridge on the disused Ballachulish branch was also used by road vehicles when not required for rail purposes (though it was on a much shorter stretch of line than what is currently being contemplated).

The big surprise is the choice of D78 ex District Line EMU stock, which would need to be converted to diesel or battery traction to transform into a self-powered unit. Although relatively lightweight due to its aluminium bodywork, the D78 is still a heavy rail and not a light rail vehicle; and unlike most LRT stock, it was not built and has never been used for on road operation.

Vivarail has acquired surplus D78 stock from TfL and converted one unit to diesel-electric traction. Trials on the Coventry – Nuneaton line, however, have been put back pending an RAIB investigation into a train fire last month.

Roach says: “The D78 is worthy of consideration due to its high brake efficiency, its fast acceleration (to compensate for slow road/rail section), and that it already exists. They have good traction motors that lend themselves to battery/alternative power.  Their top speed is not an issue on the route west of Dingwall. But of course there will be other new build possibilities.”

Network Rail has not rejected the idea out of hand but a spokesman informed 21CR: “We have informally discussed possible options for Stromeferry with HITRANS but currently have no plans to introduce light rail on the Kyle line. Any change in use would raise a number of safety and regulatory considerations and require substantial financial investment.”


Single track line and narrow road are both vulnerable to rock falls (Image: HITRANS).

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