Community and business leaders have questioned if plans to move more freight by rail in the far north is “commercially viable”.
A £3.1million railhead near Halkirk was built with the aim of securing regular freight movements between Caithness and Inverness.
The terminal at Georgemas Junction was commissioned by Direct Rail Services (DRS) to move spent nuclear fuel flasks from Dounreay to Sellafield in west Cumbria, but it had been hoped other companies would also use it.
And following a trial run for Tesco at the end of February, DSR managing director Chris Connelly claimed it had proved itself.
Questions over commercial viability
But his optimism is not shared by local representatives who watched the operation.
Trudy Morris, chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce said: “I think we’re all in agreement that it was very labour-intensive and I’m not convinced that there is a future in it.”
She said no commercial operator has been attracted to use the railhead since it was opened in 2012.
Former Highland councillor Roger Saxon, who also watched the trial, said: “All in all, we got the impression that the facility is not really commercially viable.”
Dounreay Stakeholder Group, a forum represented by more than 20 organisations and agencies, had been promoting the railhead for other uses but believes its efforts may have run out of steam.
Railhead could be included in Dounreay’s decommissioning
Chairman and local councillor Struan Mackie said that if no realistic use can be seen for the facility after the Dounreay runs end, it needs to be included in the site’s decommissioning programme.
Mr Mackie said it might be that other parts of the Georgemas site, such as the extensive hard-standing area, could be re-deployed in other ways.
Freight campaigners were boosted last August when Victa Railfreight carried out a six-week trial hauling 6,000 tonnes of timber – the equivalent of 250 lorry loads – from Caithness to Inverness.
It fuelled hopes that there would be more regular movements and helped advance plans to establish a lineside loading bay at Altnabreac station, close to many plantations due to be felled.
The “game-changer” for campaigners would be the reinstatement of the link between the Inverness/Aberdeen line and the Norbord timber processing plant on the outskirts of the Highland capital.
Hitrans, the Highlands strategic transport partnership, has been spearheading efforts to promote the line for freight.