What I think Inverness needs, part 1

I love Inverness, as I am sure I’ve mentioned before. It’s a great place to live, work and relax – a neat, attractive and compact city with more or less everything you need or want from a city, without too many extremes of the negative sides of city life like crime, congestion and noise, and of course with easy access to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world that lies on its doorstep.

However, it’s certainly not perfect, and because of a number of factors – its rapid development and increasing profile, its distance from the centre of power in Scotland, and its importance to the highlands and wider Scottish tourist industry – there are many things that you hear people suggesting it urgently needs.

A Sainsburys or Asda, or just any competition to Tesco. An end to the seemingly endless streetscaping. Demolition of ugly city centre buildings such as those on either side of Bridge Street or the Ramada Jarvis hotel. The completion of the bypass. Opening up the castle to more than just those in handcuffs.

Having wandered plenty times around Inverness camera in hand or couchsurfers in tow, and having had a number of conversations with folk on the subject of the city, I’ve had a few ideas emerge in my somewhat cluttered and easily-bored brain. And so I’d like to share some of my own thoughts about what I think Inverness needs, over the course of an as yet indeterminate number of blog posts. I’m not touching on the examples above – they’re “givens”, and have been covered, advocated and campaigned for on numerous occasions over a long period of time.

Instead, I’ll touch on a few more interesting and unusual suggestions I have, though still quite serious.

The first idea was inspired by a glossy brochure that popped through my letterbox a few weeks ago from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, introducing and raising the profile of the proposed new Inverness Campus. This is the proposed new hub for UHI and Inverness College (among others) and is planned for just to the east of the city, a rapidly expanding area of residential and commercial development known as the A96 Corridor (see map below).

The campus (something else that can be added to the list of “givens”) isn’t what I want to write about, though. Its proposed location is Beechwood, in the jaw between the railway line to Perth and the A9. And just over the railway line from Beechwood is Inverness Retail and Business Park, home to numerous shopping outlets, the Vue cinema and several big offices.

A perfect location for a railway station.

In fact, it’s crying out for one – the retail and business park alone is a strong case for a railway station but with the campus being just across the line from it, the case is surely unavoidable and it’s verging on shocking that there’s no mention of it in the campus website.

Imagine being able to hop on a quick train to get out to the campus, to work, to Tesco, or to the cinema without having to take the highly unreliable and not-running-very-late-at-night bus or endure a noisy walk along a busy and unattractive road. Or of course to be able to reach that part of the city from stations to the south, such as Aviemore or Carrbridge, without having to go into the city centre and double back by another means.

A major way to attract potential new students from the south could be to point out that it’s a direct train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to the very doorstep of the campus. And with a railway station would surely come a footbridge, allowing for good flow of pedestrian traffic between the retail and business park and the campus, to the benefit of both.

And if you think about it, further along that line lie the commutervilles of Balloch, Smithton and Culloden. You could almost reach out and touch them as you go by on the train (were it not for the fact that you’re travelling at high speed, it would be highly dangerous and illegal, and there’s a window in the way). Why are there not also rail stops there? They would cut down on traffic, make those otherwise bland and serviceless communities more accessible and attractive, and make “greater Inverness” (you heard that phrase here first) more of a coherent and networked conurbation.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at Inverness airport about to fly to Orkney, and a man with a clipboard approached me, explaining he was a marketing researcher for the airport and asking if he could ask a few questions. Our very interesting conversation quickly turned to the idea of a rail link for the airport – this is another area near Inverness which is predicted to boom, with an emerging airport business park and plans for new towns such as at Tornagrain, all right along to the Aberdeen rail line. Rail stops there have been a matter of some discussion, I believe, but have so far come to nothing. So far.

Now if you’re really clever, ambitious and joined-up in your thinking (yes, I am eternally optimistic about the people in whose hands Inverness rests), why not have a branch running off the Perth line (somewhere after Balloch) that loops round via the likes of Croy and meets up with those new stops on the Aberdeen line? You’d then have a circular line linking Inverness city centre with all the key suburbs, the airport, the campus, and the other proposed major development areas in the A96 corridor.

If you want to attract people, businesses and money to an area, you have to prove that there is the infrastructure to support it. One of the great things about the likes of Glasgow is its excellent suburban rail network. Building good public transport to meet a need only after things have reached capacity and start to slow should not be an option – people should be attracted to the area knowing there is a fully integrated suburban rail network with meaningful stops and services. And with much of the line already there to the east of Inverness, it’s not going to be as massive a cost as it might be.

So there you go. An eastern rail loop in Inverness. The first thing I think Inverness needs.

The second thing I think Inverness needs is (even if I do say so myself) an absolute cracker of an idea. But it will have to wait for another blog post. It’s late at night, and – talking of cities that need major development – I’m off to Dundee tomorrow for work until the end of the week. Wish me luck.

And wave if you see me. I’ll be the one trying to reach out and touch Culloden as I go by on the train.

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