Inverness is a funny sort of place. It’s small, as cities go, but is the largest settlement for over a hundred miles in any direction. As such, it sits in nobody’s shadow and punches above most similarly sized places in Britain, with surprisingly good facilities, international air links and the headquarters of a number of important regional and national bodies. A few years back, it was described as the fastest growing city in Europe – though how you measure that, nobody ever quite seemed to know.
And exactly how big is Inverness? Well, that’s another curiosity. There is no entity that covers just the city, with all past and current political boundaries also taking in various swathes of rural Highlands. Administratively speaking, therefore, there is simply no such place.
The result of all that for Inverness is a compact and congested city centre, and a seemingly endless sprawl of very low-density districts and suburbs that are still stretching outwards as we speak. With public transport not keeping pace with that rapid expansion, and the city characterised by a number of wide arterial roads ill-served by either buses or cycle paths, Inverness is surely an ideal candidate for an over-imagined light rail network.
What I am calling the “Iarann” (the Gaelic for “iron” – as in “iron road” – and a near acronym for Inverness Area Rail Network) would have ten lines. They would be built with not only business and commuters in mind but also Inverness’s role as a major centre for tourism; with famous lochs, castles, golf courses and Outlander sites all within day trip distances of the city.
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Some of the lines are based on existing rail connections. Inverness boasts routes running east to Nairn and then Aberdeen; south to Aviemore and ultimately Glasgow and Edinburgh; and north to Dingwall and onwards to Kyle of Lochalsh, Thurso and Wick. By using current stations on those lines, plus a number of new and reopened stops, we can ensure that surrounding villages and suburbs, plus crucially the airport, can be well served.
Meanwhile other new lines would be more typical urban tram services, fanning out from the centre along main roads to serve residential areas, major centres of employment, business and public services, and even small villages where park and rides could tempt traffic away from busy and winding country roads.
One of these new lines is a circle which, importantly, allows people to avoid the city centre if they do not need to be there. As is common in towns and cities, Inverness’s public transport nearly always involves connecting in the centre – yet with so many people living and working near its outskirts, there could be real value in ensuring that they can use public transport not just to go into the city but round it too.
The Capital of the Highlands has so much to offer, nestled between mountains and sea, and with a booming tourism industry, beautiful river, rich cultural scene and excellent nightlife. And perhaps now, it could also be known for the country’s most unnecessarily expansive tram network.
Inverness may not technically exist, but at least you can now imagine navigating it with ease.