With the recent reopening of the line to Tweedbank, focus has shifted to a number of other lines in Scotland where pressure exists for possible reopening to passenger services.
Amongst the lines where there is perhaps the greatest potential currently to see the passenger services restored are the branches to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. 4 October 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of passenger services to the former.
The lines to the north of Aberdeen were promoted by the Formatine & Buchan Railway. Authorised by an Act of Parliament dated 23July 1858, the company was empowered to construct the line from Dyce, the Great North of Scotland line from Aberdeen towards Inverness, to Peterhead and Fraserburgh via Maud Junction. In all the line from Dyce to Fraserburgh was 41 miles in length, with that to Peterhead being slightly shorter at 38 miles from Dyce. Maud Junction was situated 15 miles north of Dyce.
The Formatine & Buchan Railway was backed by the GNoSR, which contributed £50,000 towards the promotion of the line, and was operated by the larger company from the outset. The first section to open, from Dyce to Mintlaw (between Maud and Peterhead), saw services introduced on 18 July 1861. This was followed by the opening from Mintlaw to Peterhead on 3 July 1862. The line from Maud Junction to Fraserburgh was opened throughout on 24 April 1865.
The Formatine & Buchan Railway had a relatively short independent life, being formally absorbed by the GNoSR following an Act of 30 July 1866.
This was not to be the end of railway development in the area as the new owners promoted the 15½-mile branch line from Ellon to Boddam, which opened on 2 August 1897. At one of the intermediate stations, Cruden Bay, the GNoSR constructed a hotel, which was linked to the station by a short 3ft 6in gauge electric tramway — one of a handful of railway-owned electric tramways in Britain and the only example in Scotland. The Boddam branch was followed by the St Combs Light Railway; this 5¼-mile long line opened on 1 July 1903 and was constructed under the Light Railways Act of 1896 that permitted the construction of low cost railways.
In 1910 there were five return passenger workings each day between Aberdeen and Peterhead and between Maud Junction and Fraserburgh (passengers from the Fraserburgh line travelling to and from Aberdeen had to change at Maud Junction). The journey time from Aberdeen to Peterhead varied upto two hours; for the 16 miles between Maud Junction and Fraserburgh the usual journey time was around 40 minutes. Services only operated on weekdays; there was no Sunday service at this stage. On the Boddam branch, there was a standard service of three return workings, with four on Mondays and Saturdays; again there was no service on Sundays. For the St Combs Light Railway, there were seven return workings per weekday, with an additional late night Saturday service that departed from Fraserburgh at 9.30pm and returned at 10.pm. Again, there was no Sunday service.
During World War 1 the GNoSR built a short branch from Longside, on the Boddam branch, to serve the Royal Naval Airship Depot at Lenabo. The base opened in 1915 and the railway became operational the following year. The line closed with the base’s demise in 1920.
In 1923 the GNoSR was to become one of the constituents of the LNER but the economic decline of the late1920s was to witness the first closures when, on 31 October 1932, the Boddam branch and the associated tramway at Cruden Bay ceased to carry passengers. The branch remained opened for freight, however, until 1945 and the tramway also remained operational to provide a freight link to the hotel until World War 2. Both of the tramcars built to serve the line survived and were salvaged; the remains were used to produce one restored tram, which is now on display at Alford.
In 1948 British Railways (Scottish Region) took over; one of the first changes that the new regime wrought was that the Fraserburgh line became the ‘main’ line and the route to Peterhead became the branch.
The last public timetable to record services over the lines to Peterhead and St Combs, that covering the period between 7 September 1964 and 13 June 1965 show that there were 11 return workings per day between Fraserburgh and St Combs with a 12th on Saturdays; there was still no service on Sundays. The journey time for the five-mile journey was about 20 minutes. Whilst the service over the St Combs Light Railway may have improved since 1910,the reverse was true of the line to Peterhead. Relegated to branch status, there were only four up and three down workings per day between Peterhead and Maud Junction. Departures from Peterhead were at 6.40am, 10.10am, 12.40pm and 3.20pm; those from Maud Junction were at 9.34am, 1.30pm and 5.15pm. In terms of services from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh there were five return workings per weekday. Neither the Peterhead nor Fraserburgh routes had a service on Sundays, either.
With both the Peterhead and Fraserburgh branches as well as the St Combs Light Railway scheduled for closure in the Beeching Report of March 1963, things looked grim for railway passenger services in this part of Scotland. Despite opposition, all three lines were to lose their passenger services: Fraserburgh to St Combs and Peterhead to Maud Junction both succumbed on 3 May 1965 whilst Dyce to Fraserburgh followed on 4 October. Whilst the St Combs branch, which had already lost its freight services by that date, closed completely, both Peterhead and Fraserburgh were to see freight traffic for some time thereafter. Maud Junction to Peterhead was finally to close completely on 7 September 1970 and Dyce to Fraserburgh on 18 October 1979. Given that this era was the period when the north-east of Scotland was starting to see massive benefits from the investment in the North Sea oil and gas industry, these closures may have been considered premature.
Following closure of both routes, the track was lifted and much of the formation now forms part of the Formatine and Buchan long-distance footpath. With the growth of population to the north of Aberdeen, the population of Ellon, for example, is now more than 50% greater than when the line closed completely in 1979, there is growing pressure to see the southern section, at least, of the route reopened for passenger services.