Scottish Parliament Local Government & Transport Committee
Strategic Rail Authority Hearing
25 November 2003
The Friends of the Far North Line has a membership of some 176 and is a rail users group founded in 1994. Our interest is primarily concerned with traffic growth on the 168-mile stretch of railway, which runs north from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. We also have a related interest in the connecting routes south and east of Inverness.
We have campaigned for the introduction of a morning commuter service initially to Inverness from Dingwall, and later from Tain; and for the reopening of Beauly station. All of these events have been successful, and have contributed considerably to relieving rush hour traffic into Inverness. Our support for an all year round Sunday train service to and from Caithness has also been successful and has brought new revenue to the passenger train operator.
Further, we have always been strong advocates in favour of the need to develop freight traffic on this line. By virtue of the considerable distances to and from markets, the Far North line attracts freight. Today an average of 54 wagons are conveyed each week. The largest flow is between Doncaster and Caithness being steel north and refrigerators south. Other traffic consists of building supplies, oil, timber, and perishables and, intermittently, pipes for the offshore oil industry. The overall effect of this traffic on the railways, assuming that a lorry will carry some 20 tonnes, and allowing for shorter equivalent road miles, is to remove some 19.5 million tonne /miles from the road system per annum.
We have also successfully campaigned for a full time Highland Rail Development Officer and we hope that one of his major projects "Invernet", an all day commuter service between Tain and Inverness, will be introduced in early 2005. This project was severely affected by the SRA's decision to discontinue the Rail Partnership Grants in December 2002 when all the rest of the funding was in place. We await confirmation from the Scottish Transport Minister that the small funding gap that presently exists will now be closed and the project can proceed.
We wish to raise the following points for your consideration:
- Given an estimated combined population in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire of 435,000 and in Highland (excluding Lochaber) of 180,000, and having regard to the passenger flows through Inverness from West Moray and Lewis in addition, we wish to draw attention to the imbalance that exists in the provision of passenger services south from Inverness. In each two-hour period, there are at least four trains south from Aberdeen whilst there is only one south from Inverness. Given the increasing traffic on the A9 corridor the Committee should press the rail authority to provide track capacity for an hourly Inverness-Central Belt train service.
- As a corollary to the provision of an hourly Inverness-Central Belt service you should provide a late night Friday service from Inverness to Caithness the better to facilitate the weekend market.
- Similarly, given the combined population figures of the North and Highland there is a need for infrastructure development on the Aberdeen-Inverness line to enable the provision of an hourly passenger service. There is scope for capacity and line speed improvements on this single-track feeder line from Aberdeen. For example, the Orton loop and Forres improvements will facilitate an hourly passenger service taking under two hours end to end. It should be noted that this was promised as long ago as 1995. The 1997 Network Management Statement envisaged completion of the whole project by 2002. In fact by the autumn of 2003 the SRA had only just completed a costing exercise which itself had taken nine months longer than promised. Further, we submit that the A96 road alternative is poor and prone to weather and accident-related blockages and cannot be considered a viable alternative. We consider that there is tremendous potential for development on this line.
- Having examined the September 2003 strategy document "Specification of Network Outputs" we found it wordy and opaque. We submit that the SRA would be more usefully employed in making improvements to the rail infrastructure rather than producing documents with vague aims. For example, at the RPC meeting in Elgin in September the SRA announced its intention to spend time researching a series of "Regional Planning Assessments", starting with the south east of England. This is another recipe for delay.
- This September 2003 document on differential maintenance worries us. We wish to express very real concern at the SRA's apparent stance on rail maintenance outside the conurbations. The Far North Line needs to be maintained for both passenger and freight trains and both are increasing in volume. We need robust track. Passenger trains need to be made more competitive in timings, we therefore need track improvements not suspended maintenance. To suggest that there should be "Small extensions to journey times over lightly used lines" (para 6.8) is not an acceptable option. With a single-track railway, any small delay can affect schedules significantly in that one delay can affect all the other train crossings down the line and very significantly lengthen the schedules of all the trains on the route, making the present carefully crafted timetables unworkable. The Government needs to take account of the wider socio-economic and environmental effects of any proposed cutbacks. We consider that you should maintain the Far North Line to at least the existing standards.
- The SRA's future plans should see the construction of a short chord at Georgemas Junction to permit direct running between Thurso and the south, thus avoiding the present need for reversal at Georgemas. We would also expect to see an investment in the signalling system and the continued upgrading of level crossings to improve line speeds.
- The September 2003 document 4 (supra) also provides for the appointment of an "Executive Director" responsible for "developing plans for rural and more lightly used lines" (para 3.26). We submit that there should be full consultation with bodies or organisations such as ours on the "individual route strategy" for the Far North Line (para 6.16). This will require the appointment of sufficient staff to do the job and the implementation of policies with particular reference to the needs of this line.
- With a view to a fundamental and long-term provision of rail services in Scotland, we submit that the present separation between funding responsibilities for rail services and rail infrastructure in Scotland is not helpful. The Scottish Executive has to, on the one hand, award a robust new rail franchise whilst having the rail infrastructure in the hands of the SRA and out with its control. Whilst we are sensible of the present funding difficulties facing the SRA, we cannot help but feel that responsibility for rail infrastructure in Scotland will be better if given to the Scottish Executive.
- Again, in the longer term, the Committee may wish to consider the whole philosophy of the differences in infrastructure funding between road and rail. When we catch a bus, we are not aware that the fares include a huge contribution towards the cost of the roads the bus uses. Train fares are mostly significantly higher than bus fares and there is a perception that this is because TOCs have to bear large track access charges. Rail freight also suffers badly from this inequality.
- There is a long-held aspiration, particularly in Caithness, for the construction of a new stretch of railway through Dornoch (the Dornoch Link) significantly to reduce the length of the Far North Line and journey times to Caithness and the East Sutherland coastal towns. We submit that the SRA, alternatively a Scottish Executive with rail track responsibilities, if that were the case, might wish to look at this in the longer term.