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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Regional Transport Strategy: Highlands & Islands

Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL) is pleased to have this opportunity to comment on HITRANS's draft Regional Transport Strategy (RTS). FoFNL, formed in 1994 to support the railway line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick, has a membership strength of 200, including several community councils. It has recently successfully lobbied for the new fourth daily train service south from Wick and for substantive refurbishment of the train sets currently used on the line.

FoFNL believes that significant infrastructure investment is required on the Far North Line (FNL) both in track improvements and in signalling. It is profoundly disappointing that the end to end journey time had to be extended by some 25 minutes nearly two years ago due partly to new speed restrictions through the passing loops. It is vitally important that this set back is reversed, as the railway needs to be speeded up to compete with a road made quicker due to continuing substantial investment projects such as the Dornoch road bridge.

Scott Wilson's Room For Growth study (R4G) published by HIE in June 2006 advances several major improvements which would be justified to speed up the line and increase capacity to ensure greater robustness to the timetable. These are:

FoFNL considers that all these works are necessary together with

Upgrading the signalling system (including a replacement for the RETB system).

The radio signalling system known as Radio Electronic Token Block was installed in 1984 at a time when traffic was much lighter. Its current state is now a major impediment to further development of a line which has seen a 30% increase in passenger numbers in the past three years and more passenger trains being run. Technology has moved on so much in twenty years, and the system only has the one console such that only one train movement can be dealt with at a time. Trains are often delayed waiting to obtain clearance to proceed. This is clearly most unsatisfactory.

The Scott Wilson report considered that there is a very good case for reinstating the loop or double track through Lentran, but did not advance it to final recommendation stage because of worries that the RETB system would simply collapse if anything further were added! FoFNL considers it to be unacceptable that the line should be handicapped in such a way.

FoFNL therefore requests that the two schemes to

and

should please be included in the HITRANS Regional Transport Strategy for feasibility and design work to commence during the 2007/12 period with delivery during that period also if at all possible. This is urgent work for the Far North Line.

FoFNL would suggest that consideration be given to extending the Inverness colour light signalling from Clachnaharry through to Dingwall where the Far North and Kyle lines diverge. Thereafter, a replacement radio signalling system with spare capacity for the future might be used. It should be noted that these projects would benefit both the Far North and the Kyle lines. The increase in capacity and the considerable reduction in the number of delays caused to passengers by the 13 mile and 20 minute long single section from Inverness to Muir of Ord are both desperately needed now. The 10 mph limit over the Clachnaharry swing bridge contributes to the slow journey time over this pivotal section for both Far North and Kyle lines.

FoFNL welcomes the inclusion of a reopened station at Conon Bridge in the HITRANS RTS proposals. FoFNL pays tribute to HITRANS and its predecessor, HITRANS, for the funding they have put in to railway schemes such as platform shelters and bicycle stands over the past few years, and welcomes HITRANS's interest in funding the new stations at Dalcross and Conon Bridge. FoFNL also supports a Kyle arrival into Inverness just before 09.00.

FoFNL considers that it is seriously insufficient for a draft regional strategy for the next 17 years to be currently supporting only one station reopening and one retiming but no other work on a fast expanding but seriously constricted line such as the FNL. We call upon HITRANS to include the signalling and continuing infrastructure developments outlined above in its RTS and would hope to see all of these completed long before the end of the seventeen year span of the RTS.

The urgently increasing importance of making greater use of public transport for passengers and rail transport for freight is accepted by all who think seriously about the future. The problems of scarcity of oil and the effects of climate change will be only too apparent by 2023, the end of the plan period. FoFNL considers that rail transport should have made a step change in increased use by then. One major limiting factor in the Highlands is the prevalence of single track rail lines. Just as this same problem was attacked in the last century by the Crofter Counties Roads Scheme, there is an urgent need to put in more lengths of double track and passing loops along the Highland rail routes which converge on the fast growing city region of Inverness.

Looking further to the future on the FNL, the one big project which would make a major difference for all users north of Rogart would be the Dornoch Link first proposed in the nineteen eighties. Although it does not score well in current project assessments, the much greater indispensibility expected of rail in the future would be in its favour. A new organisation, independent of FoFNL, named the Dornoch Link Action Group, has recently been formed to pursue this. Future reopening of stations at Evanton, Dornoch and Halkirk would promote greater social inclusion, and reopening of loops at points such as Fearn, Kildonan, and Altnabreac amongst others would enable much greater traffic flows of freight and passenger trains to be handled via Lairg and Dornoch.

FoFNL views the railways in the northern and eastern Highlands as one interlinked system pivoted on Inverness. It is important to the FNL that the railways to Aberdeen, and Perth and beyond are supported and improved. FoFNL welcomes the proposals in the RTS to speed up services and increase the frequencies to hourly on both these lines. Such hourly frequencies will make it much easier for passengers to connect to and from the FNL with its services to Wick, Kyle and the Easter Ross terminators. Speeding up does not necessarily mean diverting services under the runway at Edinburgh Airport. A halt on the existing line at Gogar would do. It is necessary to provide intercity standard of rolling stock on this line, equivalent in comfort to new versions of HST or Mark 3 stock.

The prospect of a new station at Inverness Airport is also welcomed by FoFNL as are the proposed extra services to and from Elgin. FoFNL considers that the long section from Nairn to Inverness should be provided with a loop at Dalcross or have the double track replaced onwards to Inverness. In addition to helping with potential timber traffic to the Morayhill factory, the loop/double track performs exactly the same performance improvements as would be the case at Lentran.

Single track imposes serious delay problems on trains when out of course running occurs. These delays can continue to affect running for the rest of the day as all trains are timed according to the timings of other trains for crossing purposes. Both the FNL and the Aberdeen lines have departures from Inverness timed for two minutes after an incoming service has arrived. The essential necessity of double track at both ends as exists on the Highland Main Line from Perth to Stanley and Culloden Moor to Inverness allows the timetable to be operated much more smoothly without delays to passengers. Thus Lentran and Dalcross loops or double track are essential improvements for these other two Highland lines.

FoFNL is delighted to see a number of major rail schemes advancing in the south of Scotland in recent years. Many commentators have noticed that the economic and social development benefits of similar schemes have not yet been made available to the Highlands. FoFNL believes HITRANS has done a good job with its own strategy for improvements on the Perth and Aberdeen lines The HITRANS RTS makes a good case for socio-economic benefits to be felt as far north as Inverness. In FoFNL's opinion HITRANS also needs to strengthen the case for similar benefits to be provided to passengers and freight operators on the Far North Line by supporting the early completion of the signalling and track improvements marked by bullet points above.

© FoFNL 28 December 2006.