Review of rail developments in the Highlands
A happy and prosperous new year to you all, and to the railway. Let us hope that Christmas will come to the Highland railways much more quickly than it has been doing! After several years representing the Friends of the Far North, Kyle and West Highland lines on the board of Highland Rail Partnership (HRP) I thought it might be helpful to set out a personal view of what has been happening and what has still to happen.
During this period, the work done by Highland Rail Partnership's Development Officer, Frank Roach, has been crucial. Much imaginative thinking has been put in to a number of improvement schemes which were achieveable for a relatively low cost in resources. These have included the Tain/Lairg and Garelochhead/Arrochar commuter trains, leading up to the wider Invernet services and, (with substantial backing from Highlands & Islands Enterprise), the "Room for Growth" (RfG) studies. Another helpful player has been HITRANS which secured useful funding for infrastructure such as platform shelters and bicycle stands.
Our own championing of a fourth train service each way between Inverness and Wick and a passenger friendly refurbishment of the interiors of the trains have both been successful. Network Rail has responded quickly to several weather related incidents which severed the lines and they are investing in preventative measures too. On the downside, the serious slowing down of journeys on the Far North line has been damaging to passenger confidence and is of major concern. Also of concern is the dripping in of extra minutes to schedules on all the Highland lines to improve the "performance measure".
Freight should have a bright future, but the last few years have been somewhat disappointing. Traffic has been lost. That has not always been the fault of EWS but their seemingly constant reorganisations have not helped. Changes in the marketplace such as takeovers and contract changes in the groceries and parcels businesses have also been a factor. Highland Council's idea of a road link across the railway yards at Inverness has helped to delay rail freight development there. It is clear that the Regulator must act to enforce the principle of open access to terminals at places like Inverness and Georgemas or else there can be no competitive market and rail freight privatisation will be judged to have partly failed.
A year ago, I was very optimistic that major advances could soon be made for Highland railways. We had a blueprint for the future through the RfG studies and the main worry was the constantly receding replacement date for the radio (RETB) signalling. The only small snag was that the parlous state of RETB prevented RfG from prioritising the desperately needed Lentran loop.
Now the "soon" has disappeared, the finance which HITRANS had committed to build a station at Dalcross has disappeared in the new political climate, and their Regional Transport Strategy has still not been approved. The Scottish Government's financial settlement from Westminster is less than expected, and we are having to wait until after 2012 for any major improvements. Christmas seems a long way off again. Fortunately some Inverness-Aberdeen improvements (including the Dalcross loop) are now in Network Rail's Route Utilisation Strategy and they, and the R4G proposed linespeed and capacity increases on the Highland Main Line, are all in the High Level Output Specification. They are thus identified for action, but there is no finance firmly committed as yet. We must ask our Highland politicians to deliver these vital enhancements.
And what of the longer term? It is time to think of the future of oil supplies and oil prices over the next ten years or so and of the causes of global warming. They point to an imperative to substantially divert freight from road to rail. The question in the Highlands is do we have the line capacity? The answer is to start now with a major rolling programme of doubling single lines, where possible, and installing more passing loops to take long freight trains. Freight vehicles and vastly better passenger trains need to be built.
The recognition that the Inner Moray Firth is one of the future powerhouses of the Scottish economy is at last growing, but there has been very little progress with the Inverness-Aberdeen line improvement scheme of 1994 for example. This neglect cannot go on. The area's infrastructure, and particularly its rail transport infrastructure, is seriously deficient for present needs and will retard the dynamism of the area if it is not fixed soon. The line north of Inverness needs shorter journey times, more capacity, and modern signalling. We trust the Scottish Government is listening.