Towards a Great North of Scotland Railway
"We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times" - Iain Coucher, Inverness 30/06/08
Journey times on the Far North Line (FNL) 40 to 50 years ago were generally longer than they are now; where times were comparable to those of today there were far fewer station stops. There is no "golden age" when trains reached Caithness in 3 hours. In those days, however, there were more stations and passing loops. Most of these were removed in the post-Beeching rationalisation. It is only now, with increasing ridership and the introduction of more trains (especially in the Inverness travel-to-work area), that the removal of loops is having a significant impact on the robustness of an already full timetable. Network Rail's Scotland Route Utilisation Strategy Baselining Report (p33) shows peak utilisation of 150% between Inverness and Tain, and of 133% between Inverness and Dingwall (both figures 1800-1900). Furthermore there is 100% peak utilisation between Dingwall and Invergordon (1500-1600) and between Tain and Georgemas (various). The FNL is at, or above, capacity.
This paper seeks to assist Network Rail (NR) in addressing the challenge set out above. It does so only from a qualitative point of view - Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL) is a body of amateurs seeking improvements to the service; although some of our members are railway professionals we have not the resources nor the detailed skills to carry out the necessary quantitative work. All we are doing is pointing out where we, as users of the services, believe that opportunities to reduce journey times actually exist.
How can journey times be reduced? There are several ways, and each must be exploited to the full.
- raising existing speed limits on plain line
- raising existing speed limits at level crossings
- raising existing speed limits at switches into and out of passing loops, and along the loops
- reinstating loops
- redoubling a stretch of line
- removing station stops (either by skip stopping, downgrading to request status or closure)
We deal with each of these in turn.
1 Raising existing speed limits on plain line.
Some of the jointed track was replaced with CWR two years ago. If more of this work is carried out, using second hand rail from faster routes, there will be a reduction in routine maintenance (the reason given for installing CWR at County March was the difficulty of maintaining track at such an isolated location). There will therefore be an initial cost (which would include any re-canting which might be needed for higher speeds), but this will be mitigated by lower recurring costs. If replacement is programmed at sites where jointed track requires attention the work could be completed within a decade or less. When a sufficient proportion of the FNL is CWR it will become a matter of straightforward economics to fill in the gaps. With CWR it should be possible for somewhat higher line speeds to be imposed for long stretches. Without a precise knowledge of current speed limits and the effect on line-speed of CWR we cannot quantify the likely journey time reduction on an end-to-end journey, but we would expect it to be several minutes.
Room for Growth (Scott Wilson 2006) quotes (12.4.2) a 1996 report for Railtrack by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick which suggested that a theoretical time saving of up to 18.5 minutes could be obtained through re-canting. It acknowledges that it was "not determined whether any of the works highlighted in the report [had] been implemented".
2 Raising existing speed limits at level crossings.
The FNL has a large number of such crossings, many user-worked with telephones (UWCs) but a dozen automatic open (locally monitored) crossings (AOCLs) where a public road crosses the railway. There have been fatalities at at least one of these in recent years, and accidents without fatality at several others. There appears to be a widely-held perception among vehicle drivers that trains are few and far between on the FNL and that therefore the exercise of less than total concentration will not cause harm. FoFNL is aware that level crossings are safe if properly used, but the evidence of recent history (and of press reports of the comments of road users and local residents) suggests that usage is often improper. Under legislation recently enacted responsibility for upgrading level crossings is now a matter shared between NR and the relevant roads authority (Transport Scotland or The Highland Council). FoFNL believes that all relevant parties should come together to find ways to reduce the risk at level crossings (to passengers, train crew, and road users) and to allow trains to cross at higher speeds. We do not believe that these objectives are incompatible or mutually exclusive. This may involve upgrading some crossings to automatic half-barriers (AHB). It is preposterous, for example, that all trains must come to a complete standstill before crossing a very minor road at Kildonan.
Room for Growth recommends (12.4.3) that each level crossing should be examined "to see if line speeds can be increased, how much time could be saved and if the crossing would require upgrading".
3 Raising existing speed limits at switches into and out of passing loops, and along the loops.
The problems here are more complex, but wholly within NR's power to solve. As a result of the Cullen Report TPWS treadles were installed throughout the network, regardless (it would now seem) of the utility of so doing. It is impossible to SPAD a non-existent signal. We understand that TPWS treadles at the entrance to, and exit from, passing loops were set at the appropriate distance for 15 mph working. Our anecdotal evidence is that diesel (and even steam) locomotives crossed these switches at considerably higher speeds - we have heard figures of 25 mph and even 35 mph on occasion. This would seem to suggest that the switches themselves could withstand greater forces being exerted by heavier bogies than they are now subjected to. If we are right then there is a case to be made for the removal of the unnecessary TPWS treadles, allowing higher line speeds into and out of (and therefore through) existing passing loops.
Room for Growth states (12.4.2) that "the main constraint to reducing journey time is the speeds imposed by the RETB signalling system". It recommends (12.4.3) that line speeds should be assessed "at loops (if necessary by computer modelling) to calculate time savings".
4 Reinstating loops.
Reinstating loops will not automatically bring any reduction in journey times but there will be an immediate benefit whenever there is out-of-course running - a common feature of FNL travel. Train failures, or merely late running, on long single-line stretches exports delay for the rest of the day, with cost to passengers and train operators. Passing loops were removed 40 years ago and some should now be reinstated. There is a difficulty in deciding which. If the current timetable is used, places where new loops would reduce (or even eliminate) knock-on delays are not necessarily the same places as an ideal timetable would disclose. In other words, using the current timetable to determine infrastructure work will tend to lock in the current timetable, largely vitiating any exercise to reduce journey times. A better approach would be to site re-opened loops (where the solum still exists) in longer single stretches or where there is a very clear advantage. We believe that there are probably 5 such sites on the FNL - at Altnabreac in the 26-minute section between Georgemas Junction and Forsinard, at Kinbrace in the 33-minute section between Forsinard and Helmsdale, at Golspie, at Novar (no station) in the 16-minute section between Alness and Dingwall, and at Lentran in the 21-minute section between Muir of Ord and Inverness. The rationale for the first four is the same - late-running trains hold up on-time trains until they have reached the next loop. There will always be late running, but on the FNL it is common for the consequences (either more late running or the Thurso branch omitted) to be felt throughout the day. This is not acceptable. In addition, there is a further rationale for the loops at Altnabreac and Kinbrace - the elimination of these long sections will allow decreased headway and thus will potentially allow more trains on the line. The Lentran loop has a different justification, and this is dealt with in the next section.
5 Redoubling a stretch of line.
The line between the swing bridge at Clachnaharry and Clunes should, we believe, be redoubled for its whole 5.5 mile length. This will increase timetable robustness at a stroke. A late-running southbound train into Inverness prevents the on-time departure of a train northbound to Dingwall. This can cause knock-on delays, with the likelihood of missed connections either at Inverness onto southbound trains or at Scrabster for Orkney ferry passengers. The Highland Main Line is doubled for several miles south of Inverness precisely to allow trains to leave Inverness and at least get 10 minutes into their journey before waiting for a northbound train to leave the single section - so it should be with the FNL. The single viaduct section and the swing bridge itself cannot be doubled without disproportionate expense, but the section from Clachnaharry to Clunes could be relaid, conferring most of the benefit that is sought. Work here would naturally also benefit train running on the Kyle of Lochalsh line. If it were found to be too expensive to redouble the whole length, a loop at Lentran would give some - perhaps most - of the benefit of redoubling.
Room for Growth recommends (12.5.2) that "consideration be given to re-instating the section of double line from ... Clachnaharry to Clunes".
6 Removing station stops (either by skip stopping, downgrading to request status or closure).
There are 22 stations on the FNL, excluding the termini at Wick and Inverness (and ignoring summer-only Dunrobin Castle), but including Georgemas Junction twice. There are already 8 stations with request status on some or all trains (Scotscalder, Altnabreac, Kinbrace, Kildonan, Rogart, Invershin, Fearn and Alness). Downgrading a station to request status saves 1 minute in the working timetable. However, there are few stations - perhaps 4 or 5 - to which this could realistically be done, so the overall saving would be unlikely to exceed 5 minutes. When RETB signalling is replaced, of course, there will be no need to stop for token exchange at several places where this is now used to justify keeping a full station stop. Any 10-year plans should take this into account as RETB replacement will surely at last occur within this time scale. The precise nature of RETB replacement will to some extent dictate how drivers will have to behave - will they be able to continue at existing line speed with an in-cab display (as ERTMS envisages)? If so, and if line speeds generally are higher by the time the new signalling arrangements are installed it may well be that several more stations could be downgraded to request status on some services, or even omitted altogether by carefully planned skip-stopping. FoFNL believes that existing stations are not sacrosanct, and accurate (determined by observation) footfall counts should be made at most, if not all, stations at appropriate times of year. Anecdotally we believe that some stations - Invershin, for example - have extremely low figures. In this case there are two convenient nearby stations (Culrain for foot passengers and Lairg for car-borne passengers). Others - Kildonan, for example - serve no community and closure would be unlikely to be a hardship for anyone. It may be possible to achieve end-to-end journey time savings on some, but not all, services. This would allow a "headline" figure of say 3½ hours Wick to Inverness to be used in publicity material without requiring all services to achieve this (a common occurrence throughout the network). Stations with very low footfall might then have one daily timetabled request stop in each direction - the possibilities are endless and need not be further elaborated here. A thorough examination of the existing stations (and those proposed for re-opening, including Conon and Halkirk) should be carried out with a view to the introduction of a timetable which better meets the needs of potential passengers in 2010 rather than 1870.
RETB limitations mean that much of the work listed cannot be carried out until RETB replacement takes place - a period of almost 10 years. We believe that a 10-year programme of relatively modest investment (some of it very modest - replacing some lineside speed limit signs) over the intervening years, with a fairly large investment at RETB replacement time (which is going to happen anyway, and which will lever in greater benefits by doing much of the work at the same time) is the way forward for enhancing the FNL and making it more competitive with other forms of transport.
Room for Growth says (12.5.1) "Given the potential, proposed, or aspired modifications, alterations, or additions to the rail system covered by the present RETB control system in the Highland area, it would be prudent of interested parties to become involved or at least informed of the development process associated with RETB replacement. In this way, it may be seen whether the system proposed to supersede RETB will deliver or can cater for the functionality desired by those operators and communities to be served by the Highland area" (emphasis added). FoFNL is aware that there is a possibility that colour light signalling may be installed between Inverness and Dingwall: clearly the decision about how this section is to be signalled post-RETB will determine when any redoubling can be done.
FoFNL acknowledges that this is a big shopping list. We believe that end-to-end savings of close to 30 minutes ought to be possible by doing all of the things we suggest. Reducing end-to-end journey times by 30 minutes is, we believe, vital to attract increased passenger and freight use of the Far North Line.