National Planning Framework For Scotland 2
Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL) was established in 1994, has a current membership of 160, and seeks improvement to rail services north of Perth and west of Aberdeen.
FoFNL is grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Scottish Government's discussion draft and wishes to make one suggested addition to the nine national development projects listed in paragraph 190 under the heading Infrastructure.
The addition we wish to see is a programme to substantially improve physical connectivity links between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland. We believe this is a national priority because the economy of many parts of the Highlands, especially around the Inner Moray Firth is one of the most buoyant in Scotland and this buoyancy is becoming increasingly important for the future health of the whole Scottish economy.
It is a cause for great concern that this natural buoyancy and organic growth is being seriously retarded by an historically underdeveloped infrastructure which is not even keeping pace with the levels of investment in the rest of Scotland when it should be ahead in order to catch up.
This failure in the market is best illustrated by the number of major rail schemes which are being financed in the Lowlands with next to nothing yet approved for Highland routes. The situation is similar, but on a less serious scale, for road improvements.
We believe that the Government has to take national responsibility for a major infrastructure initiative for the Highlands so that the area can break the cycle of investment being allocated predominantly to the Edinburgh-Glasgow axis.
The Government wishes to see greater connectivity between cities. The rail links between Perth and Inverness and between Aberdeen and Inverness need to be strengthened. They are predominantly single track lines and this causes a severe limitation on the number of trains which can be run. With double track and a five minute headway, a line could take six trains per hour in each direction, making twelve in total. The single track Highland Main Line (HML) currently has a theoretical maximum capacity of four trains per hour, and the Inverness-Aberdeen line (INVAB) is even worse at between two and three per hour.
These figures graphically demonstrate the scale of the problem. INVAB was reduced to a very basic railway and has had no major investment despite a major scheme being drawn up by ScotRail in 1994. The A96 road is of poor standard in many places and suffers from serious bad weather constraints. Even now the train is quicker end to end and a major opportunity to improve the rail links between Aberdeenshire, Moray and the Highlands has so far lost out to other priorities.
Rail freight potential on these lines is huge and future scarcity of, and price rises for, oil will necessitate a major modal shift from road to rail in the next few years. The Greener Scotland and Stronger, Safer, Healthier Communities policies with the emphasis on sustainability and reducing the effects of climate change strongly support this too.
With the present predominance of single lines in the Highlands, there are relatively few paths for freight trains and the ability to make a major switch of mode in a relatively short space of time will not be there unless we start planning major capacity improvements to these lines right now. A useful step forward has been made in the gauge improvement work now completed between Aberdeen and Elgin to permit large containers to go by rail.
These desired major increases in capacity should also be accompanied by increases in line speed and modern signalling and this is currently being studied for the HML. One big worry is the effect on infrastructure projects for the Highlands caused by the huge sums that will need to be spent to build a new Forth Road Bridge. This is such a large project that it could affect every other infrastructure need and aspiration throughout Scotland and, as we have already shown, the Highlands in common with the other more peripheral parts is in danger of being at the end of the queue once again.
FoFNL believes that a major national programme is required to ensure sufficient forward momentum. There are parallels with the Crofter Counties Roads Scheme from the middle of last century which was successful in upgrading most of the formerly single track main roads in the Highlands and Islands. We would suggest that a similar scheme to double and re-signal many stretches of the railway lines to the south and east of Inverness would be a useful way forward.
Such a programme under the imperatives of growing the economy, connecting major centres, and implementing climate change policy initiatives and reducing the total reliance on fossil fuels would be a smart move for Scotland. The effects would be of benefit to the connecting lines to Wick and Kyle where similar objectives could be obtained by projects of appropriate scale for those lines. The obvious first step there being to create more capacity on the congested shared section between Inverness and Dingwall.
Road, sea and air schemes
Although continued growth in road traffic will eventually decline and even reverse due to oil supply difficulties, it is still appropriate to further some road schemes. These would include widening and safety work for appropriate stretches of the A82, A96 and A9. Ferry and air transport support will remain particularly important for the islands.
What FoFNL has sought to demonstrate here is that there is a convincing case that Scotland as a whole would benefit from a step change in funding for transport (and particularly rail) infrastructure to and from the Highlands. On economic and environmental grounds there are compelling arguments and Scottish society and tourism would benefit too with the ability to move around more freely.
As paragraph 191 states "Scotland needs an effective national transport infrastructure which will facilitate sustainable economic growth. A clear long term vision is vital because transport infrastructure takes a long time to deliver and has a lifespan measurable in decades."
FoFNL believes that its vision for improved transport to the Highlands is needed at this time and is a logical next step to underpin the recent successes of the area and continue the objectives which have underpinned Highland development policy for the last forty years "to enable the Highlands and Islands to play a more effective part in the economic and social development of the nation"
Therefore, a tenth national development project should be added to those listed in paragraph 190, as follows:
10 Substantially improve physical connectivity links between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland, with particular emphasis on the railways.