Service Provision - Summer 1999 And Beyond
The 1999 Summer timetable, operational from 30 May to 25 September, retains the service pattern of recent years. Minor changes include the retiming of the evening train north to depart Inverness at 17.20 and a later start from Wick at 15.47 for the last southbound train. An extension of the Dingwall commuter train to start from further north is still awaited.
The commissioning of the Georgemas plunger has brought some, but not enough, improvement in end to end timings. Time savings of 3 minutes between Inverness and Thurso and of 5 minutes between Inverness and Wick running via Thurso had been anticipated. As compared with Summer 1998 this has been achieved northbound to Thurso, but not on to Wick via Thurso where the overall average saving remains 3 minutes rather than the 5 predicted by Railtrack. On Sundays the average northbound end to end saving is a mere 30 seconds.
Southbound, comparing the summer service for the same two years, the average weekday time saving from Wick via Thurso to Inverness is only 1½ minutes, and from Thurso to Inverness is 2 minutes. However for Wick passengers the summer only direct train saves 6 minutes on the previous year. Overall this is a disappointing implementation of the benefit from the Plunger which Caithness had been led to expect.
When a comparison is made between today and the summer of 1996 the northbound position is even less satisfactory. Then the first northbound service was one minute quicker from Inverness to both Thurso and Wick than it is today. Indeed a comparison of average time saved for the three northbound trains to each destination shows only 40 seconds. This could equally well be ascribed to the lifting of the severe speed restrictions on the Mid Fearn farm crossings on the Ross - Sutherland border.
More encouraging is a comparison of timings for southbound summer services as between 1996 and 1999. This shows an average saving of 6 minutes from Wick and 3 from Thurso as between those years. Part of the southbound improvement can be ascribed to the removal of two minutes wasteful recovery time south of Ardgay. However this welcome change detracts from the time saving which could be ascribed to the Plunger at Georgemas. One is bound to question whether despite long term planning for the work at Georgemas, ScotRail have yet fully implemented the consequent savings in journey time.
In any event much remains to be accomplished. What has befallen the multi agency study of three years ago which identified level crossings and speed on entry to passing loops as areas for improvement? FOFNL looks to a Thurso - Inverness timing of 3 hours 30 minutes, even with the present traction equipment, and a Sunday evening train in each direction.
The recent Sunday trial with a 158 unit over the length of the line raises both opportunities and concerns. The capacity of these sets to run at 90 mph and accelerate more quickly from a stand offers potential time saving. Although the line is currently restricted to 75 mph the straighter layout in Easter Ross and between Georgemas and Wick should enable faster running. Together with faster acceleration away from stations can we expect a Thurso - Inverness timing of 3 hours 20 minutes, or even 3 hours 15 minutes, with commensurate reductions for Wick? The outcome of this trial conducted by the rail industry is awaited with interest.
Nevertheless the replacement of the existing 156 units with the faster 158s does raise concerns. Their overall interior profile by width is less - luggage space is inadequate for residents and visitors alike - cycle space is still less - the existing seating configuration is too tight - the seat backs obstruct outward vision. Clearly nothing can be done about the overall vehicle profile. This makes action on the other deficiencies the more important. ScotRail intend re-seating the vehicles changing the tilt of the seat backs so improving outlook. Action needs to be taken to provide for the carriage of four cycles. Equally important, as travellers between Inverness and Central Scotland know to their cost, is the need for adequate leg room. Adjusting the leg space at a few selected seats will not meet the needs of an increasingly taller population. One purpose of the longer distance train should be to attract custom from other modes. The more open leg space in the outwardly similar coaches of the 157 units between London Waterloo and Exeter, or in the reconfigured seating in Wales and West 158s should be replicated here in the Highlands.
Whilst seat occupancy is always important, the long distance rural railway needs first to stimulate people to value the travel experience.