Opportunities From The New Timetable
The 20 minute deceleration of services between Wick and Inverness is much to be regretted and we must hope that the previous timings can be restored before too long. Recent injunctions from the Scottish Executive and from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) should have left Network Rail in no doubt that action is required from them.
Several useful opportunities are presented by the new timings:
10.39 Inverness to Wick
This retiming from 11.27 improves the connections from the south and from Aberdeen and helps the leisure market in particular to plan day trips on the line. Passengers can now get further north after breakfast before returning in time for tea. Thus, the typecast "American" style of tourist would have an hour and a half to "do" Dunrobin Castle.
Less rushed would be the chance to travel as far as Invershin or Rogart and enjoy an unhurried hotel lunch and short walk at these locations. If the hoteliers were willing, this could be marketed as a "lunch included" ticket as is done on the Heart of Wales Line. Two and a quarter hours are available at Rogart and just over three hours at Invershin. The Falls of Shin are two and a half miles from the latter station, well within the capabilities of fit walkers, or, if a minibus were laid on, all ages of passenger could visit the "Harrods of the north".
12.37 Wick to Inverness
The later departure of this train provides a rather tight connection from the 11.00 sailing from Stromness in the current timetable. The Hamnavoe is due to arrive Scrabster at 12.30 and the train leaves Thurso at 13.06. There is an exception on Saturdays from the end of August until the beginning of June when the ferry runs two hours earlier.
The above is the good news. Three of the other weekday services now depart earlier at 06.23 and 15.51 ex Wick and at 07.14 ex Inverness. The 17.35 Inverness-Wick has now been retimed to depart at 17.47 missing by a mere one minute the incoming train from Aberdeen. The previous service on that line arrives at 15.23 and involves a wait of nearly two and a half hours!!
We are told that the timetable is now more "robust" in that the trains should be able to keep time. That is good news for those waiting at intermediate stations and those seeking to connect with other trains at Inverness. Sadly, experience seems to be showing that some of the connections at Inverness are no longer "robust" particularly the 10.28 arrival from Glasgow in the mornings which does not have to be very late to delay the 10.37 to Wick.
The vagaries of the single line may then mean that because the 10.37 crosses the 12.37 ex Wick at Forsinard, if it is running say 15 to 20 minutes late at Helmsdale and is allowed in to the half hour long section first, it may delay the southbound train by a good 15 minutes. This train has only a seven minute connection at Inverness with the 16.55 to Glasgow. Thus, if the 07.10 from Glasgow to Inverness runs late in the morning, the effects can be felt throughout the day and back in the Glasgow area in the evening.
Speeding up again
When the June deceleration was explained at the Rail Passengers Committee's public meeting in Dingwall in May, we were told that the Scottish Transport Minister had instructed Network Rail to seek to restore the previous line speed in early course. Since then, the Office of Rail Regulation wrote to Network Rail (NR) on 8 July setting out that company's obligations. In particular: "Network Rail must maintain routes to the published capability level at April 2001" and "If operators want to run more trains of the same type on a route, NR is responsible for any increase in maintenance needed. NR must not charge operators extra for this". To my mind, the "published capability level" would include, not just the number of trains, but the end to end timings. Let us hope that ScotRail will request a return to the "capability" of Wick to Inverness journeys taking less than four hours.
December timetable and future services
At long last, we should see the Invernet scheme implemented with the December timetable. This will introduce a much improved frequency of trains from Easter Ross and Beauly to Inverness throughout the day. Coupled with the attractive fares on offer, it should be a winner.
I hope that it will be followed by the increased frequency of a fourth train all the way from Wick to Inverness though there is no commitment to this as yet. It would increase the costs of the route, but would provide welcome additional employment in Wick. If it were to leave Wick around 08.30 and return from Inverness around 14.00, it would provide ferry connections both ways and give Caithnessians the sort of opportunity for more conveniently timed day trips that the retimed 10.37 ex Inverness is providing in the opposite direction.
Now that would be an exciting future for the line!