The prospect in a few years' time of better connections at Inverness with FNL trains is something to look forward to. By 2012 there will be an hourly service from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Inverness with the fastest trains taking only 2h 45m and a journey time of 3 hours being the norm. Indeed, the first part of this exercise should be in place in December this year when an hourly interval service is provided from Edinburgh to Perth. An announcement about hourly services on the line from Inverness to Aberdeen will be made this autumn.
An hourly service will not necessarily always improve the connections northbound as, on current plans, there will still only be four trains northbound beyond Lairg once the 13.57 service starts in December this year. In the southbound direction, passengers on all of the Caithness, Invernet and Kyle services will be better served. Instead of having a 107, 121, 91 minute or overnight wait if the current 16, 27, 5 or 5 minute connections from Caithness to the south happen to fail, there will be another train along within the hour. It may go to the alternate destination, either Edinburgh or Glasgow and that may, or may not, be a bonus to you depending on whether you have to change, but at least the delay will be less than it can be now.
However the current and indeed previous FNL timetables have been difficult to construct given a number of restrictions placed on the train planners: (i) to have trains timed for optimal connections at Inverness into and out of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen services; (ii) long single line sections which determine the maximum theoretical capacity of the FNL; and (iii) train crew diagramming conditions. Essentially the timetable is "hard-wired" and trains can not be shifted from their current paths. As a current example, the 1039 Inverness to Wick service is timed to depart at this time as it needs to depart after the 1037 arrival at Inverness from Wick. The 1039 connects out of the 1026 arrival from Glasgow and must get to Invergordon to cross the 0813 ex Wick that in turn must arrive in Inverness before 1214 to connect into the 1219 to Aberdeen. Continuing north, the 1039 ex Inverness crosses the 1237 ex Wick at Forsinard, the single line section between there and Helmsdale determining the maximum capacity on the FNL. The 1237 ex Wick is timed to connect into the 1656 Inverness to Glasgow service. In the return direction, the 1551 ex Wick will cross the new 1356 ex Inverness which is tightly timed having crossed the following UP trains: at Muir of Ord, the 1200 ex Kyle; at Ardgay the 1237 ex Wick and at Forsinard the 1551 ex Wick, which last in turn then crosses the 1752 ex Inverness at Tain, whose train crew have a diagrammed PNB at Inverness after working the 1237 ex Wick. The 1551 ex Wick arrives Inverness at 2005, with the train crew having worked a 9 hour 53 minute diagram which is just inside the maximum turn length of 10 hours.
It should be possible to construct a new timetable which gives slightly longer connections at Thurso for passengers from the Orkney ferry, as these are currently rather tight. It is still unlikely that trains will be able to wait for a delayed ferry because of the need to pass other trains on a single line railway. The long 33 minute single line section from Helmsdale to Forsinard is only the worst of these limiting factors. There were formerly additional passing loops at Kildonan and Kinbrace on that section, but these were taken out when the line was rationalised in the Sixties. To achieve a robust timetable which minimises delays on a single line railway it is essential to shorten as many sections as possible, have the maximum economically possible number of loops and ensure that these are positioned as effectively as possible. The section between Inverness, Muir of Ord and Dingwall is now operating at, or very near, maximum capacity and the re-introduction of the Lentran loop would make a significant impact on reducing delay minutes on the FNL and the inevitable missed connections at Inverness.
FoFNL is heartened that our request for a fourth train north to Wick will be honoured in December. We continue to ask for the reinstatement of crossing possibilities centred on Lentran which will benefit the Kyle line also. Following Iain Coucher's request at our AGM, we are working up suggestions for further infrastructure enhancements to again speed up the FNL services. Meanwhile the proposals announced for the line to Perth and the hoped-for proposal to increase speed and frequency on the line to Aberdeen are warmly welcomed as being of significant benefit to FNL passengers also.