A Future for Highland Lines
The past 15 years since the FoFNL conference has seen a renaissance in the fortunes of the railways north of Perth. The persistence of environmentally aware campaigners, such as FoFNL founder member Frank Spaven, has paid off. The FoFNL conference led to the establishment of the Rail Development Officer post filled by Frank Roach and then to the Highland Rail Partnership.
We have seen the highly successful reopening of Beauly station, now with 52,000 passenger journeys per year. Invernet was a ground breaking project won by Frank Roach, providing an all day service of local trains through Dingwall as far as Ardgay and Lairg. There are now three commuter trains arriving in Inverness from the north before 9am in the mornings. Given the Kessock Bridge queues on the A9 and parking congestion in Inverness, this is a very good thing.
FoFNL was established in 1994 and can claim numerous lobbying successes such as originating the idea of a fourth train each way to Wick connecting with new Northlink ferry schedules to Orkney; suggesting how the interiors of class 158s should be redesigned to give much greater passenger comfort and more bike space for end to enders; and very publicly campaigning for the fitting of retention toilets. [It is amazing what you can achieve if you kick up a stink!] We are now campaigning for the reinstatement of a passing loop from Lentran-Clunes in the middle of the long constraining single track section immediately north of Inverness. This would allow more trains to be run and greatly reduce delays at times of late running. FoFNL sees the Highland Lines north and east from Perth and Aberdeen as an inter-dependent network and keeps a watching brief there also. There are no other rail user groups covering the full length of those two lines.
The Room for Growth report completed in 2006 by Scott Wilson Railways for HIE has been an influential milestone. Two projects, the Highland Main Line (HML) upgrade scheduled for completion by December 2011, and rail service enhancements between Aberdeen and Inverness by 2016 are priorities in the Government's Strategic Transport Projects Review published in December 2008.
Highland Main Line
The HML project, to give hourly frequency to Edinburgh and Glasgow with journey times of under 3 hours, was championed by Alex Salmond after a Cabinet meeting in Inverness in August 2008. The Transport Minister and Transport Scotland (TS) are still maintaining it is on track for completion in Dec 2011. This is beginning to look somewhat unlikely. It is time the project detail and funding were being announced as it takes 16 months to recruit and train extra drivers.
Passengers are quite rightly voicing a desire for a much higher standard of intercity rolling stock for the HML but there is no word of this yet. The experiment to uprate the engines on the class 170s to provide faster journeys has not been a success and that project has been discontinued. TS is not alone in calling for Network Rail to price their estimates for track enhancements much more competitively, but now seems to have decided that reinstated loops in the Newtonmore area and at Balinluig are not affordable.
Disappointingly, this all suggests that any improvements which are introduced in December 2011 will be a pale shadow of the expectations raised. To timetable in extra trains without the provision of extra loops or faster train sets will be difficult, especially at a time when freight services are thankfully increasing once again. The sub three hour schedule may be possible by running some trains on a limited stop basis, but any delays may consequently affect a greater number of other services.
First Group ought to be talking to Government about procuring vastly improved trains for the next franchise. Passengers are left hoping that this is the case, because presumably First will wish to retain the franchise in 2014. TS are reputed to be unwilling to sanction a new build of diesel trains due to a Government horizon to have most lines in Scotland electrified by 2030. It seems the likeliest way to obtain trains of proper inter-city standard to operate on the route is to go for a new High Speed Train or locomotive haulage. When the time comes, the propulsion could then be changed from diesel to electric.
Inverness to Aberdeen Line
For the INVAB scheme, a target completion date of 2016 is an awful long time away to be called a priority. The line is a monument to savage cutbacks in the post Beeching era and (apart from the Nairn resignalling) procrastination since then. Stretches of the A96 road have been improved, but despite the line's slow speed it is still quicker to go between Aberdeen and Inverness by rail rather than road. The potential benefits of an improved line to the local economy have been there for all to see for many years, but it does not seem to be high on the radar at the planning tables in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
ScotRail asked for the promised hourly frequency and end to end journey time of under two hours in 1994. This was to be achieved by faster line speeds, reinstated double track and loops and modernised signalling. In contrast to, say, Spain where impressive high speed lines have been built, none of the ScotRail network has ever received European Community money. Some was earmarked in the Nineties to relocate Forres station eastwards to the passing loop, but the money was used for something else (probably roads?) because the railway did not go through with the scheme.
The road suffers badly from bad weather and has a poor safety record. How much better it would be if the local population had the choice of a frequent and regular train service. Now the half hourly peak time frequency recently achieved between Aberdeen and Inverurie can also be justified at the other end of the line between Elgin and Inverness to help ease road congestion. An airport station at Dalcross is also needed as are the platform lengthenings at Elgin and Insch promised many years ago.
Far North Line
In recent years, Hitrans provided capital funding for platform shelters, bike stands and lockers and was budgeting for new stations at Conon and Dalcross Airport when the Scottish Government transferred their capital funding to local councils as part of the deal to freeze the council tax. Conon is almost ready to build and FoFNL hopes that Highland Council and Transport Scotland will jointly fund it.
The A9 Kessock Bridge is due major repairs which will cause major disruption for some 6 months. The railway can help by running longer trains but to provide the essential increased frequency the reinstatement of the Lentran to Clunes loop is required. The railway built a new station at Workington within a week following November's floods so we could have both the loop and Conon station operational in time if we put our minds to it. Why not an Evanton Parkway station for folk further north when the Cromarty Bridge undergoes similar repairs the following summer?
Sustainable transport. Why we need railways more.
For a sustainable future we are all going to have to travel less and produce more goods locally. It makes more sense to go to Edinburgh by train rather than by bus or car especially so with the government ambition to electrify the line by 2030.
Railways are much greener than road transport. Figures just out from the Scottish Government show transport accounts for 26% of total Scottish emissions. These went up by 2.1% in 2007 so the figures are going the wrong way. The target is to reduce total emissions by 34% (transport 23%) by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
With road congestion; challenging carbon reduction targets, oil price volatility and peak oil scenario we are going to need to use our railways (and water transport) much more for freight and maybe quite soon and maybe quite suddenly. There is potential for huge modal shift. Gas flows to Caithness and waste to landfill would be far safer on rail.
The problem of limited capacity on Highland lines because they are mostly single track needs to be addressed. Three trains an hour through a 12 mile single track section (which is all we have now between Inverness and Muir of Ord) could be 18 trains per hour if there were five minute headways on double track. This is a colossal difference. We need to be gradually putting in loops and double track at strategic points, improving signalling and line speed and widening the gauge to carry bigger maritime containers. How about a scheme similar to the old Crofter Counties Roads Programme? Don't let the Highlands lose out because we haven't got enough track capacity when the sudden switch comes.
All this needs finance. What was a rosy picture for the railway and an environmentally friendly and sustainable way forward for us all is now threatened by financial restraint. But peak oil and spiralling oil prices could be an even bigger threat! My view is that we need to continue to invest in our rail infrastructure for our future well being. Whatever Government is elected needs to take that on board.
We are going to need to economise severely on oil and the price may well be sky high. Just think what that might do to the delivery surcharges to the Highlands that we already suffer! Using trains rather than lorries (where this is possible) will help to keep costs down and conserve oil for deliveries to places which are not rail or water connected.