Whither The Far North Line?
Why are there next to no improvements seemingly officially planned for the Far North Line (FNL) within the next ten years? Because they don't meet the BCR (Benefit Cost Ratio) requirements is the usual answer.
BCR is defined in the Network Rail (NR) Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS2) as "the ratio of societal benefits to costs to Government." So, is it all the Government's fault for not recognising the economic and social benefits of the FNL? Not to mention the further potential benefits which could be obtained from the line given a bit of investment! Or is the BCR too rigid for a strategic rural line like ours?
A good start would be to reverse the 25-minute slow-down imposed in 2004. Network Rail Scotland certainly recognises that the FNL needs to be speeded up, but it knows too that there are so many schemes all over Scotland competing for funding which has become much scarcer in the past few years of world financial crisis.
We have seen this scenario in the North so often before for all sorts of infrastructure investment projects. Schemes are drawn up in good times and then prioritised. The ones in the North mostly come well down the list, favoured schemes in the more populated areas go ahead, the financial climate changes and the peripheral areas all round Scotland lose out. Strategic needs lose out to this BCR thing.
We are there again. The strategic "priorities" to properly improve the Highland Main Line (HML) and the Inverness - Aberdeen line are finding it difficult to progress against a seeming change of emphasis away from sustainable transport and carbon reduction back to more road building. ScotRail asked for the Inverness - Aberdeen improvements way back in 1994 and Network Rail's comprehensive plan could see the scheme completed by the Government's STPR target date of 2016. Moving the target completion dates for both lines back by more than a decade is a hammer-blow to railways in the Highlands.
What is the good news? Safety issues appear to have come to the rescue as far as the automatic open level crossings (AOCL) are concerned. Converting Bunchrew and other AOCLs to crossings with half-barriers is now likely to happen under the safety banner, having been rejected in the RUS on BCR grounds. FoFNL did not think the BCR had been calculated using the right train service parameters, but our strenuous challenge was rejected. We welcome the prospect that the white knight of safety will help with progressing this to restore line speeds and improve journey times.
FoFNL's ideas for an hourly service between Inverness and Tain are being refined and pursued with Transport Scotland. They will be included as part of our response to the Rail 2014 new franchise consultation. To work in an optimum way the journey time needs to be brought down from the current 67 minutes back to the pre-2005 60 minutes and trimmed a little more down to 57 minutes. The service could then be worked more economically with two units and crews rather than three.
Signalling and loops together with line-speed improvements are the key to more appropriate journey times between Inverness and both Thurso and Wick. Trains have to stop and spend a minute or so getting the RETB (radio electronic token block) permission to proceed at every signalling point. RETB has recently been life-extended, but NR will have to think how to replace it with a new system in the not too distant future.
Loops slow down trains because the points at each end of all those on the Far North Line are only sanctioned for 15mph running. This is hardly a modern railway! The loops are also too infrequent, such that, when delays occur, trains may have to wait for up to 30 minutes for another train to clear the next single-track section. Sadly, all the sections on the line are single track and delays can become compounded affecting one train after another and lasting all day. Again, not a modern railway! Delays like this do not occur every day (thankfully), so adding extra loops is sadly rejected on BCR grounds.
The longest section is between Helmsdale and Forsinard, where one at least of the former loops at Kildonan and Kinbrace should be reinstated. At Kildonan there is a level crossing over a very minor road with good visibility. Incredibly, it is deemed that all trains should stop before proceeding over the usually empty road. No way is this a modern railway!
NR has usefully started to raise line-speeds by replacing some old track with second-hand long welded rail which is still perfectly good for FNL passenger trains at 90mph. Points are not scheduled for upgrading and neither are loops yet to be reinstated at Evanton, Kildary, Golspie and Altnabreac to name a few other potentially useful ones. The eventual reinstatement of the former double track between Clachnaharry and Clunes (Kirkhill) with high speed points at Clunes would be particularly beneficial on the most congested section of the route.
This is a long list of desirable improvements to make the railway much more fit for purpose in the 21st century and attract more passengers and freight. There is plenty of scope for freight, but the commercial impediments suffered by rail freight over the roads needs to be addressed by the UK Government.
You will notice I have not mentioned the idea of a short cut between Tain and Golspie via Dornoch. This is an obvious no-brainer and we have tried to get a line of route safeguarded. The problem, in common with most of the desirable improvements above, is how are we going to get it funded? If BCR were to mean Better Connections by Rail and governments were to properly start thinking strategically, the FNL would be seen as an important investment for the nation, an artery connecting the heartlands with the extremity, providing a safer alternative to road, and an insurance should we get into severe difficulties with oil supplies.
Wither the Far North Line? I don't think so, but we have one hell of a fight on our hands to get Government recognition of the considerable funds needed to ensure the line and its services are properly improved.