The Swing of the Pendulum
Times change as we all know. The economic situation has become more difficult and money available for rail investment is tighter. This is partly because of unforeseen events such as the Forth Replacement Crossing (FRC) road bridge but also owing to a perceptible switch in Scottish Government policy away from sustainable environmentally friendly transport in favour of road building. On top of that, the strategic thinking has been lost and most of the money in recent years has been spent south of the Highlands.
Less than six years ago, at the end of 2008, big and welcome strides had been made on the Far North Line (FNL) with the introduction of the Invernet commuter services and the fourth train each way between Wick and Inverness. Not much had happened on the Inverness to Aberdeen line (InvAb), but there was the new Strategic Transport Projects Review, and the Highland Main Line (HML) and InvAb were placed third and fourth in priority after the FRC and the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP). Edinburgh to Glasgow already had a fine new railway line under construction through Bathgate but, despite that, EGIP was to go ahead before the schemes in the north.
At least InvAb and HML were seen as Scottish (rather than local) schemes and part of the strategic infrastructure for Scotland, as was the welcome reopening of part of the Borders Railway. InvAb had been requested by ScotRail as long ago as 1994 and the HML was certainly on my radar before EGIP. The value of these two schemes to FNL passengers is in the greatly improved connections through Inverness that their hourly frequencies of service will bring.
The First Minister announced after the Cabinet meeting in Inverness Town House on 5th August, 2008 that: "Work being negotiated with Network Rail to implement improvements to the line will cut journey times to two hours 45 minutes - 35 minutes less than at present. This at least makes railway travel to the heart of the Highlands, in terms of time, competitive with roads. The timescale for implementation is 2011/12." (The Herald, 6th August, 2008). The then Transport Minister, Stewart Stevenson, subsequently announced that the InvAb scheme should be completed by 2016.
Government thinking changes and money gets redistributed, such that we are now told that the HML improvements are not now pencilled in for completion until 2025 and the InvAb improvements may not be finished until 2030. That this is happening at a time when the Government's carbon reduction targets for transport are being missed by a mile is an incredible change in priorities. You will notice too that there are no projects prioritised to make the FNL more competitive by clawing back some of the 25 minutes added to the end to end journey time nearly 10 years ago, but that yet another new and costly project has appeared - a high speed line between Edinburgh and Glasgow which would be the fifth direct route between those cities!
By the end of August, no proposals had yet been published for the HML upgrades and Ministers had still not published a GRIP3 response to the InvAb options report which has been on the Transport Scotland website since 22nd March, 2011. In a written answer about InvAb on 2nd June, 2011, the Minister for Transport and Veterans said: "The feasibility, cost and deliverability of the proposed options are now being examined in detail and this work is expected to be completed by early 2012." Subsequently we were told that: "Phase one is expected to deliver new stations at Dalcross and Kintore and extra services into each city." (Keith Brown written answer 29/04/13). This is now planned by the end of Control Period 5 (2014 - 2019) with a budget of £250 - 500m.
On the HML, we are told: "Phase 2 of the project will deliver further improvements to passenger journey times and service frequency and more efficient freight operations between 2014 and 2019." (Nicola Sturgeon written answer 04/03/13). The movement of freight by rail on the HML, InvAb and the FNL is heavily constrained by a lack of capacity on these largely single-track routes. There is huge potential to take some of the traffic off the roads, reduce carbon emissions and the vulnerability of the Highlands in a sudden oil crisis.
Single-track roads were largely eliminated by the 1970s but it is only in the current century that the strategic importance to Scotland of major investment in the Highland rail lines has been recognised by the Government in Edinburgh. That this is now to proceed at a very much slower pace than promised is an economic and environmental tragedy as well as a major disappointment.