Aberdeen - Inverness Upgrade Plans Issued At Last
Although not published in the form in which we expected it - Network Rail's GRIP process - the upgrade of the line into Inverness from the east has been approved. Just to recap, the proposals on which we previously reported were: Hourly service between Aberdeen and Inverness; Half-hourly service (other than after the evening peak) between Inverness and Elgin, including a new station at Dalcross; Half-hourly service (other than after the evening peak) between Inverurie and Aberdeen, including a new station at Kintore; Journey time improvements to provide all-stations journey time of an average of two hours; Retain freight capacity. The work is included in the High Level Output Specification for 2014-19 and was also announced by the First Minister, Alex Salmond MSP, in Inverness on 28th March. This is an important, and welcome, start to a project which should eventually see an hourly frequency of through trains taking no more than two hours end to end, a half hourly frequency for much of the day of trains at each end of the line from Inverness to Elgin and from Aberdeen to Inverurie, and much increased capacity for freight and charter trains and diversions. In the first phase between now and 2019, as well as the improvements listed above, a new station will be built at Forres on the original straight 1858 alignment, together with a crossing loop in the station rather than outside. The curves at the current station reflect the course of the 1863 Highland Main Line that ran via Grantown-on-Spey - part of which is now owned by the Strathspey Railway - before the direct Slochd route was opened in its entirety in 1898. This, together with improved signalling between Forres and Elgin, should cut out many of the delays which now occur there. Platform lengths at Elgin and Insch will be increased to accommodate six coach trains, two sections of the line between Kittybrewster (just north of Aberdeen) and Inverurie will be doubled once again, and new stations will be provided at Inverness Airport (Dalcross) and at Kintore as above.
So far, no further detail of the plans has been released by Transport Scotland. Its previous report postulated completion of the whole scheme by February, 2017 but Mr. Salmond talked of "more investment in future stages" [plural]. Clearly, if the full project is to cost £600m as we believe, the £170m that Mr. Salmond announced for 2014-19 will not go all the way. Government sources suggest that the full upgrade could still take until 2030 as we have long feared but it is fervently to be hoped that the fully modernised railway can be completed long before then.
It would be helpful to know if the Dalcross proposals will include a passing loop there or double track from there into Inverness before 2019. The GRIP 2 report suggested a longer loop than just at the station but there is an issue where the line crosses underneath the A9 just outside Inverness, legislating against doubling all the way. This is essential to improve what is called the "robustness" of the timetable. Working the present timetable on a single-track line is very challenging, such that one train currently has to wait at Nairn for 13 minutes to gain access to the single line for the last leg of its journey to Inverness. Breaking up that long section between the two stations is also essential to permit trains to start out on time from Inverness when an incoming service is running late.
Mr Salmond refused to be drawn on plans for the HML, where an announcement is expected in the summer. Again, this is another "strategic priority project" which has been divided into phases with a full completion date in this case maybe not much before 2025. It is to be hoped that there will be substantial dualling and electrification as called for in Transform Scotland's Inter-city Express campaign which was launched last month and on which we report on page 8. In the meantime, sadly, several of the trains whose journey times between Inverness and the Central Belt were reduced with such fanfare in December, 2012 had their times increased, mostly by odd minutes, just a year later.
The new Forth Crossing road bridge and the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Project have taken much of the recent available capital for infrastructure improvements. It is good at last to see some of the expenditure starting to come north. Aberdeen - Inverness and HML are not just Highland schemes: they are strategic to the whole of Scotland and its economy. Improved frequencies and timings on these routes will benefit the Far North lines too. Capital investment to reduce journey times north of Inverness must follow on.