Why Long Single-Line Railways To Inverness?
Single-line railways are a real-life game of "consequences" for all concerned, whether passengers, operators or businesses considering using railfreight services. Yet they still provide the only rail links between the cities of Perth and Inverness and between Inverness and Aberdeen. The capacity, time and timetabling constraints caused are huge and these disbenefits, together with the inconvenience to passengers and the costs to both passengers and operators of the delays exacerbated by single-lines, have rarely, if ever, been measured properly.
Does anybody know what are the true costs to the Highland and Scottish economies of the inefficiencies which these "improved Victorian" lines impose?
The Far North and Kyle lines are affected too as they depend on the efficient feeding of passenger and freight connecting services from the south and the east through the Inverness rail hub. Their shared single-line between Inverness and Dingwall desperately needs the formerly double-line section between Clachnaharry and Clunes (Kirkhill) restored for the line to operate efficiently and provide capacity for more trains.
Passing loops on single-line railways are seldom at the optimum places for timetabling, such that no train would ever be delayed by more than, say, five minutes at times of late running. If we consider the 13 mile, 19-minute running time over the single-line section between Inverness and Muir of Ord, it is only possible to operate a maximum of three trains per hour through this section. Owing to the bridges, it would be difficult to do more than redouble the six miles from Clachnaharry to Clunes, but a modern double-line 13 mile railway with a line speed of, say, 90 mph and 5-minute headways could easily enable a half-hourly service to operate between Inverness and Dingwall, along with freight and charters.
The two long single-line sections on the Highland Main Line which effectively determine the frequency of trains are the 13 miles from Dunkeld and Birnam to Pitlochry and the 13 miles from Dalwhinnie to Kingussie. The latter is largely at 1 in 100, downhill for northbound trains but uphill for those travelling south. Being caught at any of these locations on a late running train can further increase lateness by nearly 30 minutes.
Let's look at a case study. Starting with the 07.10 from Glasgow Queen Street due in Inverness at 10.27 on a random day, it is held at Dunkeld for 20 minutes waiting for the 06.50 from Inverness to Edinburgh which has been delayed. The 06.50 is the "business train" from Inverness due in Edinburgh at 10.04. It is given priority for that reason and also because it is going out of the Highland system into the busy Edinburgh/Glasgow/Perth triangle where it could cause delays to many more services and, not least, affect the platform space at Edinburgh Waverley station. The 07.10 is then held at Dalwhinnie to allow the 08.45 Inverness to Glasgow Queen Street to come up the hill on its way out of the Highland system. The fact that the 07.10 got to Dunkeld and Dalwhinnie before the other trains had reached Pitlochry or Kingussie carries no weight. At 09.52, it is now 35 minutes late from Dalwhinnie solely owing to the late running of one southbound service. Arrival in Inverness is at 11.01, 34 minutes late. Passengers on the train will be due a 50% refund of their ticket costs by ScotRail. The Wick and Kyle connections have both departed and ScotRail might be obliged to pay for taxis to these and intermediate destinations.
Some of the crew are diagrammed to work back with the 10.45 Inverness to Edinburgh service which has been held waiting for them. They are asked to forgo their usual break, and Inverness catering staff are on hand to supply new flasks of hot water to replenish the Glasgow operator's trolley. This train gets away at 11.09, 24 minutes late, maybe causing other knock on delays to northbound HML services. When it gets to Perth it is terminated because it has lost its path on the 15¾-mile single-line section between Perth and Ladybank via Newburgh which lacks a passing loop. Passengers have to wait at Perth for the next scheduled services to Edinburgh and Glasgow; their delay increases to an hour. Some two hundred passengers may be due a 100% refund. Most won't claim because they don't know they can.
We are not finished with the 07.10 yet. This train set is scheduled to work the 10.57 service from Inverness to Aberdeen. It follows the 10.45 Edinburgh service out of Inverness at 11.11. It gains some time to Forres but, despite arriving at Forres loop before the westbound service is scheduled to leave Elgin, it is the on-time 10.13 from Aberdeen which is given priority through the single-line section and the 10.57 is delayed by a further 17 minutes. This then means a further out-of-course delay at Huntly to cross with the 12.00 from Aberdeen and the 10.57 becomes 35 minutes late, now invoking the 50% passenger fares compensation consequence. Arrival in Aberdeen around 30 minutes late now means that the 13.38 to Glasgow, which the train from Inverness forms, is itself late and may well depart without any seat reservations or cleaning. This will cause even more late running once it hits the busy Central Belt. Another consequence is that the service back to Inverness at 13.38 will have no trolley as the Inverness operator on the 10.57 is scheduled to go back with the 13.38; this also puts the trolley operator on overtime.
So, we can see how significant delays to passengers can continue for six hours or more and spread like ripples through the system as other trains face consequential delay. In our case, it was caused by the late running of just one train. It can lead to the train operating company or Network Rail (depending on who is judged responsible for the initial causal delay) shouldering many and varied consequential expenses, from fares refunds for significant numbers of passengers, to taxis for a few. On top of this there is the danger of a significant compensation payment being required to be made to other passenger and freight operators whose trains have been delayed, or to Network Rail. This is usually expressed based on a figure for the total number of "delay minutes" that have been suffered by all the trains affected. Has anybody ever calculated the economic cost of the total number of delay minutes suffered by all the passengers affected by any one incident? It might be difficult to follow such research through with everyone concerned including the freight operators who might incur penalties for late delivery. What I would be interested to know is whether this sum would be higher than, or of an order of magnitude lower than, the potential "fine" for running late trains? This could then lead to a change in attitude to, and appraisal techniques for, funding the infrastructure costs needed to eradicate single-lines on important inter-city routes and at difficult pinch points on other lines.
The STAG (Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance) and Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) are the tools at the heart of deciding whether a potential rail scheme is considered to be "value for money" and thus whether it is to be given funding to proceed. How much does the so-called "robustness" of the timetable count for in these analyses? How much weight is credited to avoidable costs which improved infrastructure would reduce, or even eliminate? How much weight is given to reducing passenger inconvenience? How much weight is given to a line's ability to compete with its road equivalent on journey time, cost or service level? How much does the potential competitiveness of a line score? How much weight is given to external economic and social benefits of improved access to communities along the line?
The Far North Line has a poor reputation on journey times which are generally much slower than by the roads that have been much improved by capital-intensive bridges and short cuts. Incredibly, rail has suffered an end to end journey time increase of 25 minutes in recent years. A policy of reducing fares by use of the Highland Railcard has been a wise and indispensable move to help to offset this partially. The signalling on the Inverness to Aberdeen route is, I believe, the last in Britain to use overhead telephone wires and yet rail is still quicker (just) than the road journey. Both lines have poor punctuality records because of too frequent delays caused by long (some very long) single-line sections of up to 35 minutes' duration. How many passengers are being deterred by these effects?
On our own line we know that, if the 06.20 from Wick to Inverness reaches Dingwall more than about ten minutes late, it is likely to be held at Muir of Ord for up to fifty minutes to let the trains to Wick and Kyle come out from Inverness. Otherwise the whole FNL and Kyle timetable will run late most of the rest of the day, leading to one or more trains missing out Thurso to pick up time. The consequence is that the 06.20 arrives just over an hour late in Inverness at 11.40 (after a 5 hour, 20 minute journey) and the connections have long gone. On one occasion in mid-December the cause was a 14-minute delay before Helmsdale owing to a collision with a stag. Does the STAG appraisal system factor in the issues which cause regular timetable perturbations? I believe not. Maybe it should.
The other difficulty in getting the Highland single-line railways brought up to 21st century standards is that all the analytical models give weight to the levels of traffic, whether passenger or freight. Highland lines can never hope to compete for infrastructure improvement money on that basis. New projects in the Central Belt can always leap up the pending ladder. We have seen the new Forth Crossing and the proposed Edinburgh to Glasgow high speed line to name just two.
It has to be remembered that the Scottish railways are a total system and that the economy (and not least the prioritised tourism, oil and gas and renewables industries) of the more peripheral areas is important to Scotland plc. The Highland railways are very popular with foreign tourists on BritRail passes but it is difficult to allocate the appropriate revenue to these lines. Highland roads were improved to double-track for many decades after World War Two by a dedicated fund, the Crofting Counties Roads Scheme. In 2004, I suggested to the Scottish Government that a similar Highland Counties Rail Track Scheme should be set up to improve incrementally the lines with extra loops and double-line sections. Sadly this has not happened to date. The Scottish Cities Initiative is looking at improving transport links between the seven cities of Scotland. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Scottish Council Development and Industry, CBI Scotland, the Institute of Directors and Transform Scotland all want to see the two main Highland rail routes significantly improved for the sake of the economy and the environment. Government projections on this have lengthened considerably with an earliest tentative date of 2030 now being suggested, and nothing at all for the Far North Line.
Meanwhile, we are all living with the consequences of out-dated and inadequate infrastructure. I have attempted to show that insufficient weight is being given to the consequences caused by this lack of past investment when infrastructure planning is being considered for these lines and that the deleterious economic, social and environmental consequences for both the Highland and Scottish economies are little understood or considered.
Developing modern railways to serve the Highlands must not be left to a seeming game of chance. The consequences of inaction are too costly.