Highland Main Line Update
Details of the "GRIP 3" report setting out a costed option for new and improved infrastructure are still awaited. According to Network Rail's December 2013 update to their Control Period 5 Enhancements Delivery Plan this work was due to be completed by June 2014. It may be that this has been delayed by the ScotRail franchising process, so that it can be based on the capabilities of the replacement rolling stock being specified by the successful bidder.
The objective of this next phase for completion by 2019 is to deliver "more efficient freight operations", and "an hourly passenger service frequency with a full average 10 minute reduction in journey times."
In oral questions in Parliament on 25 September, Liz Smith MSP asked the Deputy First Minister "What action is being taken to reduce rail journey times between Perth and other Scottish cities?" She commented that "analysis of journey times between Inverness and Glasgow has shown that trains are taking ten minutes longer than they were in 2000. Even the so-called express services are three minutes slower." Nicola Sturgeon replied that there will be substantial improvements to the Highland Main Line and commented "We are committed to a rolling programme of electrification which includes routes to Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness".
The "average" ten minute reduction by 2019 obviously depends on the baseline year selected. It looks as though this will be 2014 rather than the 2000 base mentioned by Liz Smith. Even worse, Network Rail is hinting that Transport Scotland could decide on only seven minutes if this avoids "significant infrastructure costs".
All this is a far cry from the visionary progress urged on ministers by Transform Scotland's Inter-City Express Programme published in March as being necessary to ensure that, in the First Minister's words, "Railways must at least compete with roads". The TfS programme calls for doubling and electrification of the Highland Main Line by 2025 at the latest to mirror the target date for dualling the A9.
This is all far removed from the First Minister's Inverness promise in 2008 to achieve an hourly service with the fastest trains taking only 2 hours 45 minutes to Edinburgh by 2012. It is now being claimed that this perceived promise was "a simple misunderstanding in a single newspaper article 6 years ago." However, over 100 people were present and the 2012 target completion date was reported in both the Herald and the Press and Journal on 6 August 2008.
There is a need for more urgency to get this single track railway with Victorian infrastructure brought up to 21st century standards. A standard at least as good as the new Airdrie to Bathgate line is the model to aim for. It does not make sense to see the A9 improved first and able to abstract traffic from rail on to lorries and buses. Government carbon reduction targets, increased congestion in our cities, public safety, finite and precarious oil resources, are just some of the reasons why the more sustainable rail option should be pursued vigorously.
FoFNL members will hope we can get the Thurso to Edinburgh journey time down to well below 6 hours!