The December 2014 timetable is the first major timetable change north of Inverness since 2008. Performance has been poor throughout the second half of 2014 for a number of reasons. The timetable was incapable of recovering from small delays and trains often ran late, missing connections at Inverness. Coupled with poor time keeping were other operational and infrastructure issues that made the train service, at times, very unreliable with much negative comment reported in the local press and on social media.
This review focusses on the timetable change alone and not on the other operational issues that are still to be resolved.
The basic timetable structure of three trains per day in each direction between Inverness, Kyle of Lochalsh and Wick is well established although has been modified over the years. The present timetable structure dates back to June 2005 which was a significant change adopting new class 158 Sectional Running Times (SRTs) - the timetable that had been in operation since May 2000 was, by the summer of 2004, undeliverable.
Prior to the introduction of class 158 DMUs in May 2000, an experimental commuter service was introduced from Dingwall to Inverness in March 1998. At the September 2000 timetable change, this train was extended to start back from Tain, departing at 07:20 with a 55 minute journey time to Inverness (the same train today departs 19 mins earlier and has a journey time of 72 mins, with two additional stops).
Schedules were revised slightly at the May 2001 timetable change to allow for the additional time required to call at Beauly - this station opened in April 2002.
In December 2005 the timetable was overlaid with an additional 10 services each weekday operating between Inverness, Invergordon, Tain and Ardgay, with the first train from Tain extended to start back from Lairg. These services were known as 'Invernet', improving frequencies and journey opportunities.
At the December 2006 timetable change an additional mid-morning service was introduced from Wick to Inverness, operating a 'limited-stop' service with a headline journey time of 4 hrs.
December 2008 was, however, the main timetable change introducing a new fourth train between Inverness and Wick, an additional early morning commuter service from Ardgay and additional late evening services on Fridays and Saturdays as well as an enhanced Sunday service. The timetable also included an allowance for Conon Bridge station which opened in February 2013 with most trains calling.
The new timetable aims to deliver a more reliable service. All schedules have been revised with new SRTs although the timetable broadly has the same structure as introduced in December 2008 - the location of train crew and passing loops very much defines the train service north and west of Inverness.
The last train from Inverness to Wick now leaves Inverness 34 mins later at 18:28. Previously this operated as a portion with the 17:54 Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh service but these now operate separately. This provides three evening peak departures from Inverness to Dingwall at 17:12, 17:54 and at 18:28 which is a welcome improvement. It also provides a later connection from Edinburgh and Glasgow into the last train to Wick and Thurso - passengers can depart Edinburgh an hour later at 14:35 and Glasgow Queen Street at 15:07 (previously 13:41) with the overall journey time from Edinburgh to Wick reduced by 20 mins and from Glasgow by 46 mins. Retiming the last train to Wick later, however, was required for operational rather than commercial reasons. The inward train crew now arrive at Inverness at 17:01 (previously 16:48) and need a total turnaround time of 60 mins for operational duties and their allocated break from duty. One major delay prior to the December 2014 timetable was the late departure of the 17:54 departure from Inverness to Kyle of Lochlash and Wick as it had to wait for the train crew who had arrived late from Wick.
Another improvement is the removal of Scotscalder, Altnabreac, Kinbrace, Kildonan, Invershin and Culrain calls in the first train from Wick - these calls being transferred to the second Wick departure which now calls at all stations to Inverness, including Conon Bridge and Beauly which is a welcome addition.
The 16:00 from Wick no longer calls at Fearn, Alness, Conon Bridge and Beauly. Departing Wick at the same time in the new timetable, this train gets later throughout the journey south and crosses the 18:28 Inverness to Wick service at Invergordon. Missing out Alness, Conon Bridge and Beauly is required to get this train to Inverness at 20:10 to connect into the 20:15 to Glasgow Queen Street. This means that passengers from Fearn and, more importantly, Alness no longer have a connection into the 20:15 to Glasgow Queen Street nor the Caledonian Sleeper. The 16:00 from Wick must call again at Alness - there is ½ minute pathing time in the schedule between Invergordon and Dingwall and 1 minute between Dingwall and Muir of Ord which will absorb the time required to call at Alness. Passengers from Conon Bridge and Beauly can use the 17:13 from Kyle of Lochalsh which arrives at Inverness at 20:00.
The 18:28 Inverness to Wick has a note in the timetable advising that "This train may run approximately 15 mins later on certain days between Ardgay and Wick due to the operation of a freight train in the Lairg area." This is something that has not been used in any timetable before. The days in question are Wednesdays and Fridays and the 18:28 actually is retimed 17 mins later throughout after Ardgay, although this is not reflected in the public timetable (for example when making a booking online). Effectively this means that journey time from Inverness to Wick is 4 hrs 40 mins, something that is quite unacceptable. A passenger train is not allowed to cross an Up freight train at Lairg but this should be reviewed urgently, particularly if the freight train is short enough not to foul the level crossing.
The 14:37 Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness now departs 51 mins earlier at 13:46. This is 1 hr 38 mins after the second Kyle of Lochalsh departure of the day at 12:08 and these trains are probably too close together to provide a useful mid-afternoon service. However, this is an operational change, as one of the main problems has been congestion between Dingwall and Inverness. When, in the previous timetable, the 12:35 from Wick was running late this impacted directly on the 14:37 from Kyle of Lochalsh. These trains were timed 19 mins apart at Dingwall. The 14:37 from Kyle of Lochalsh was scheduled to arrive at Inverness at 17:09 - a delay here meant that the 17:13 to Ardgay couldn't depart until the Kyle of Lochalsh train had arrived.
The average journey time between Inverness and Wick has increased by 6 mins to 4 hrs 20 mins (based on the Monday to Saturday timetable - it having been 4 hrs 14 mins since December 2008). The slowest train of the day (07:02 Inverness to Wick) has a journey time of 4 hrs 28 mins. This train does, however, cross four southbound trains (at Muir of Ord, Dingwall, Lairg and Helmsdale) and has a crew change at Lairg. The 12:34 Wick to Inverness is 14 mins slower than previously with a journey time of 4 hrs 27 mins - 4 mins is required as pathing time following the 15:50 Invergordon to Inverness. The 08:02 from Wick now calls at all stations to Inverness. The previous journey time of 4 hrs 3 mins is increased to 4 hrs 21 mins.
Between Inverness and Tain the average journey time is now 5 mins longer than it was in December 2008. Presentation of trains on this busy section between Inverness and Dingwall is key to delivering a reliable timetable, so it is no surprise that the journey time has been adjusted to allow for this, particularly with trains operating at slower speeds at level crossings.
Additional time has been included in the schedules at both Georgemas Junction and at Thurso. The previous 3 mins has been increased to 4 mins to allow for a reversal and for token exchange (and to operate the points at Georgemas Junction).
The 13:02 Inverness to Tain is retimed to depart Inverness 13 mins later and terminates at Invergordon with the 14:12 from Tain starting from Invergordon at 14:11.
The Sunday service from Wick departs 7 mins later at 11:58 and so there is an overall reduced journey time for passengers travelling to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
It is very much hoped that Abellio will reintroduce the published ScotRail all-lines timetable at some point soon.