The good news is that work has now started on the ground. In Forres, for example, the ground on the northern side of the existing loop has been cleared as a first step towards reinstating the straight through lines as an extension from the existing signal box westwards and building the new station at this locus.
In Elgin, there is an hiatus concerning the proposed new relief road which would bridge the line and permit closure of the level crossing at The Wards. This proposed development was refused planning permission by one vote and then resubmitted to the full council for further consideration. The absence, or continued presence, of this level crossing might make quite a difference to the proposed resignalling scheme at Elgin.
Further confusion seems to have been caused at the SNP conference where the start of work was applauded by the adoption of the following motion: "Conference fully supports the rail investment that the Scottish Government is putting into upgrades of infrastructure for the Aberdeen-Elgin-Inverness main line - £177 million between 2014 and 2019 - that will allow for an hourly service end to end and a half hourly service between Elgin and Inverness on weekdays. Conference further supports efforts to ensure that Elgin station and railway yard become a hub for freight - including whisky container traffic - following on from the successful "Lifting the Spirit" pilot project, as well as becoming a depot for overnight passenger train stabling and crewing location in order to save the cost of unnecessary dead mileage from the bigger hubs at Aberdeen and Inverness".
This seems to suggest that the hourly end to end frequency will be in place by 2019. Disappointingly, two parliamentary answers would suggest otherwise:
Question S4W-23239: David Stewart, Highlands and Islands, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 18/11/2014
To ask the Scottish Government whether the cost of introducing hourly train journeys between Inverness and Aberdeen is included in its £177 million rail infrastructure investment plan.
Answered by Derek Mackay (26/11/2014): The £170 million package of phase one improvements to be delivered by 2019, announced on 28 March 2014, includes: redoubling of track between Aberdeen and Inverurie; signalling enhancements; platform extensions at Insch and Elgin; Forres station relocation; and, track improvements and infrastructure to support two new stations at Dalcross and Kintore. This is the first step of the long term aim of the Aberdeen to Inverness Rail Improvements project to facilitate the delivery of an hourly service, journey time reductions of up to 20 minutes and enhanced peak-time services and connectivity at either end of the route by 2030.
Question S4W-23238: David Stewart, Highlands and Islands, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 18/11/2014
To ask the Scottish Government whether it expects hourly train journeys between Inverness and Aberdeen to be introduced by 2019.
Answered by Derek Mackay (26/11/2014): The £170 million package of phase one improvements, announced on 28 March 2014, is the first stage to facilitate the introduction of the hourly service, a half hourly service from Elgin to Inverness and Aberdeen to Inverurie, as well as journey time reductions of up to 20 minutes and extra commuter services by 2030. However as individual infrastructure enhancements are completed, a review of timetables will analyse opportunities for possible service improvements and identify opportunities for offering incremental benefits to passengers. Thankfully, we are on the way at last, but it is still unclear how much double track will eventually be provided and when the hourly service frequency averaging two hours, or less, between Inverness and Aberdeen will be introduced.
Reducing the bottleneck between Aberdeen and Inverurie, introducing modern signalling in the Elgin and Forres areas, and a brand new station with operating improvements at Forres are milestones to which all passengers can eagerly look forward. Railfreight should be assisted also.