We are still waiting... Waiting for details of the infrastructure improvements promised to permit an hourly frequency and journey time improvements averaging ten minutes by 2019.
A parliamentary answer to David Stewart MSP on 7 January has admitted that the December 2012 improvements achieved only a one minute average reduction for weekday southbound trains from Inverness to both Edinburgh and Glasgow and improvements of seven and five minutes respectively northbound.
It is disappointing that all these average reductions have actually even been reversed by one minute since the December 2012 timetable. The problem is one of capacity on a predominantly single track "main" line with insufficient passing loops for the number of trains. Two extra services were added in each direction in December 2012.
A further two services each way need to be added to achieve the 2019 hourly frequency target, so it is obvious that significant doubling of track and provision of extra loops is required between Perth and Inverness (and at least one loop between Perth and Ladybank on the current circuitous route to Edinburgh). Double tracking is the real answer as it makes it so much easier to operate services when there are no delays caused by waiting for another train to vacate the single line section ahead.
Some indications of what is being considered can be gleaned from Network Rail's recently published draft "Scotland Route Study" open for public consultation until 10 March. This recommends the following in CP6 (2019-2024)
Not preferred options include
It seems that current thought is to devise a timetable where the hourly passenger services would cross each other at Pitlochry and Aviemore. An Aviemore loop extension and signalling improvement to allow simultaneous arrivals is being considered for CP5.
Electrification from Dunblane to Perth and from Perth to Dundee is pencilled in for CP6 and onwards to Aberdeen in CP8 (2029-2034). Electrification from Perth to Inverness is not suggested for progression until CP10 (2039-2044)! This is a huge disappointment when we have been lobbying to have the wires installed to Inverness first on account of the significantly greater journey time reductions which would be achieved on our mountainous route. The decision on timing and priority is for the Scottish government, not for Network Rail. We need to redouble our political lobbying.
Using more powerful rolling stock is another way to speed up the trains. Electric trains would be streaks ahead, but more powerful diesels are a stop gap. The currently used class 170s are poor on the hills. It is rare to climb to Slochd from either side or northbound on Druimuachdar at more than 60 mph. Abellio's plans to use HSTs in shortened five or four car formations should see some useful time savings. Industry problems have so far prevented the track measuring train from doing any timing calculations over the line nor, as far as we are aware, has a short HST been tried out. It is unlikely that the HSTs will last until 2044 when they would be nearly 70 years old if electrification is delayed that long!
The third way to speed up trains between Inverness and Glasgow/Edinburgh is to remove the current impediments south of Perth. Enhancements of central belt services some years ago demoted the Inverness expresses to the secondary route from Stirling to Glasgow via Cumbernauld and Springburn increasing running time by over 10 minutes. A similar time penalty is imposed on Edinburgh trains which now follow a local stopping train in from Kirkcaldy. Using all three of these remedies could potentially reduce average journey times by far more than ten minutes provided proper dovetailing with the new EGIP timetable is achieved. Hopefully this will bring to an end Inverness expresses stopping at the likes of Bridge of Allan, nor would it be helpful (on balance) to insert an extra stop at the new Edinburgh Gateway station.
Using the same 55 minute timetable between Glasgow Queen Street and Perth as some Aberdeen expresses enjoy, and the best 120 minute schedule between Perth and Inverness could give a 3 hour journey time now. Unfortunately the long stretches of single track north of Perth make it difficult to operate such a schedule. Maximum early dualling is the most pressing need of all. No prizes will be gained by trying to continue to operate the HML with too little double track.
There was good news on Monday 11 January that the HML had reopened after the flooding and washouts at Inchmagranachan and Dalguise north of Dunkeld. Earlier in the winter there had been closures due to flooding at Kingussie and nearby. Both these areas are well known trouble spots and present major challenges to the track men and engineers. Rebuilding an embankment through flooded fields or raising the height of the track over a bridge which is next to a level crossing and a station are not straightforward tasks. Some solutions will have to be devised to make the line more resilient and also to provide more capacity on the only possible diversion, the single track line via Elgin and Aberdeen. This is particularly important to keep hold of the freight contracts.
EGIP enhancements preparing the tunnel at Queen Street High Level for electrification mean that it will be closed from 20 March until 8 August. Inverness trains will be diverted to and from Glasgow Central adding between 15 and 30 minutes on to journey times, with the trains leaving Glasgow Central that much earlier. Although this will cause inconvenience, the improvements being made will be good news for passengers including those from and to the HML. Other encouraging news is that passenger numbers have again increased on the line and that the Findhorn Viaduct at Tomatin is to be overhauled and be painted green instead of black. It should look splendid in green. Let us hope that this is the first of many green lights for substantial improvements on the HML.