A Railnews headline in March 1988 read "Super Sprinter triumphs on debut in Scotland"
A new class 156 diesel multiple unit reached ultima thule in Wick on 26 January. British Rail Manager, Chris Leah, promised "Inverness to Aberdeen journeys will be cut by around 20 minutes to two hours" by this new train.
Twenty eight years later the fastest journey takes 2 hours 9 minutes but several take more than 2 hours 20 minutes. Services are now more frequent but line capacity has not been increased and much of the problem is due to the lack of double track and the overlong lengths of single track between passing loops. A good start has now been made with plans to redouble the track between Aberdeen Hutcheon Street and Inverurie for which contractors have been appointed. A recent lecture highlighted the many problems which have to be overcome because of how the line was singled in the 1960s and 1970s. Some bridges have been redecked as single track width only, track has been slewed to the centre, and there is new cabling along some of the old track bed.
Elgin is getting a new footbridge with lifts and a new bay platform facing Inverness, and Forres will have a new station on a mile long straight loop designed for simultaneous arrivals from both directions. Planning applications are imminent including for the new road bridge to replace the level crossing. Inverness Airport (Dalcross) new station planning application is also imminent. Initially this will have a single platform and no crossing loop. Trains will take three minutes longer between Inverness and Nairn. This will be partially offset by the three minutes saved by the improvements at Forres but will have an unfortunate effect at times of late running when outgoing trains may have to wait the extra three minutes to start their journey from Inverness and that extra late start will be carried forwards throughout the journey to Aberdeen.
Clearly this is not a good outcome for passengers. Reinstatement of the double track from Inverness to Woodend (Dalcross) or at least a loop at the new station should be provided from opening day. Passenger numbers continue to increase at intermediate stations and a huge 400% potential increase by 2043 with the promised clockface hourly frequency is vividly shown in Network Rail's marketing study.
British Rail asked for the hourly service capacity and journey time of under two hours end to end in 1994. This, and increased freight capacity, for the wood and whisky industries in particular is long overdue. Phase 2 should be accelerated so that it is all done and the line fully modernised by 2024.