1 Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL), established in 1994, has over 150 members, including several Community Councils, and supports the railway line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. This line is dependent on, and integrated with, feeder rail services from Perth and Aberdeen to Inverness and (in the absence of other rail user groups) FoFNL does considerable work in support of these lines also.
2 We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Scotland Route Study (SRS); we hope our Response will help the decision-makers in Transport Scotland (TS) to advise Scottish Ministers that relatively small-scale enhancements in rural areas should not be overlooked merely because the populations served are small and dispersed.
3 We have commented before, most recently in our Response to the Scotland Route Utilisation Study a few years ago, that the STAG process seems to us to have an inbuilt bias against small rural schemes. We said then that
"It is widely believed that the STAG process, although useful, contains within it an insidious weighting against rural schemes where the number of passengers benefiting is relatively low. This is not the place to argue for a re-evaluation of the underlying mechanism of STAG - although such a thing would be entirely proper after over a decade of use - but there is a danger because of it that small schemes continually fail to reach even the preliminary stage of proper evaluation."
4 We are not aware that such an appraisal has taken place: surely it is entirely proper that systemic processes which are routinely used to inform policy decisions are revisited periodically. We believe that a revision is overdue, and should be carried out swiftly. Our belief is reinforced by the recent news that passenger numbers on the Borders Line greatly exceed those predicted by the use of a formula. The formula clearly gave the wrong answers about passenger numbers, as was the case with other re-openings in Scotland in the last decade.
5 We are greatly encouraged that a scheme for which FoFNL has been pressing for many years has at last appeared in the SRS (p74). This is what we have called the Lentran Loop. Whether it is physically at Lentran is not important: what is important is that the scheme to provide an "additional loop [between Inverness and Dingwall] to provide greater flexibility to pass trains" is at last in Network Rail's list of possible things to do.
6 The argument in favour of having a section of double track somewhere between the Clachnaharry Swing Bridge and Beauly Station has been made many times - the principal reason being one of ameliorating late-running, and preventing late running early in the day from affecting all subsequent services (either by delay or even cancellation). A loop would also allow the possibility of more paths. There is latent demand for tourist trains and an increase in freight traffic is in prospect as timber extraction increases. It is disappointing that a possible loop at Kinbrace (in a 31-minute stretch of single track) is not mentioned. We understand that attempts to develop timber extraction at Kinbrace are ongoing, requiring the construction of a siding: the opportunity to turn this into a loop should not pass unexamined (or even unbuilt).
7 The Prioritisation Assessment attached to this (and other projects on the FNL) is "funder aspiration". We would strongly add to this "user aspiration", and we shall devote as much energy as possible to ensuring that the Lentran Loop is delivered during Control Period 6 (CP6) between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2024.
8 It is wise at this point to comment on the other schemes (p74) for Far North Enhancement. We endorse the plan to construct a chord at Georgemas Junction allowing trains from Inverness to reach Thurso without reversing.
9 We applaud the plan to improve signalling between Inverness and Dingwall. We are aware that there is an aspiration to install ERTMS on the Highland Main Line, and a suggestion has been made that extending this as far as Dingwall (at marginal extra cost) would seem sensible. However ERTMS is still a long way off, and a more immediate solution to the delays involved in using RETB, certainly as far as Dingwall where the Kyle Line diverges, would seem overdue. Many have sneered at the "lights on sticks" approach to signalling, but despite this modern colour-light signalling still forms the basis of the vast majority of signalling application on the network. We call for the installation of appropriate colour-light signalling to be carried out in CP6, certainly as far as Dingwall, and preferably as far north as possible (Tain would seem a reasonable target).
10 Money being not an infinitely available resource we would assist TS in prioritising the enhancements set out (to support outputs suggested by 2043). We believe they should be:
11 The "operational acceptance improvements" (on p72, to which we make further reference below) to allow swifter passage of trains at passing points on the Highland Main Line (HML) should also be the norm at passing points on the FNL and elsewhere where signalling is by RETB.
12 We now turn to the wider picture beyond Inverness. Good, reliable connections to and from the FNL at Inverness are vital - both to Aberdeen and along the HML to Perth and beyond. A great deal of money is being spent on upgrading the A9 and A96 and unless rail is to be the poor relation - for freight as well as for passengers - spending will also be necessary on lines east and south of Inverness.
13 First, the Inverness - Aberdeen corridor (A2I). Page 116 presents marketing study findings which present the second highest growth predictions in the whole of Scotland - 261% by the end of CP7 and over 400% by 2043. Yet there is little by way of concrete proposals to facilitate this. No scheme between Inverurie and Inverness is mentioned in Appendix 6, although the dynamic loop at Dalcross in mentioned on p73. It is to be hoped that all the work planned in CP5 on A2I is indeed completed by 2019. As A2I will by then be part of the Inter-City Scottish network operated by refurbished Class 43 High-Speed Trains (HSTs) it seems strange that a continuing programme of minor enhancements (loops, linespeed improvements) is not fleshed out in Appendix 6 to enable this much-improved rolling stock to deliver a better, and more reliable passenger experience. The Train Operator will doubtless diagram HSTs to deliver services continuing south from Aberdeen and Inverness, and delays brought about on the A2I section by extensive single-track working will tend to export delays much further south, and vice versa. Detailed work should be planned in CP6 to build on the welcome, if overdue, work being carried out in CP5.
14 Much work has been detailed for CP5, but the "missing links" between these are absent from plans for CP6: surely this is wrong. While smaller-scale infill enhancements may not confer individual benefits the whole point of doing infill work is to unlock the full potential (in linespeeds, or robustness of delivery) of the work planned for CP5. As CP6 is starting the HSTs will be running between Inverness and Aberdeen. Their potential benefits for passengers will be severely limited if the infrastructure still has extended single-track working. The aim should be to have the whole of A2I doubled by the end of CP6.
15 The Highland Main Line from Inverness to Perth, and thence to Glasgow and Edinburgh, is detailed on page 72. Most of the work planned is south of Perth - we applaud the plans to improve the situation at Ladybank, and between there and Hilton Junction. In many instances a late-running train from Inverness to Edinburgh is terminated at Perth because of the long single line. Trains to the nation's capital should not be subject to this indignity. We also support the proposed Greenhill Junction flyover and proposals to speed up the approaches to Perth Station from both north and south. The "operational acceptance improvements" to allow swifter passage of trains at passing points on the HML are to be welcomed as an interim measure prior to double tracking.
16 The benefit of HSTs will be limited if long single-track sections remain. As with the doubling of the parallel A9 the entire HML from Perth to Inverness should be doubled, with major work starting during the final year of CP5. The scale is greater than that of doubling A2I, and the terrain is often much harder, so our realistic target would be to see substantial work done during CP6 and CP7 with completion by say 2026.
17 The rolling policy of electrification once the wider EGIP scheme has been delivered is not mentioned in detail. Routes from Perth to Inverness and to Dundee and Aberdeen, as well as the part of the ECML south of Dundee, are clearly among the next routes to be considered. We believe that greater speed (and thus shorter journey times) are to be had from electrifying the HML than from the ECML north of the Forth Bridge (where the curvature of the line limits the speeds achievable). Electric haulage over Drumochter and Slochd could shave a considerable amount off the anticipated HST timings. We are disappointed that there is no mention of detailed post-EGIP electrification in this document.
3.11. The Institute is very concerned by the fact that there appears to be no intention to increase capacity on the Highland Main Line north of Perth, other than limited investment in faster entry/exit from passing loops, welcome as this is. With the proposed dualling of the A9 this is short-sighted indeed - for freight, electrification is unlikely to provide the answer and more paths, plus W10/12 gauge clearance, are the urgent priorities. This also applies to the Perth - Aberdeen route, where capacity and gauge enhancement to W10/12 are key requirements. It is helpful that capacity and gauge enhancement are consistent with electrification, which offers recognised benefits for passenger services.
3.12. In the Inverness area, the Institute supports the provision of loops or the installation of double tracking at Dalcross, where there is also an opportunity to reinstate a railfreight connection into the Norbord mill at this location, which should be evaluated as a priority project. This plant, which previously incorporated a railway siding, is one of the biggest road freight generators in the Highlands and holds considerable potential for rail, with both inbound logs and outbound finished product(s). This would support the operation and utilisation of the intermodal railfreight terminal at Inverness, and would allow for the development of traffic currently handled as 'return load' material by freight trains operating to/from Inverness with FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) traffic. A similar comment applies to the sister plant at Plean/Cowie near Stirling, where a rail connection is regarded as an important objective.