I have studied this carefully where it refers to, or impinges on, the Far North Line (FNL) and its principal connection to the Central Belt - the Highland Main Line (HML), and cursorily elsewhere. It is a solid piece of work. However a serious limitation is that it relies exclusively on Abellio's figures (used in its successful franchise bid) for Rural Market forecasts (including the FNL) (p137). It is impossible to know how robust these figures are, or will turn out to be over the period to the end of Control Period 10 (CP10) in 2044. Indeed it is hard to see how they can be tested as time goes on. This seems an inherent weakness, given that a great deal of detailed analytical work is based on these untested, and therefore unreliable, foundations.
On p19 strategic objectives are set out. They are "Enabling economic growth" (with four sub-headings); "Reducing carbon and the transport sector's impact of the environment" (with two sub-headings); "Improving the quality of life for communities and individuals" (with five sub-headings); "Improving affordability and value for money for funders and customers" (with two sub-headings). While the sub-headings include reference to more capacity, better connectivity, reducing risk - all worthy - there is no mention anywhere of improved reliability. This is worrying, as it ignores the constant finding from all Transport Focus' (and its predecessors') research that the top requirement, by a long way, of passengers is that the timetable is delivered as promised: that trains arrive when they are due and reach their destination on time. That this is ignored by the infrastructure provider's 25 Year Plan is to be regretted.
The SRS turns to the FNL on p53. It says "The rail network north of Inverness serves a rural market ... a commuter market into Inverness and a freight market to Georgemas. It provides 'lifeline' services to rural communities, consequently connectivity and resilience are key (emphasis added). ... Current infrastructure, and associated capacity, could not facilitate [the 2043 Conditional Outputs] and a substantial upgrade of track and signalling infrastructure would be required (emphasis added)." While the time during which these changes might be made extends to 2044 (the SRS seems to use 2043 and the end of CP10 in 2044 equally) it is at least worth noting that NR acknowledges that "substantial" work needs to be done on the FNL.
Four "interventions" (a curious word to use in the context of what in lay terms are improvements) are set out.
In the justification for these we find the encouraging words "These interventions could also improve the resilience and performance of the network". The indicative cost is shown (p83) to be £30m to £75m. It notes that Bunchrew Level Crossing "is due for renewal during CP6" (2019 to 2024), and that this "could align with introducing conventional signalling and higher linespeeds". Given the statement (on p07) that a strategic objective is to "[take] advantage of planned renewals to ensure that the enhancements that are required deliver maximum value for money" it seems likely that this signalling enhancement would tick enough boxes to be planned firmly into CP6. Putting a loop - or even a few kilometres of track - in the Lentran area will be less expensive (given that points and signalling will be required) if this work is done at the same time. Despite this the signalling is not programmed until CP7 (p194), yet the extra track between Dingwall and Invergordon (where there would seem to be no other "planned renewals") is in CP6 (p194). While any doubling is to be welcomed, this does seem to be the wrong way round.
Once the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Plan (EGIP) is completed in a few years (when the lines to Stirling, Alloa and Dunblane are electrified) it is believed to be Transport Scotland's policy to continue electrification in other parts of Scotland. The original policy (to electrify 100 single-track kilometres (stk) a year for the foreseeable future) appears to have been scaled back to a vaguer intention to do more electrification, but without the specific annual stk target. The SRS suggests (various pages) that electrification to Aberdeen via Perth and Dundee will happen before electrification from Perth to Inverness, and that electrification of the East Coast Main Line from Edinburgh through Fife to Dundee will happen even later. This is not the place to argue for a different set of priorities, but even the earliest of these is not earmarked for completion until CP8 (by 2034). It would seem that one of three things will happen. Either the refurbished High Speed Trains (HSTs) which will be introduced on the Inter-City routes from 2018/9 will run until 2034, when they will be around 60 years old, or different diesel stock will replace them, or electrification will be carried out more quickly. Furthermore the document does not appear to see things from the Train Operator's point of view. Once the Aberdeen and Inverness routes from the Central Belt are electrified it will be a train diagrammer's nightmare if the closing part of the Inter-City network (Inverness - Aberdeen) remains diesel-hauled. Yet on p86 the SRS pours cold water on the idea of electrifying this vital connection until after 2043. While HSTs provide the Inter-City services, as they will do in a few years, diagrams will be constructed for maximum use of the stock, and units will traverse all parts of the network as shown on p97. The underlying Conditional Outputs governing the projected requirements by 2043 are set out in the Appendix, and those concerning the FNL are on p147. There are two: RC01 (Inverness - Wick/Thurso: 1 opportunity to travel every other hour) and RC2 (Inverness - Invergordon: 1 to 2 opportunities to travel per hour). These are described as "origin to destination" so it is clear that trains in the other direction would necessarily occur at the same frequency. Assuming the day to run from 07:00 until (last departure) 19:00 this means 6 or 7 Caithness trains a day each way - a significant increase which would be utterly impossible without redoubling far beyond that set out in SRS. A loop at Kinbrace in what is currently the longest stretch of single track on the entire GB network would be a bare minimum, but even this is nowhere mentioned. It is clear that RC1 and the SRS are completely incompatible, at least within the 2043 timescale: which will give way? Who sets RC1 - Scottish Ministers (ie Transport Scotland (TS)) or Network Rail?
Much work has gone into the SRS, and Scottish Ministers, advised by TS, will decide which enhancements they wish to see - and pay for - in CP6. They will issue their High Level Output Specification (HLOS) in June 2017 (p08). Passengers have therefore only a few months in which to influence the decision. The ball is now in the politicians' court, and writing to your MSPs - all 8 of them - may show that you care.
Do it now!