Question: What is slower than a tortoise?
Answer: Nothing that we know of - except, perhaps, the Highland Main Line upgrade?
The Office of Road and Rail, in its Network Rail Monitor Scotland, 18 October 2015 until 31 March 2016 comments "We continue to have concerns regarding the ability of the project to complete within the Control Period  as development work remains slow. We expect...assurance that the regulated milestone of March 2019 can still be achieved".
Passengers and freight operators are also very seriously concerned about this, having heard so many promised dates for publication of the GRIP 3 "option selection" report. The latest suggestion on the grapevine of December 2016 has now replaced April 2016. Some previous ministerial promises in response to the questions below:
PQ S4W-14359 from Murdo Fraser on 25 April 2013:
"Network Rail is expected to deliver a report on proposals for phase 2 by summer 2013".
PQ S4W-15454 from David Stewart on 12 June 2013:
"Network Rail is expected to deliver a report on the options for phase 2 later this year".
PQ S4W-16838 from John Finnie on 18 September 2013:
"Network Rail...is expected to deliver a pre-feasibility report on options later this year."
PQ S4W-21239 from Mary Scanlon on 2 June 2014:
"Network Rail are currently working on timetable development for phase 2 of the Highland Main Line improvements project which will help to determine the infrastructure improvements necessary...They are expected to deliver the GRIP 3 Option Selection Report by summer 2014".
It is a very complicated project, made more so in particular by having to cope with an already busy predominantly single track line, and having to find fast paths south of Perth to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The latter has been made easier in a way as the whole timetable south of Perth is being recast for December 2018 to suit the new electric services which will come as far north as Dunblane. I understand it should be possible to incorporate much faster limited stop Highland services south of Perth into this. The change of franchise, and choice of future rolling stock by the new franchisee, has had to be incorporated and this has slowed down the process. It is almost two years since these new parameters were announced. Why has it taken so, so long?
The answer will be that it has to be got right. That is self evident. Even so, the lengthy delay is in danger of storing up more problems for the future. Public finances continue to get tighter, although there is a predilection towards infrastructure projects. Worryingly, phase 2 appears to include very little new track doubling thus leaving this all to phase 3.
The ORR allocation of money to HML phase 2 for CP5 (2014-2019) was provisional because NR had not yet decided the options. Incredibly we are now half way through CP5 and we still don't know! From memory, I think some £250M was suggested. It looks as though ScotRail Alliance is talking now of only £121M, or half the sum allowed. This is not something to celebrate especially if the meaningful capacity and speed improvements are not completed before the A9T dualling (scheduled for 2025) or, even worse, the railway improvements and 2 hour 45 minute journey times slip in to CP7.
Has the vision been lost? Network Rail's Scotland Route Study (SRS), published in July, is suggesting electrification of the HML, not by the Government aspiration of 2030, but slipping back to CP10 (2039-2044)! Surely the forthcoming HSTs cannot go on until then as 65 year old pensioners? Bimodes have yet to prove themselves on the Highland gradients, so are we talking of a new diesel train for Inverness and Aberdeen?
Talking of vision, there still remains Transform Scotland's idea to build a direct line from Edinburgh to Perth which would take 30 minutes off the journey time to Perth and thus to Inverness also. That would be a big step in making rail more competitive with road journeys. The first stage from Inverkeithing to Halbeath is in the SRS. The full route won't come in time but could be useful to Virgin Trains East Coast if their IEP bimodes are going to be around ten minutes slower on the hills than the existing HSTs. Gauging work for the IEPs has now started along the line. The single track south of Perth on the current circuitous route through Newburgh to Edinburgh is a severe handicap to trains such as the 10:45 Inverness to Edinburgh. When this runs more than 20 minutes late it tends to be terminated at Perth because there is no passing loop between there and Ladybank. Passengers are put on the next service which makes them an hour late. This train is popular with passengers travelling south of the border and their connections at Edinburgh are lost. The idea of reviving the former Clansman service which formerly occupied that Inverness to Perth path and ran down the West Coast Main Line to Birmingham and beyond should be considered.
The lesson that single track lines are a nightmare to operate is still not being learned. The new Borders Railway has provided plenty of evidence of that in its first year. Please will Transport Scotland reflect and listen to the blunt and sensible message from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce that single track main lines between Scotland's cities are "unacceptable" in the 21st century? The Scottish economy and the Highlands deserve the fully modernised railway promised in the 2008 strategy.