Progress on phase 1 of the line enhancement is evident at Forres and also at Elgin where the new footbridge and the lifts are now open. The walkway at the top of the steps is rather flexible and a bit disconcerting until you get used to it. It is presumably composed of a rather thin piece of metal with asphalt on top. The station has been entered for national award.
At Forres, the whole site for the new station, new loop and through lines has been cleared of vegetation and levelled. Heaps of material are now being created for the access to the new road bridge which will replace the level crossing. 400 tonnes of stone are required for the bridge.
Network Rail's PR Officer, Stacey Lynch, has been doing good work in community liaison locally. She has arranged a monthly information event for the public to visit the Forres project office on the first Thursday of every month between 3 and 7pm starting on 1 September. The green BAM compound can be reached by going over the level crossing and following the road round to the left.
At the Aberdeen end, passengers have been consulted on the least disruptive way of closing the railway for short periods while essential double tracking work is carried out throughout 2018. The proposed park and ride car park at Kintore is likely to be used at times of disruption. At Forres there is only likely to be a maximum of three weekend closures.
The Office of Road and Rail's Network Rail Monitor for Scotland 18 October 2015 to 31 March 2016 reveals that the new project estimate is significantly above the cap of £191M set by the ORR. A review is currently being carried out to try and resolve the problem caused by additional sections of current track and embankments having been found to be likely to need renewal.
A new timetable is being worked on for December 2018 which will give extra trains between Inverness and Elgin such that the timetable is approximately hourly during the main part of the day. Some High Speed Trains from Edinburgh to Aberdeen will be extended through to Inverness.
Performance continues, as ever, to be constrained by the inadequacies of the almost totally single track line. Consider the plight of passengers on the 12 noon Aberdeen to Inverness on Tuesday 16 August. The train was 25 minutes late starting because of a train set failure. When it got to Keith Loop it was held for a further 20 minutes to wait for the on-time eastbound service which it should have passed at Elgin.
Passengers for Keith were almost within sight of their station but unable to alight because the other train was in this very long single track section. How frustrating is that? Our arrival in Inverness was 45 minutes late. When trains run late the constricted line is unforgiving and anything but passenger friendly.
There is a pressing need for this weakest link to be provided with a long dynamic loop somewhere along its length, possibly from Orton westwards towards Elgin. There is also a pressing need for double track reinstatement at the Inverness end to break up the second longest single section. Passengers on the 13:38 from Aberdeen have to wait 13 minutes at Nairn to access this section.
British Rail's Aberdeen-Inverness Line Discussion Paper of 1994 concluded "There is considerable scope to upgrade the Aberdeen-Inverness line in terms of capacity, reliability and speed at relatively modest cost provided that the work is linked with signalling renewal. Certainly the upgrading would cost far less than a major improvement of the A96".
The job is not done until the line is reliable with an end to end journey time of less than two hours and sufficient capacity for more freight too. That would really "lift the spirits".