GROUP TO WRITE TO TRANSPORT MINISTER
By Gordon Calder
Scottish Government ministers are to be pressed on the need for a key improvement to the Caithness/Inverness rail line.
Members of Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL) are to write to Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf and infrastructure minister Fergus Ewing calling for the urgent need to install a loop on the rail track at Lentran just outside Inverness to improve journey times and to prevent train delays.
FoFNL convener Mike Lunan said: "It is vitally important we persuade ministers over the next three to four months to get this project on Network Rail's spending plan for 2019-2024."
"If it is not, then another five years will pass before the opportunity comes again. It is on the Network Rail shopping list but we have to try and make sure it is on the short list."
He said the cost of the project - estimated to be several million pounds - pales into insignificance compared to the £400 million cost of electrifying the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Mr Lunan said the service on the far north line is awful and claimed people are fed up "being at the tail of the donkey" and want something done about it. He thinks there is an extremely good chance to get the Lentran loop under Way by April 2019 but feels pressure must be applied on Scottish Government ministers who will make the decision.
Said Mr Lunan: "Network Rail's spending plan for years 2019 to 2024 is in preparation. As part of this process Scottish ministers, advised by Transport Scotland, will set out which projects they are willing to finance over that period. Network Rail, in its Scotland Route Study, last year identified many projects, and ministers will have to winnow these to produce an affordable list."
Mr Lunan believes the Lentran Loop will lead to badly needed improvements in the service on the far north line.
He said: "The timekeeping has been dire for many months. Only around 50 per cent of trains arrived within five minutes of their timetabled arrival time in the week beginning June 6."
"Several were over an hour late and at least 14 failed to call at Thurso. Having a few miles of double track here will do a great deal to prevent a late-running train from having a knock-on delaying effect on other trains."
"Indeed, if a delay occurs in the morning it can cause the timetable to become more and more delayed for the rest of the day, often resulting in the missed calls at Thurso. These delays disrupt passengers by causing them to miss hospital appointments, onward connections and meetings of all kinds."
"They also militate against commuting to work or training as passengers can't be certain of arriving on time."
Mr Lunan stressed the importance of the project at the recent FoFNL annual general meeting in Tain. It was attended by Anthony Smith, chief executive of the Transport Focus rail watchdog; Ian Prosser, who heads the HM Rail Inspectorate; and David Lister, of the Abellio ScotRail Alliance.
Other key schemes which have been identified by FoFNL are a chord at Georgemas junction and improved signalling between Inverness and Dingwall.
writes Alastair Dalton
Faced with the prospect of working for a couple of days from our Inverness office rather than my normal Glasgow base, I looked at whether commuting by rail was an option. Those of us living in the Central Belt have an expectation of frequent and fast trains, which I use for virtually all my work travel. Even in the relatively sparsely-populated Borders, trains on the new line to Tweedbank now operate for nearly 19 hours a day - among the longest in Scotland. But could I reach Inverness for a day's work by rail from a station just 25 miles away? From Garve, the handiest for where I was staying, there's one train just before 8am, and after that, unbelievably, the next is not till almost 2pm. Not surprising then that Inverness feels like Highland Carmageddon when I visit.
It made me realise what a two-tier rail service we have in Scotland. Greater Glasgow benefits from the biggest network outside London, and many other main population centres will see fleets of brand new or refurbished ScotRail trains over the next few years. Cross-Border travellers will fare even better, with Virgin Trains East Coast introducing faster-accelerating Azuma trains, and the Caledonian Sleeper is bringing in new carriages with en suite showers and double beds. Even the Perth and Aberdeen to Inverness lines are to be upgraded.
The weary Highland commuter must read all this and weep - although, to be fair, ScotRail has also refurbished their trains. However, I'm told that passengers' biggest gripe isn't the infrequency of trains - they adapt, or drive nearer Inverness where trains run more often. There are in fact more trains running in the northern Highlands now than for decades, if not ever.
Instead, it's the unreliability of the service that really irritates, especially when the next train is an hour - or many more - away. You might think that with so few trains on the lines from Inverness north to Wick and Thurso, and west to Kyle of Lochalsh, they'd have a free run. But no. Both are largely single track, with few loops - the equivalent of passing places on single-track roads. A 24-mile section between Helmsdale and Forsinard in Sutherland is the longest such stretch in Britain, meaning only one train an hour can use it. Even the introduction of a "slower" timetable has failed to improve things, and trains now take half an hour longer than they did a decade ago.
Over the past month, just 29 per cent of trains reached Wick on time. That's woeful compared to the performance of other long-distance, rural lines. In the same period, 81 per cent of trains arrived in Mallaig on time, 71 per cent in Stranraer and 67 per cent in Oban. This has led to one of the main evening services north from Inverness being cancelled many times because, I understand, the train due to operate it is so late in arriving. This has left commuters more than an hour to wait for the next one, and I hear some have ditched the train to join the car-driving hordes.
Campaigners say a few extra miles of double track would make all the difference and not cost the earth.
There's now a chance it could happen. Network Rail has such plans on its next improvements wish list, from which ministers will choose. And who has just been appointed as cabinet secretary with overall responsibility for transport? Inverness MSP Fergus Ewing.
There might just be hope.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Scotsman.
Railway managers should tour network and see real problems passengers face.
Congratulations to Alastair Dalton for his perceptive account of the need to invest in the congested single track railway system north of Inverness (Inside Track, 8 July). Experiencing first hand the issues affecting different parts of the country is essential to obtain a fully rounded picture.
Might ScotRail Alliance and Transport Scotland officials from Glasgow also be encouraged to do the same please? Then we would have no more promises of rail replacement buses to offroad stations such as Corrour and Altnabreac, and perhaps more urgency in fully modernising the Highland Main Line (HML) to Inverness, which was promised as a priority nearly eight years ago in the Strategic Transport Projects Review.
We are now nearly halfway through the CPS funding period and the work to be done before it ends in March 2019 has still not been announced. Both the HML and Inverness to Aberdeen lines need double-tracking to properly cope with demand from passenger and freight traffic. The regulatory Office of Rail and Road has recently expressed serious concerns about lack of progress with both lines.
Working from Inverness for a few days might be an eye-opener. Maybe managers and officials should go back to Glasgow the long way round, via Aberdeen, to experience also the shortcomings of the only existing diversionary route? As Mr Dalton says, "It made me realise what a two-tier railway service we have in Scotland"
R J ARDERN, Inverness
The substandard far north rail service is "a positive discouragement" to passengers and tourists, according to a Caithness Highland councillor.
Matthew Reiss, who represents Landward Caithness, hit out after fellow councillor and former north MSP Jamie Stone described the unreliability of the train service between Caithness and Inverness as "entirely unacceptable."
Mr Stone called for transport minister Humza Yousaf to come to the Highlands and see how bad the service has become.
The councillors expressed their views at a meeting of Highland Council's planning, development and infrastructure committee in Inverness this week.
Mr Stone said many people living in the north could make full use of the trains but as it becomes more unreliable, fewer people are willing to use it.
"This decrease in confidence is extremely corrosive, not least because the decrease in users could ultimately threaten the viability of the service itself," he said. Mr Stone made a plea for the transport minister, whose remit includes rail, to visit the area.
"He must be made to come up here and experience for himself the problems we face due to slow running, delayed journeys, or even cancelled rail services," the Tain and Easter Ross councillor said.
Mr Reiss, the transport committee vice-chairman, supported that argument and claimed the substandard rail service is counter-productive to commuters.
"That was why I drove down to Inverness today and, furthermore, it is a positive discouragement to Far North tourism," he said.
Responding to Mr Stone's suggestion, Ranald Robertson - partnership director of Highlands and Islands Strategic Transport Partnership (HITRANS) - said he "warmly embraced" the notion of the minister being called to account.
As reported last month, a number of improvements to the Far North Line have been included in a Network Rail document - but it could take until 2043 to get them done.
The timescale was described as alarming by Mike Lunan, convener of pressure group Friends of the Far North Line.
While encouraged to see the improvements listed, he is unhappy at the time it might take to deliver them.
Mr Lunan stressed the work is needed now and not over the next 27 years.
The letter below was published on 20th August. FoFNL's Richard Ardern followed it up a few days later. It is vital for FoFNL that these arguments appear in the Central Belt press as this is where so many of the MSPs who effectively control what is done for the railway actually live. It is far too easy for residents in parts of Scotland far away from the Far North to be oblivious to the extreme problems that exist on the railway here.
A few days ago my husband and I travelled by train from Thurso to Inverness and found ourselves about an hour late arriving in Inverness. We missed our connection to Glasgow, which would have brought us in about midnight.
The staff put us in a taxi to Glasgow at an apparent cost to ScotRail of about £340.
We heard from the driver that he had done a couple of similar long trips from Inverness in the previous 10 days.
During our stay in Bettyhill we visited many local tourist spots and found them very busy with visitors attracted by the publicity of the North Coast 500 initiative which highlights the beauty of the scenery along the North Coast. While there were many cars and motor homes on the roads, some tourists, like us, had travelled by train to Thurso or Wick.
For some time, I have been conscious of the many complaints of poor infrastructure from those who try to work or sustain small businesses in these remote areas. I have never before witnessed the scale of it, including the poor internet access, which must be very difficult for those trying to develop small businesses reliant upon tourism.
I must confess to being absolutely horrified that people living north of Inverness have to struggle with single track roads and poor internet access ("islands at back of queue for online upgrade", The Herald, August 18). Train travellers have to make do with single track infrastructure and very old rolling stock.
Clearly those hunting and shooting parties who head up north in their top of the range 4x4s are little affected by this.
Politicians should be explaining to us why this disgraceful state of affairs continues and what the plans are to modernise.
Thank you to Maggie Chetty for describing so vividly some of the problems in the north of which she and many others further south are unaware. Her last paragraph is a call to politicians to explain what will be done to help the area to catch up with Scottish norms.
It takes someone from the big city to express the shame she feels that Highland infrastructure is so bad in parts. Those of us in the north who advocate improvement very often feel we are not listened to.
Think of it like ignoring Glasgow's motto and pursuing economic policies which help Edinburgh to flourish but not Glasgow. There would be plenty of voters at the doors of Transport Scotland or the Parliament to demand swift action and they would be heeded.
The Highlands is a huge area and a long way from the offices of the political and public servants. It is not so easy to block doorways that are over a hundred miles away to seek action.
Consider the huge amount of revenue which goes to the Exchequer in London from the whisky industry in the Highlands. Only a fraction of that could seriously improve the railway lines through Elgin and Inverness to make the recent "Lifting the Spirit" trial a reality and run whisky trains to the south as well as improving journeys for passengers like Mrs Chetty.
Yes, some money is going in to dualling the A9 and the A96, but in comparison only a fraction of this is slowly going in to rail enhancements on the same corridors. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce has said "single track railways between Scotland's cities are unacceptable".
Do the politicians agree and will they tell us that they will repair this neglect within the next ten years? Will they also give Perth back its direct rail route to Edinburgh and thus cut 30 minutes off the travel time please?
R J Ardern