Until it was singled by BR 50 years ago that part of the FNL immediately to the north of the Clachnaharry Swing Bridge was double track for six miles. The solum is still extant. FoFNL is calling for some degree of infrastructure enhancement in this location. The bridge carrying the A862 over the railway some 4 miles from the Swing Bridge prevents double track there. The settlement at Lentran is roughly half-way between Inverness and Muir of Ord, now the first place north of Inverness where trains may pass (13 miles, usually taking 21 minutes to traverse). Were trains able to pass in this neighbourhood late-running southbound trains would have a significantly reduced impact on the delivery of the timetable for the rest of the day.
The most damaging, and sadly not infrequent, occurrence is when the first train from Caithness (having left Wick at 06:18) reaches Muir of Ord more than around 15 minutes after its scheduled time of 10:14. In order to make maximum use of the single track between there and Inverness the 10:38 departure to Wick and the 11:00 departure to Kyle of Lochalsh are flighted, with the Kyle train not leaving Muir of Ord until 11:21. Thus by the time the delayed Wick train is allowed to proceed - perhaps not until 11:22 at the earliest - it will not arrive at Inverness until 11:43, some 69 minutes late. Connections to Aberdeen and the Central Belt have been missed, as have many appointments, not least at Raigmore Hospital. While a passing place - or better still a dynamic loop 2 or 3 miles long - would not eliminate this, it would allow the Wick train to reach Inverness before the Kyle departure, and thus arrive only 25 or so minutes late. The knock-on effect of a late arrival naturally makes the use of the late set for other services harder to achieve, and a late departure with that set will mean that all services are likely not to present at passing places at the correct time for the rest of the day.
In the Scotland Route Study Network Rail (NR) states (p53) "The rail network north of Inverness ... provides "lifeline" services to rural communities, consequently connectivity and resilience are key" (emphasis added). Later (p83) one of the Far North Enhancements is "Inverness to Dingwall additional loop to provide greater flexibility to pass trains". A long-term objective (p147) is for "1 opportunity to travel every other hour [between Inverness and Wick]". If the "day" is taken to mean roughly what it does now (with trains running on the FNL between 06:18 and 22:52 - say 16 hours) that will mean at least 6 services each way each weekday: far beyond the current capability of the route). However, the study does give itself until 2043 to deliver this "output".
When we reach the meat of the study (p194) there is no sign of any plan to provide a loop south of Dingwall. 6.6.21 suggests a possible (green) plan to install double track between Dingwall and Invergordon in CP6. While FoFNL would applaud this, we do not believe it will do anything to address the problem of the 21-minute single section through Lentran. 6.6.19 suggests re-signalling between Inverness and Dingwall, but not until CP7 - we suggest a shorter time-scale.
The consultation paper "The Far North Line: a performance study", commissioned from Aliona Ltd in October 2016, recommends (p15) that NR's proposed re-signalling between Inverness and Dingwall could allow a passing loop to be signalled using what it describes as the "Aviemore solution". Scottish Ministers and Transport Scotland have copies of this paper. On p23 it goes on to suggest that comparative costings are obtained for providing a Lentran loop as part of any re-signalling, or as a stand-alone scheme retaining RETB. FoFNL supports this approach as likely to constrain costs.
At FoFNL's Annual Conference in Inverness in June 2008 Iain Coucher, then CEO of NR, said, in the context of the FNL "We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times". While the Lentran Loop will not of itself reduce journey times, it will permit more robust delivery of the timetable. NR has, in the study, "found" opportunities: it must now be instructed to "exploit" them.
We urge Transport Scotland and Scottish Ministers to include the Lentran Loop in its HLOS in June 2017.