The contrast between ongoing work on, and publicity for, the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness and that for improving the Highland Main Line (HML) is huge. There have been so many glossy brochures and consultations for the A9 and so little about the railway. The Transport Scotland websites are similarly skewed. The HML page is thankfully still promising an average journey time of 3 hours between Inverness and the Central Belt with a 2 hours 45 minutes fastest time by 2025, but the maps show the M90 and the M80 as the connections south of Perth!
We are now less than two years before the end of the five year financial control period 5 (CP5) and the GRIP3 report detailing what work is to be done by March 2019 is still not published. Phil Verster, the last MD of the ScotRail Alliance, promised it by April 2016. All we know is that improvements are to be made to the passing loops at Aviemore and Pitlochry. There is no word yet of putting back loops at Ballinluig and elsewhere or of any double tracking to ease the serious lack of capacity and reduce delays.
Meantime, minds should be being concentrated by the recent realisation that diesel engines in cars particularly but also buses and lorries are a very serious health risk to the population due to the emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulates. "NOx pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of early deaths across Europe with the UK suffering a particularly heavy toll" (Guardian, 6 January 2017). The Scottish Government emission reduction targets for transport continue to be missed by a mile and the latest blow is that the Grangemouth to Lairg (via HML) and Fort William oil trains are to be replaced by road tankers!
In a hard hitting editorial in its March magazine, the CEO of Inverness Chamber of Commerce has called for an end to the delay in properly upgrading the Highland Main Line. He is worried that the recent Transport Scotland consultation on the future for Scotland's rail infrastructure strategy heralds a diminishing spend on rail enhancements and continued channelling of the money primarily towards central Scotland. This time last year the Scottish Chambers of Commerce nationally spoke out about strategic connectivity for Scotland and how the "single track sections of the railways linking the cities of Inverness, Aberdeen and the Central Belt are 'unacceptable' in the 21st century". Strong words underlining yet again the need for policies to be implemented.
My heading is slightly unfair. Abellio ScotRail has contracted to introduce faster and roomier trains on the line from 2018/19. The High Speed Trains built in the 1970s can only be a stop gap until electrification of the line. Bimode (electric and diesel propulsion) trains are also talked about but, as presently designed, the diesel engines which they carry are not sufficiently powerful for the HML gradients. Electric trains are really effective on long steep hills as can be seen at Beattock north of Carlisle. The HSTs will be most welcome, but their age does give electrification some urgency.
The 2 hours 45 minute journey time between Edinburgh and Inverness was promised by First Minister Alex Salmond in his 5 August 2008 Inverness Town House speech to be implemented by 2011/12 (Herald and Press & Journal, 6 August 2008) and confirmed to Mary Scanlon MSP in Scottish Parliament written answer S3W-24784 by Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson on 19 July 2009 that the new estimated completion date was 2012/13.
Some increase in service frequency has been provided since then, which is very welcome. However, journey times are not competitive with the car and the completion of dualling the A9 is not many years away now. The railway needs to be more competitive for freight. Investment is needed to allow the intermodal grocery etc trains be lengthened from 20 to a more competitive 28 containers and this requires key loops to be extended and others to be provided. To meet customer needs good freight paths have to be available during the day as well as in the depths of the night.
The HML railway has to be seen as a priority for funding during CP6 to complete all the promised journey time reductions and, significantly, to prevent modal shift to road and consequently further damage to the environment and environmental harm reduction targets.
The Far North, Kyle and Inverness to Aberdeen line stations such as Nairn and Forres all depend on the HML for connections and for through freight traffic both existing and potential. The HML is the main rail artery to and from the north of Scotland. It is vital to the economic and social fabric of Scotland and it is a scenic asset which does much to attract visitors to the area. There must be a big push to get this line properly modernised by the end of CP6 in 2024.