We wait on tenterhooks to hear, in the next few weeks, how the Scottish Government will fund the outstanding work to make the Highland Main Line competitive with the dualled A9 road between Perth and Inverness.
This main rail artery to Inverness and the Highlands is promised improved freight capacity and at least an hourly service of passenger trains alternating to (and from) Edinburgh and Glasgow with an average journey time of 3 hours, and headline expresses taking 2 hours 45 minutes, all by 2025. However, the aspiration to have the line electrified by 2030 seems to be extending into injury time.
The speed up requires extensive track and signalling improvements to provide faster speed and significant doubling of track to provide capacity for more trains and prevent out of course delays for trains waiting to occupy single track sections. The regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, published another Network Rail Scotland Monitor in July again repeating "Development remains slow which is a concern" and promising to carry out an efficiency review of current developments.
This relates to the proposed introduction of short high speed trains and improved crossing loop facilities at Aviemore and Pitlochry. The performance of these two-power-car plus four passenger-coach HSTs, with a different power to weight ratio, has not yet been tested on the line to see what they can achieve. The hope is that they, and limiting stops south of Perth to Stirling or Haymarket with Kirkcaldy, can (with better timetabling) bring about a 10 minute overall saving. I have not seen any more than four passengers at a time using Edinburgh Gateway station. The Aberdeen expresses do not stop there.
Virgin East Coast's new Azuma train has made its first trial journey across the Border as far as Dunbar. They will operate the Highland Chieftain service from Inverness to London Kings Cross and much is being made of the time savings they should achieve in electric mode south of Edinburgh. It would be good to see one tested to Inverness quite soon to demonstrate the capabilities of its diesel engine north of Edinburgh. Calculations suggest it will be some 10 minutes slower than the existing HSTs over the gradients between Perth and Inverness.
New trains are also being built for the Caledonian Sleeper so it will be all change on HML passenger rolling stock in the next two years. Just as important as the traction will be the passenger comfort and catering for the passengers inside the trains. CS seems to be going for a high standard here. Hopefully ScotRail and VTEC will also impress.
At the lineside, Tomatin Viaduct is being overhauled and is looking very smart in its new paint. The southbound platform at Kingussie has been rebuilt up to standard height with a smooth tarred surface. Dunkeld also needs a higher platform but the listed station building is a complication as are the plans to dual the A9 alongside.
The plans to spend several million pounds upgrading Inverness Station have not yet been made public. There is an aspiration to make the station work better for pedestrians which is highly commendable. There is talk too of some improvements for cyclists. There is a need to make the interface with local and long distance buses much easier, and part of this is improving the signage and information about connecting services. It is a great pity that the opportunity to locate the Tourist Information Office there has been missed. It has relocated to the High Street. Opportunities to relocate the bus station to an adjacent location were missed many years ago.
This compartmentalisation (rather than integration) of development also led to the hemming-in of the station by the Eastgate Centre retail development. Insufficient room has been left for rail replacement buses to turn, or for taxis and private cars to pick up and set down passengers. Inverness Railway Station is a major transport interchange hub with passengers travelling many miles to catch the train. Inverness is a major tourist hub as is demonstrated by the number of field centre minibuses which meet their clientele there. Suggestions to move the taxi rank would give even more of a challenge.
It will be interesting to see if the main driver of the redevelopment is to increase commercial gain from rents rather than make the station more pleasant for passengers to use. Developments with the bookstall at Inverness and elsewhere such as Edinburgh Waverley seem strange. They have become coffee shops and the magazines are now tightly packed, squeezed into shelves extending vertically up behind the shelf in front. Not easy to use at all. What will be the effect of this on the viability of the on-train catering if passengers are increasingly being encouraged to buy food and drink before getting on the train?
Passengers are right to be wary of how the railway is changing. Sadly, we no longer have the strong voice of the former Rail Passengers Committee for Scotland with a board member in every part of Scotland to keep an eye on things on our behalf. The gestation period for the station plan should surely soon be over. Watch this space and make your views known. The reincarnation of Haymarket station has set the standard. We would like to see the new Inverness equally as good please.