The Forres and Elgin improvements to the Aberdeen to Inverness railway (A2I) are due to see service from 17 October after a 10 day blockade to connect up all the new points and test them and the new signalling. This will be a major milestone for a route which has seen relatively little investment over recent decades.
The straightened out track and new station at Forres will be signalled to allow simultaneous arrivals and departures of trains requiring to pass there. No longer will one train have to wait outside until the other is safely in the loop which wasn't in the station anyway so passengers could not embark or disembark and just had to wait. This should normally save at least three minutes in journey time.
The new station will have two platforms connected by a footbridge and lifts. The other major work has been the construction of a road overbridge to replace the current level crossing. The existing booking hall at Forres has a treasury of photographs and a model of the station in former years. Sadly, although the new station will be staffed, no room has been found for the displays. I hope they will be found museum space elsewhere in Forres.
At Elgin the hoped-for road overbridge was not funded and the Wards level crossing will remain. The loop will be extended across it and train stabling will take place overnight in the former goods yard. The signalling will all be controlled from a new panel in Inverness. Buses will run between Inverness and Keith from 7 to 16 October inclusive while all the new works are connected up.
Travelling on the line continues to delight, with a fox seen from the train near Gollanfield followed shortly afterwards by a roe deer in the barley. Organic growth is in evidence too with the new "green" tunnel at Raigmore magically shaped to the "envelope" of the trains. See photo on page 16. Work is about to start in earnest on doubling the track between the other tunnel on the line at Woolmanhill (Aberdeen) and Inverurie for completion by 2019. Hopefully the funding announcement due soon from the Scottish Government will commit to worthwhile lengths of double track in the sections between Inverness and Nairn and between Elgin and Keith Loop. These are the longest stretches of single track and dictate the number of trains which can be run and also accentuate delays to all services when trains are running late.
The line is important too as a diversionary route from the Highland Main Line for trains such as the Caledonian Sleeper and the Stobart Tesco train. The potential for timber and whisky-related traffic also needs to be factored in to the significant capacity improvements required. The "Branchliner" project being worked up by HITRANS and the timber industry is poised to bring timber from Kinbrace on the Far North Line to the expanding Norbord factory between Inverness and Dalcross. We "wood" like to see that quite soon!