It is highly probable that the Far North and Kyle lines would not continue to operate if there was no Highland Main Line. If there was no Aberdeen to Inverness line either that probability becomes a racing certainty. This is why FoFNL takes a keen interest in both lines.
In December 2008 these two lines were named as priorities 3 and 4 respectively in the Scottish Government's Strategic Transport Policy Review. The Queensferry Crossing and the Edinburgh-Glasgow rail Improvement Programme (EGIP) were numbers 1 and 2. Dualling the A9 and A96 trunk roads were lesser priorities.
What has happened since then to let the HML slip back so badly while the major £3billion A9 dualling project powers ahead? Now that Queensferry is complete and EGIP well advanced, may we see some real progress on comprehensively modernising the HML to allow it to play its true potential role in providing a carbon-friendly and sustainable alternative to the A9 for travellers and freight please?
In the early days of the Hydro Electric Board its Chairman, Tom Johnston, is understood to have offered to electrify the HML using power from the Tummel Valley hydro schemes. As he recognised in the early Fifties, this line with its long steep gradients would now be the foremost beneficiary of any in Scotland from electrification (after the Carlisle to Glasgow line via Beattock Summit which was wired 40 years ago). Electrification allows top speeds on hills as we have seen from the TGV high speed lines in France. Top journey time reductions are what HML passengers need. Until recently the government aspiration was to electrify all lines between the seven Scottish cities by 2030. Dunblane to Perth next and then Perth to Inverness??
The DfT in London has recently promoted bi-mode hybrid electric trains with an auxiliary diesel motor slung underneath as an alternative to electrification and some of these are now being built by Hitachi in County Durham. The first one of these class 800 trains reached Inverness on test from Doncaster on 15 December, but lost time on the gradients northbound to Druimuachdar and southbound to Slochd.
Writing in the January 2018 issue of Modern Railways, respected engineer and regular columnist, Roger Ford, refers to the first observations from Railway Performance Society members of in-service running by class 800 bi-modes. One conclusion is that the 750hp diesel engines need to be uprated to 900hp to match the previous HST train performance. Presumably this would apply to the HML also.
Roger's evidence to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee on 21 November is well worth reading. He states that in both modes, the bi-mode represents a "sub-optimal" solution:
"With up to 10 tonnes of diesel power pack and fuel under 60% of its coaches, when running as an electric train a bi-mode is an overweight Electric Multiple Unit, and in diesel mode it is underpowered".
Compared with the existing A9 trunk road it is obvious that the single track railway between Inverness, Perth and both Edinburgh and Glasgow is too slow. The £3bn upgrade to finish dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2025 is likely to make the railway even less competitive for both passengers and freight.
The former First Minister, Alex Salmond recognised this when he said in Inverness in August 2008 that "railways must at least compete with roads". Nicola Sturgeon, when she was Cities Minister, said that the railways between all seven Scottish cities should be electrified and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce asserted in 2015 that "Scotland's northern cities need to be better connected and single track railways linking Inverness, Aberdeen and the Central Belt are 'unacceptable' in the 21st century".
The Reform Scotland think tank "On the right track" briefing paper published on 27 December calls for a Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission to look at a strategic transformation in the rail network between now and 2050. Board Member and former UK Transport Minister and Glasgow MP, Tom Harris, repeats his comment of a year ago:
"Do we really want to be in a situation where it could take less time to reach London from Edinburgh than it does to reach Inverness?"
"While rail links to London are important, so too are links within Scotland, links which are sadly lacking at present."
Faster trains are to be introduced on the HML later this year and the May 2019 timetable will see services speeded up. Timetabling work is ongoing and could see some services from Inverness to Edinburgh poised to nearly break the 3 hour end to end journey time barrier. Extra trains should see the service become hourly, but at a cost to the journey times of other trains because of the crippling capacity constraints caused by so much of the line from Inverness to Perth and onwards to Ladybank in Fife being single track with passing places.
The case for doubling much more of the line is further strengthened by breakdown incidents such as that to the Caledonian Sleeper's hired-in locomotive north of Dalwhinnie on 6 November. Ten ScotRail trains were cancelled in full and eight more for part of their journeys. ScotRail services incurred 417 minutes of delay and freight services were also affected. Multiply that by the number of passengers affected and the damage to both individual lives and to the economy is huge.
We do not need a Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission to tell us that capacity and speed improvements to the HML are needed now. We just need the long promised comprehensive modernising of the line. Where the proposed SRIC might help would be to argue the case for reinstating a direct line from Edinburgh to Perth. A double track electric line would be a big boost to the Tayside and Kinross economy, reducing the journey time to and from Perth by 30 minutes. Passengers would feel the effects of the 30 minute saving all the way to Wick and Kyle with a competitive time of 2 hours 30 on the Edinburgh to Inverness part of the journey. That would be well worth having. An environmentally friendly and sustainable railway might then become the preferred option for both passengers and freight. That is the future!
High time for the Government to implement its 2008 promises!