When will we reach the point when we can say we have a modernised 21st century line? It seems such a long and weary battle since the heady days of the STPR promises in 2008. They were almost ten years ago, and now it is five years that we have been waiting for details of the CP5 improvements which gained qualified acceptance and funding of £121M from the ORR in 2013 even though the details and costs were not then available. Now it seems less will be spent and the reinstated loops which were suggested to ease capacity will not happen until CP6.
"We are where we are", as the saying goes and signalling improvements and loop upgradings at Aviemore and Pitlochry are planned to be completed by the end of CP5 in March 2019. On the brighter side too, the most recent sign of progress is the first appearance of a new Hitachi Azuma electric/diesel bimode train on an 18 hour long test run from Doncaster and back on Friday 15 December.
These trains are expected to shave 20 minutes off the London to Edinburgh journey time in electric mode (which might mean there will be a different departure time for the Highland Chieftain northbound from Edinburgh). In diesel mode, the worry is that the Azumas might be slower than the current HST sets on the long steep Highland gradients. The northbound schedule on 15 December is shown here.
This was exactly the same over "The Hill" as the HST Pitlochry to Kingussie start to stop schedule. The HST is allowed an extra one minute recovery time before Dalwhinnie. This trial is only one run with a new train and there was a bit of snow about, but nothing unusual for winter. It is concerning nevertheless to see a loss of three minutes to Blair Atholl and another three minutes over the hill to Dalwhinnie followed by a further three minutes lost down the hill to the stop at Kingussie. Nine minutes down on the current schedule. A three minute late start became a twelve minute late arrival.
The return service at 19:13 lost 6 minutes between Inverness and Aviemore, but as no actual timings are given by Realtime Trains for Slochd (where it was due to wait in the loop for five and a half minutes to cross the northbound HST) it is impossible to work out how well it did on the climb. Sometimes Slochd loop is out of use, in which case the train might have been held at Tomatin.
By the May 2019 timetable, we should have the ScotRail HSTs and the Virgin East Coast Azumas in service. The Caledonian Sleeper will have new carriages too. The line will be quite different with some faster trains and more services and seats and with better paths (and fewer stops) between Perth and Edinburgh/Glasgow. Modernised loops at Aviemore and Pitlochry and improved signalling should all help.
What is urgently needed then is expanded capacity for both passenger and freight trains by replacing single track sections with double. Preparation for greater resilience from flooding and, importantly, preparation for electrification should then follow.