The good news over the past months has been the introduction of the new sleeper stock onto the Highlander in October and the replacement of the much loved 125s with the Azuma electric/diesel bimode train on LNER's Inverness to Kings Cross Highland Chieftain service.
We would be pleased to receive ontrain reports from the Sleeper. FNE was expecting a report from the first passengers in the double bedded compartment on inauguration day last June but the new stock introduction was delayed and our correspondent flew north instead. We trust the service is bedding in well.
The Inverness launch of the Azuma at 07.30 on 10 December was spectacular with drummers, a piper and fire dancers in the dark. I am pleased to report that my fears that in diesel mode the train would have difficulty keeping to the HST timings over Druimuachdar and Slochd appear to be unfounded. Further south the acceleration of the train in electric mode is astounding but its riding on some stretches of track eg near Dunbar and Tomatin to Moy was not smooth with plates sliding down the tables at the former.
On the tracks, we continue in the state of no news. No news of the substantial track capacity improvements which are still needed to support the hourly service frequency with journey times headlining at 2 hours 45 minutes and averaging 3 hours between Inverness and both Edinburgh and Glasgow. The revised deadline to achieve this by 2025 is not far away now and is becoming more and more challenging.
Maybe the HML should be elevated to the status of a "Project"? The Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement (EGIP) was a "Project" and it happened. The HML was supposed to be third "priority" in the Strategic Transport Projects Review of December 2008. I would have thought "priority" was a very strong word, but events have left HML modernisation far from complete.
It is quite obvious from the proposed 2018 then 2019 now [December?] 2020 timetable that, even once we get the full squadron of faster ScotRail HST trains, the planners are struggling to improve journey times due to the number of trains to be fitted through the longer sections of single track eg the 13 miles between Dunkeld and Pitlochry and the 13 miles between Dalwhinnie and Kingussie.
MSPs were told in answer to several PQs over the past seven years that the HML upgrade was "likely" to include reinstating passing loops at Ballinluig on the former 13 mile bottleneck and another on the latter. It has not happened.
Ballinluig should be a quick fix to implement and the reinstatement could be long enough to meet the expressed wish of the freight carriers for a much longer loop at this point. Ideally it needs to be tackled at the same time as fixing the other 13 mile long constriction north of Dalwhinnie. The idea put forward of extending tracks up to three miles northwards from Dalwhinnie and two miles south from Kingussie to around Newtonmore was suggested in FNE 76 and 77 .
These initial two project components would make operating easier by temporarily harmonising the longest individual stretches of single track down to 8 miles initially. Many more interventions are needed and expected in order to achieve the 2025 targets for passenger journey times and give scope for more freight trains and diversions.
Post 2025 what is needed is electrification. Once it got into electric mode south of Dunblane, the Azuma going out of Stirling showed just how fast it can accelerate. It was an eye-opener. The way electric trains can flatten out hills by galloping up the likes of the Beattock bank is another way they will really shorten the journey north to Inverness over Druimuachdar and Slochd. This applies to freight haulage as well and will make the HML so much more efficient and easier to operate.
Combining this with the reopening of the direct route between Edinburgh and Perth through Kinross-shire will transform services between Edinburgh and Perth and between Glasgow/Edinburgh and Inverness. This is the kind of bold project that the Scottish Government needs to embrace to meet the challenge of the Climate Emergency through the provision of efficient sustainable transport solutions.
May we hope that the Strategic Transport Projects Review no 2 will see the unfinished priority work from the December 2008 STPR prioritised once again and that the Scottish Government will release the money northwards. There should be Barnett consequentials from the UK Government's signalled intention to invest more in infrastructure and to channel much of this money to the North of England.
STOP PRESS: HML closed all day Saturday 11 January due to flooding between AVM and Kingussie. Need for more resilience here and on the Tay Valley flood plain.