This is a pivotal moment in the future of our railways. The decisions made now about the future will be fundamental in the way that we recover from the COVID pandemic and in how we plan the structure of transport in Britain to incorporate a truly positive response to the declared Climate Emergency which affects the survival of the world.
The last train I was on was a replacement bus service between Perth and Inverness because the 15:08 from Glasgow was cancelled due to flooding between Stirling and Dunblane on 22 February. As I write, the A83 access road to mid Argyll over the Rest and be Thankful has been severed yet again by landslips due to heavy rain. [Total closure 5 days]. The West Highland Line has also been closed in two places either side of Arrochar by the same excess rain event and a flooded line closure has occurred once again between Stirling and Dunblane.
Scotland's infrastructure is under increasing threat year by year. The WHL is one of only three railway routes north from the Central Belt. The other two which serve Aberdeen and Inverness and points north are the route across the Forth Bridge and that through Stirling and Dunblane. Without one of these the railways would be severely handicapped. Strategic planning has spent £1.4 bn on the Queensferry Crossing in recent years to partly replace the Forth Road Bridge. We need to have a strategy to increase the resilience of our truncated railway system too.
The Far North Line benefited when the Ness Viaduct at Inverness was washed away in February 1989 and a new bridge was opened in May 1990, a commendably short time of 15 months. The Italians have recently replaced the collapsed motorway viaduct in Genoa in less than 15 months.
Could we do something like this again if it were necessary in such a short time? Or would we have to appoint consultants and go through years of paperwork as seems to be our norm now? This is where the sorely needed "Dynamism" of the title comes in. The Network Rail planning and development function needs staffing up, to plan and design far greater enhancements to enable the railways to better serve both passenger and freight requirements.
Will there still be a body known as Network Rail? Post COVID both passenger and freight traffic need to be revived and put onto a sound footing. With the franchising system past the point of collapse, there is a tremendous opportunity to build a government structure that really works cost effectively. To join up the railway again in a vertically integrated way with powers and money to do the job would seem sensible.
FoFNL Member and Rail Consultant, Dave Prescott, has mapped out how this route could work well and interested readers should consult his most recent Rail Professional article to achieve a "cost-effective, resilient, responsive railway".
We are currently spending a lot of time with consultants going through the process of recommending which "major" but often actually quite modest transport enhancements should be supported in the next twenty years in the Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2). I would suggest that this is now yesterday's exercise and that in view of the welcome recognition of the Climate Emergency and in order to plan for post COVID recovery we should be doing something much more dynamic. The goalposts have really changed substantially.
A step along the way to recognise this is the Scottish Government's Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan. At least it has the word "action" in it and hopefully a recognition that this needs money for design and build and that the amount of work proposed to be done by 2035 is way more than has been achieved in the last 15 years.
I would go further and say that the strategic need is not just more double track line capacity, electrification, and new rolling stock. Gauge enhancement, new freight terminals and diversionary routes are needed too.
Electric trains are faster and more efficient but dependence on catenary is a weak spot. This is another reason why we must have more alternative diversionary routes. Freight contracts depend on these to prevent interruptions. A line closed for several days because of an accident, as at Dock Street in Dundee, or for several months for bridge repair as at Lamington on the West Coast Main Line, can spell "curtains" for a freight contract that depends on daily delivery.
It is already accepted that the Glasgow-Kilmarnock-Dumfries route to Carlisle and the south should be electrified to provide diversionary capacity. In the longer term it might prove possible to reopen the Waverley route from Galashiels through Hawick to Carlisle.
North of the Forth a journey time reduction of thirty minutes for passenger trains from Edinburgh to Perth and Inverness could be achieved by the creation/reopening of a line along the Inverkeithing to Cowdenbeath, Kinross and Bridge of Earn corridor. This would also provide an alternative express route to Aberdeen and for freight traffic to the likes of Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee (where a new freight terminal is needed). It would be of immense strategic benefit in so many ways that a priority scoping exercise is now overdue.
Continuing north of Perth by reopening the former rail corridor from Stanley past Forfar to Kinnaber (north of Montrose) would provide an alternative route to Aberdeen independent of the Tay Bridge and the Montrose Viaduct. The cost is considerable, but new routes have the advantage of being easier to electrify without the disruption of existing traffic.
Resilience of the network is another issue related to our changing climate. Flooding disruption is now an annual event on the Conwy Valley line in North Wales which can be closed for months. There are problems also with the Earn south of Perth; with the Tay north of Perth on the Highland Main Line; with the Spey and Gynack Burn [Kingussie] on the HML; and with river crossings between Aberdeen and Inverness such as the Lossie and the Findhorn. Bridges on the Beauly and Conon on the FNL need watching too.
We are now in an era where we must make transport more sustainable and less environmentally harmful. This means much more use of rail especially for freight. You only get one chance with a new freight flow or change of contract, and the rail capacity has to be there, or achievable quickly. This applies to wagons as well as track capacity, terminals and drivers.
Passenger traffic may take time to recover from the pandemic and we may tend to travel less frequently and far. The days of "pack 'em in" for passengers such as on the Great Western HSTs is hopefully over [even Moir Lockhead eventually conceded that that had been a mistake], but longer trains with the same frequency as in 2019 may still be needed to allow for more socially acceptable "distancing" of passengers.
There is a new urgency to strategic planning for the railway in Scotland. STPR2 was conceived for a different era. It would be helpful if it could be quickly finished off, with its CP6 proposals made known. Might the focus then turn to a new dynamic, based on a firmer Government policy on what the Climate Emergency really means for transport, and transport budgets reassessed to underpin the greater role for the railway in supplying future logistic needs?
Sadly, a week after the above was written, we had the dreadful derailment at Carmont south of Stonehaven. It will likely mean closure of the line for more than two weeks. Aberdeen will be effectively cut off by rail. The only possible diversion is the long way round by Inverness. As discussed above, there is very little spare capacity to bring trains that way because much of both the HML from Perth to Inverness, and the Inverness to Aberdeen line is single track. These lines are at full capacity and badly need the doubling discussed above. Stranded units and freight trains have been running this way with severe delays on both lines and consequent cancellations of some Inverness to Elgin local services.