In October 2020 the Scottish Green Party opened a campaign to dual the HML. Whilst FoFNL is an apolitical organisation, we can only applaud this campaign which was set up to persuade the Scottish Government to act on the promise it made in 2008 to invest properly in the Highland Main Line.
The government protests that it has been investing in the line. This is true - £57m has been spent on extending a couple of passing loops and modernising some signalling. However, this equates to 1.9% of the £3bn currently being spent on dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness. (+A96, another £3bn)
It is the railway that needs to be dualled, as most of it is 'single-track-with-passing-places', hardly the kind of infrastructure you would expect the government to provide between its cities, especially having declared a 'Climate Emergency'.
The online campaign invites people to send the Minister a message. This is neither about party politics, nor is it a local issue. We support it because the HML is the rail route passengers use to get to the Far North Line from most of Scotland and further south.
This article by one of FoFNL's Vice Presidents, John Finnie MSP, first appeared in the Inverness Courier on 13 November 2020.
The Highland Main Line was an impressive piece of engineering when it was built in the middle of the 19th century, offering then unprecedented connectivity between the Highlands, the rest of Scotland and beyond.
Sadly, little improvement has been made to the line since. What was a marvel of the Victorian era is now outdated.
My party colleague Ariane Burgess recently launched a campaign urging the Scottish Government to act swiftly to improve the line. Her urgency is well justified; the majority of the 118-mile line remains single track. This puts a very low ceiling on capacity and means that one breakdown brings the entire network north of Perth to a grinding halt.
Road traffic is one of the biggest polluters here. It isn't right that in a climate emergency the quickest way to get to the Central Belt is to drive.
The dualling of the Highland Main Line would increase capacity for passengers, making the Highlands more accessible, but an often-overlooked benefit is the potential to move more freight on the line. Companies like Tesco and the wood panel manufacturer Norbord have recognised the benefits of using rail freight in the Highlands, such as reduced costs and lower emissions, but until the line receives a major upgrade, there are limits to how many can follow in their footsteps.
The potential is enormous. A dualled main line could carry significantly more freight to and from the Highlands, providing an economic boost for the region. The companies using rail freight now do so because it is cheaper and cleaner. With the right investment it can also be quicker.
By significantly increasing the amount of freight on the line, you reduce the amount on the A9. Not only would fewer heavy vehicles on the road mean lower emissions, but it would also mean better traffic flow and less damage to the roads from lorries.
The remote nature of the Highlands means there will be a role for cars and lorries in transport for a long time to come yet. Nobody disputes that. Indeed, road haulage working in tandem with longer stretch rail freight is vital, but the benefits of improving rail connectivity in the region are significant.
To continue to ignore the needs of the railway is unacceptable. Back in 2006, a target was set to deliver sub three-hour journey between Inverness and Edinburgh or Glasgow. Fourteen years later that hasn't been met.
The modern history of the Highland Main Line is one of delay and neglect. The time to end that is now. The Highlands deserves better.