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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Hare or Tortoise? The Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR)

We have waited a long time for this list of "29 interventions" which the Scottish Government will seek to progress during the period 2012-2022, finance permitting.

It is intended that there will be a new Forth road bridge at Queensferry which will consume a lot of any available money. Schemes to increase capacity and speeds between Inverness and Edinburgh/Glasgow and between Inverness and Aberdeen are included and the Far North Line will get a replacement for the RETB signalling at some stage. Apart from the Forth road bridge none of it is prioritised, so there is still all to play for but no guarantees.

Government thinking is in terms of national, regional and local schemes. The STPR outlines the national ones. The regional transport partnerships (RTP) (such as Hitrans) drew up their own strategies two years ago and the Highland Council (HC) is revising its local transport plan. What is not clear is who now funds the regional projects given that the RTPs lost their capital funding to the councils. Certainly, it is expected that HC will fund the new Conon Bridge station which has received its outline planning permission. The next stage is for Network Rail to approve a design.

The order of principles for priorities relating to the STPR schemes are

  1. Investment aimed at maintaining and safely operating existing assets
  2. Investment/innovation making better use of existing capacity
  3. Investment involving targeted infrastructure improvements.

It is recognised that rail freight is constrained by capacity shortfalls particularly on the WCML but also on "routes to Aberdeen and beyond". Intervention 12 to enhance rail system capacity through signalling and junctions is where replacement of RETB in Highland Region is mentioned. A new loop at Dalcross is proposed to allow expansion of services between Inverness and Nairn. Currently Lentran is a marginally busier line (with at least 27 trains per day, compared with 25 through Dalcross) but no additional loop is yet sanctioned for the FNL.

Intervention 17 proposes major infrastructure improvements for the Inverness to Perth railway and intervention 19 proposes a similar package from Inverness to Aberdeen. Each would see higher speeds, more passing loops and hourly frequencies with journey time reductions of around 15%. A long term aim to electrify the lines from Perth to Aberdeen and Inverness by 2030 is suggested.

There is no proposal for new rolling stock for the lines serving Inverness, even in the medium term. We will need to continue to lobby the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland for the required new rural train for the FNL and inter-city stock to Aberdeen and the south. We've lots to do to realise the true potential of our rail services.

STPR improvements will eventually provide more and better connections with FNL trains at Inverness and we must hope that these and the RETB replacement will at last become priorities ahead of schemes further south. For other improvements to the line it seems we must look to Hitrans and the Highland Council in partnership with Network Rail to set the hares running and accelerate us out of Tortoiseland.

Richard Ardern

Editor's note:

This report confirms that Richard's suggestions for improvements to the Aberdeen - Inverness Line were not far off official thinking.