scotland (4K)
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

The Real Rail Way Ahead: 2007 - 2035

The story so far...

In issue 25 of the Newsletter, shortly before the last Holyrood election, we published a list of Questions to Candidates. In slightly over-simplified summary these were:

  1. What steps will you take to move freight from road to rail?
  2. Will you campaign for the replacement of 158s from the FNL?
  3. Will you press for free rail travel for pensioners?
  4. How do environmental issues affect your transport policy?
  5. Will you support Invernet?
  6. Will you support a chord at Georgemas?
  7. Will you press Wick traders to use rail for transporting goods?
  8. Will you press for an hourly Inverness-Aberdeen service, requiring 3.5 miles of redoubling?
  9. Do you support a less than 3 hour service from Inverness to Edinburgh and Glasgow?
  10. Do you support investment in track capacity to permit long-haul freight?

Well, one out of ten (Invernet) isn't brilliant, but I suppose it's a start. This time FoFNL has decided not to ask candidates nice easy questions (to which all the answers were of course yes, or something equally easy to spot). We set out a manifesto for radical transformation of the railway in Scotland over the next 30-odd years. The Scottish Executive requires the various Regional Transport Partnerships (HITRANS is ours) to produce their strategy documents by 31 March. FoFNL sees no reason why it shouldn't join in. We have contributed our pennyworth to HITRANS, details of which were in Newsletter 39. But we felt constrained then to restrict our thoughts to the FNL and adjacent lines. We feel no such constraint now, given that the polls suggest a wide-open election with the next government being formed by a coalition of some of perhaps five different parties.

So we set out what, if we were politicians seeking your votes, we would be tempted to call A Bold Vision for the Future of Scotland's Railway. Since this title is probably copyrighted to the Scottish Executive we shall content ourselves with just calling it -

What must be done now

1  The what

Where do we want to be in 2035? We must assume that the true cost - the cost to you and me out of our taxed income - of road use is fully felt, both for private motoring and in the cost of goods transported. Whether this will be by much higher fuel duty or by some form of road charging is immaterial - the true cost of taking 90 kg of me or 1000 kg of goods by road or by rail must come out as roughly equal (ignoring incentives like off-peak discounts). This will happen regardless of who is in power in Edinburgh or elsewhere. So the need in 2035 is to move many more people and more goods across Scotland, and between Scotland and elsewhere, by rail as fast, cheaply and safely as possible. Everything done from 4 May 2007 must bring this end objective closer, or if not closer then not drive it further away. Everything must be judged by that.

There is a great deal in that simple objective which lies outwith the scope of transport policy, but it should be stated before being left for others to deal with. In 2035 far fewer people will need to travel to their daily work - the revolution in communication technology has a lot further to go. Multi-site links will be commonplace long before 2035 and businesses will no more hesitate before installing next-generation video conferencing facilities at every site than they will about installing a telephone or a PC today. Scotland will only become a world-beating economy if we play to our strengths, and exporting heavy lumps of metal is not going to be one of them in the 21st century. Small, lightweight exports will be the norm - electronics, high-value items like precision components, luxury retail goods like cameras, jewellery or watches, and most of all ideas and other non-material things. Scottish Screen, for example, is achieving great success bringing film-makers here. The need to move commuters into cities at peak times is likely to reduce sharply. So is the need to move large loads of coal or heavy manufactured goods and raw materials. Fuel will either go along wires or pipes for the most part.

But there will still be an immense need for rail travel, albeit more evenly spread during the day. We will need to get from Inverness to Aberdeen in under 2 hours with a train in each direction every hour - this will need redoubling of the line at some points and extra loops at others. We will need to get from Inverness to Wick in under 3 hours with 6 trains a day - this will need the construction of the Dornoch Bridge as well as redoubling in places and extra loops at others. We will need to get from Inverness to Edinburgh and Glasgow in around 2.5 hours with a train to each every 2 hours - this will need doubling of the entire Highland Main Line with the possible exception of Killiecrankie Tunnel and gorge. We will need trains running on these lines which are as comfortable and pleasant as modern car interiors - that means good leg room, good seats with good views, good provision of toilets, good provision of catering at the appropriate times of day, good external communications, good cycle and luggage facilities - the list goes on. Bearing in mind that a driver getting into his car to drive from Inverness to Aberdeen is going to be paying heavily on the day to do so, it shouldn't be too difficult to persuade him to use the train.

There will be more freight trains running on all these lines, which will therefore require to be operational if not 24, then certainly 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Maintenance will have to be lot more efficient, and in remote locations that means that the infrastructure will have to be low-maintenance, requiring less regular attention. But that means it must first be brought up to a much higher standard throughout Scotland.

Edinburgh and Glasgow must be within 3 hours of London. This is entirely feasible and by 2035 we will be wondering why it took so long for the political classes to see that there is no road alternative to gridlock on the M74/M6 and other cross-border roads. If all the academics think it's clever, and Network Rail think it's clever, and the engineering consultants think it can be done, what are we afraid of? As a start, keeping things reasonably local, let's think about a high-speed (185 mph) link between Glasgow and Edinburgh. But it's too short, say the critics, trains will be braking as soon as they've got up to speed. Ignoring the fact that this type of train can accelerate and brake very swiftly, the critics forget that the first bit of motorway was the Preston by-pass - just 10 miles or so joined at each end to the very slow and twisting A6. But no-one seriously thought that the tiny bit of M6 would not grow. So will a Glasgow-Edinburgh high-speed link.

So much for new bits of metal on the ground. While all this happening the signalling systems must be brought up to date. RETB in the Highlands will have been replaced by 2013 (for that is apparently when it will cease to be functional and will vanish in a puff of smoke), but signalling elsewhere will still be the old-fashioned colour light system they had in 2007. Huge advances in signalling technology in the next few years (a subject to which we plan to return in the next Newsletter) will deliver greater safety and better train management, albeit at a high initial cost. Scotland must be part of this process.

There are therefore several strands to our plan. Better track, suited to the volume and speed of the expected growth in traffic. Better signalling to cope with the extra volume. Better trains suited to the needs of the users - passengers and freight consignors. It's not difficult for anyone taking a high-level view of the railway to sign up to most of this, in the secure and certain knowledge that they'll probably have retired before any of the bills come in. So how do we make it happen?

2  The how

The work must be broken into bite-sized bits which can be swallowed easily. Between now and 2035 there are seven parliaments of four years. Each government must be prepared to sign up to a 20+ year plan, which can't be allowed to become a political football. Coalition politics help to make this achievable. If each government undertakes work which builds logically on what has already been achieved we shall have a world-class railway in 2035. It will serve the needs of Scotland's people. What needs to be done in the first four years?

Essentially three things, none of them easy. The hardest will be to achieve cross-party consensus about the broad outline of rail transport policy until 2035. The second vital thing is to carry out very detailed examinations of all the planned investment suggestions. Doubtless the planners in 1957 looked at the whole line of route on the M6, but they didn't let difficulties like how to approach Birmingham stop them building in a field near Preston. Their investigations showed where it was sensible to make a start, and make a start they did. The third thing is to make certain that men with shovels are visibly doing things at as many locations as possible by 3 May 2009, half-way through the parliament.

Of course all this will cost money. Governments will always find money to spend on things which they wish (or are obliged) to do; at election time we're allowed to tell government what we want. The Scottish Government - let's call it that so that we don't confuse the Scottish Executive (which governs) with the Scottish Executive (which is the civil service) - has the power to raise tax. Let's not pretend that that power will remain unused until 2035. For if it does Scotland will have wilfully turned its back on a vast resource to do good. But if the expenditure is planned and the work is carried out logically over a 20-year planned period the total cost will be less than piecemeal improvements. The alternative is stagnation in 2035 or immense and unbearable expenditure when we are all safely dead (or at least retired, and no longer capable of being held responsible).

3  The who

The message to all candidates in 2007 is simpler than in 2003, but starker.

  1. Will you agree to work across party lines, even with your deadliest foes, to hammer out an unchangeable plan for Scotland's railways to 2035? If not, why do you think your party has wisdom not shared by others?
  2. Will you commit to commissioning large-scale work across Scotland to determine how and where rail improvements must be made?
  3. Will you undertake to start construction by 3 May 2009 on at least 12 of the various schemes across Scotland which have already advanced along the evaluation process?

4  Where the Devil is - the details

In a spirit of general helpfulness FoFNL is providing its list of 12 priority schemes across Scotland. It takes account of the fact that many new bits of infrastructure have been (or are being) constructed in the Central Belt and the Borders, so these are excluded from the list. But so that they be not forgotten, here they are: Larkhall-Milngavie (done), Airdrie-Bathgate (under way), Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine (under way), Waverley Station Phase I (under way), Borders railway, Glasgow Airport Rail Link, Edinburgh Airport Rail Link. Only the last of these is likely to be questioned in the event of a change of government in May. FoFNL's ambition of a fourth train north in the early afternoon is also excluded from the list as work is already under way to recast the timetable to permit this. Also excluded is the re-opening of Conon Bridge Station: again, this is well advanced in the planning process. Our list of 12 schemes is by no means exhaustive but represents a good range in scope (track, electronics, rolling stock, station building, research) as well as geographically. The precise details of what needs done and exactly where are not set out here. FoFNL has published its detailed suggestions for redoubling and loop re-opening in its latest Newsletters, most recently in our Responses to the HITRANS Draft Strategy and the Network Rail RUS.

Our 12 are, roughly in geographical north to south order:

  1. FNL and Kyle Line doubling and loops (initial phase). Thorough examination of all the infrastructure work required to bring the Inverness-Wick journey time down to 3 hours, including the construction of a new chord at Georgemas Junction and the re-opening of Halkirk Station.
  2. FNL, Kyle Line and West Highland Line RETB replacement, including extension of colour light signalling from Inverness to Dingwall.
  3. Fitting of controlled-emission toilets to Class 158s and (if possible) Class 156s and building of emptying facilities where necessary.
  4. Further extension of the Invernet commuter services into and out of Inverness as capacity permits.
  5. Inverness-Aberdeen line doubling and loops (initial phase).
  6. Highland Main Line doubling (initial phase).
  7. Gauge clearance work on Edinburgh and Glasgow to Inverness and Aberdeen lines to allow Class 220-type trains to run, and on other lines to allow Class 170s.
  8. Ordering of replacement rolling stock to come into service with the next ScotRail franchise after 2011. The long lead-times for design require decisions about what new stock is required well before the bidding for the new franchise begins. At present Scotland's major cities are linked by, at best, Class 170s which experience shows have been superseded by more recent designs. Diesel multiple units like the Virgin Voyager (Class 220) show what can be achieved, and sets like these would be entirely suited to journeys of up to 180 miles (Inverness to Glasgow). The Class 170s displaced should then be cascaded onto routes now served by Class 156s and Class 158s, with interior refurbishment to make them appropriate for the comfort and catering required. Rolling stock needs for shorter routes into Edinburgh and Glasgow should also be reviewed.
  9. Edinburgh-Glasgow (via Falkirk) electrification (preliminary work).
  10. Waverley Station Phase II.
  11. Glasgow & South Western line (the WCML diversionary route), doubling (initial phase) and electrification (preliminary work).
  12. Initial work on identifying a route for the high-speed new line between Glasgow and Edinburgh should be carried out, and the land acquired.

Unless our government can commit to schemes of this magnitude in each of the next half dozen parliaments Scotland will not be equipped to compete with other economies in 2035. Remote areas will continue to be depopulated as young people migrate to the cities, exacerbating the resource problems brought on by an ageing population. What is not spent on rail infrastructure will need to be spent on costly facilities in remote areas for elderly people who will be largely isolated from the engines of prosperity in the cities.

The precise details of the work carried out in the next 4 years are less important: what is vital is that a start is made on much larger-scale rail improvements with a wider geographical spread than have been seen so far. The Scottish Executive has delivered a wide range of improvements since 1999, and must be congratulated for its determination to spend large sums. Now is not the time for everyone to relax; on the contrary we must increase the commitment to public transport, and to rail in particular, and commit substantially more for the next 30 years if the nation's commitment to alleviating climate change is serious.