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 new Highland Main Line Timetable and the Future

December 11, 2011 saw the start of the much heralded extra services on the Highland Main Line (HML), although the actual timings were not released until the last moment. Maybe this reflects the difficulty of fitting in extra trains on to the so far unimproved single-track line. There are two extra services each way including on Sundays.

The main weekday changes southbound are:

The main weekday changes northbound are:

On Sundays there are new southbound trains at 10:44 and 15:20 to Edinburgh. The northbound extras are at 11:09 from Glasgow and 15:50 from Edinburgh.

There are good points and bad points about the new HML timetable. The single track is now more crowded and delays to any one train can potentially affect many others. Many trains are slowed down by having to wait at crossing points. Two or three minutes are factored in at each crossing anyway, but the new timetable has nine trains waiting anything from three to seven minutes at crossing loops, principally Dunkeld, Pitlochry, and Aviemore. A total of 52 extra minutes is spent daily by these nine trains. If you multiply that by the number of passengers carried, it is an awful lot of passenger delay minutes incurred for want of extra line capacity.

Some trains have been noticeably delayed by these capacity problems. The 08:34 from Edinburgh is now nine minutes slower, and passengers on the 11:35 have an extra 17 minutes added because they now have to change at Perth. Conversely, Glasgow passengers gain 13 minutes by not having to change. The 12:46 from Inverness direct to Edinburgh is now 21 minutes slower than a few years ago due to a previous timetable reorganisation. Its schedule of 3 hours 35 minutes is not competitive with road transport.

When the class 170 trains were introduced, there were several "fast" services between Inverness and Edinburgh or Glasgow which took about 3 hours 10 minutes. The 06:47 business train from Inverness to Edinburgh still manages a 3 hour 13 minute journey. All the others average out at 3 hours 35 minutes to Edinburgh and 3 hours 23 minutes to Glasgow. Northbound the 17:42 business train from Edinburgh manages 3 hours 20 minutes, but the average is 3 hours 31 minutes. One service north from Glasgow takes 3 hours 13 minutes and the average is 3 hours 20 minutes.

The Chambers of Commerce have been asking for fast, limited-stop business trains in both directions with arrival times nearer to 9 a.m. At present the earliest arrivals are Edinburgh 10:00; Glasgow 10:14 and Inverness 10:28. It is perfectly possible on present fastest timings of 54 minutes from Glasgow to Perth and 2 hours between Perth and Inverness to run services taking only 3 hours; the problem is passing other trains on the congested single-track HML.

The Scottish Government's "strategic priority" is to upgrade the HML to an hourly service frequency and to cut 35 minutes off the timings between Edinburgh and Inverness. That was when the average was 3 hours 20 minutes and so it was to give a fastest service of just 2 hours 45 minutes. As well as line-speed improvements, several passing loops are to be reinstated and more powerful train engines supplied. The target date for this has been moving backward and it is profoundly disappointing that the scheme of work on the loops has still not been finalised and nothing has resulted on the train engines.

The May 2012 timetable should have seen four or five minutes deducted from train schedules due to raised line-speeds over Druimuachdar and between Perth and Ladybank and also due to the installation of tail-lamp cameras to aid signalling at Dunkeld. This will not now happen until December because of a decree that timetables were not to be changed during Olympics year!

Finding paths for HML trains on the routes from Perth to Edinburgh and Glasgow is essential. Two paths in each direction on each route are required to complete the HML hourly service frequency promise. The longer this priority scheme is delayed, the more difficult it may become to secure these paths. They are crucial and their timings will have a determining effect on the capacity improvements which must be built in to the HML. It is vital that they are programmed in to the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) currently under way. Hopefully this can also help to avoid the continuation of the need to divert the 08:43 and 14:48 Inverness to Glasgow services via Cumbernauld, which takes an extra 12 minutes.

The main problem with the HML is that it is like a single-track road with passing places. It is, however, an important strategic route for Scottish and UK residents and businesses. It is not just a Highland conveyance. Strategic single-track roads were doubled in the 1960s and it is past time that more doubling was done to the railway following on from the Druimuachdar redoubling in the 1970s.

The freight businesses would like to see a long loop at Ballinluig and reinstatement of the passing loop is essential for passenger trains too. This is amply demonstrated by all the delay minutes now being timetabled at Dunkeld and Pitlochry. The other long single section which needs a loop reinstatement is that between Dalwhinnie and Kingussie. On 3 April the Highland Chieftain, already two hours late, was held for a further 22 minutes at Dalwhinnie awaiting access to this long section. The suggestion is to put back the former loop at Etteridge. On 8 March, when travelling on the new 08:43 from Inverness to Glasgow, four successive loops were full. Carrbridge had the cement train, Aviemore the late-running sleeper, Kincraig the Stobart grocery train, and Kingussie the 07:06 from Glasgow. The line quite obviously needs more capacity, especially for the increases in strategic rail freight likely as oil price and availability become ever more volatile.

The most problematical gap in the passenger timetable remains with early evening arrivals in Inverness. What was a long gap from 17:04 to 19:34 is now a gap between 18:28 and 20:11 (or 21:02 if your ticket is only valid on ScotRail services). Privatisation sadly reduced the flexibility to travel at some of the most popular times: 8 a.m. southbound and 16:30 northbound. This has been a big problem on the HML. ScotRail's new services at 08:43 and 10:44 SuO has reduced the problem southbound, but the northbound difficulty remains. If the East Coast train is late and you have their reduced price tickets, you cannot travel on ScotRail's 17:42 from Edinburgh.

The withdrawal of the 16:11 from Glasgow and 15:34 connection from Edinburgh has removed a popular option to attend meetings or events in the south and travel back in time to attend an evening event in Inverness. This service was well used by Church of Scotland ministers amongst others. Now, leaving Edinburgh at 14:35 is too early to get the best of both events.

Is it too much to hope that the 19:xx arrival slot could be filled by a revival of the Clansman service from England via the West Coast route? The present Transpennine services from Manchester and Preston manage just to miss the Inverness services by minutes.

Operating a single line at high capacity is very difficult. Timetabling trains on such a line and getting them to dovetail in with the intense commuter services into Edinburgh and Glasgow Queen Street severely compounds this difficulty. Train planners have a complex job on their hands. A robust HML timetable requires much more doubling, whether static loops or dynamic ones, as soon as possible. Time has been lost and must be made up with this strategic priority project.

Richard Ardern