Months of Misery
Timekeeping on the Far North Line in July, August and September has left a lot to be desired. It wasn't just the Commonwealth Games, (although we certainly noticed the effects of that) or the Ryder Cup. It has been endemic throughout the period as the accompanying tables from Recent Train Times (www.recenttraintimes.co.uk) show. Passengers have had a miserable time, none more so than the regular valued commuters on the 17:13 to Ardgay which only achieved a right time arrival at Dingwall on 14% of occasions.
As the figures cover a whole three months, many of the peaks and troughs are smoothed out. For example, the 12:17 from Inverness to Dingwall and 12:54 return were cancelled 32% of the time, but if you look at one of the worst weeks from Monday 11th August they were cancelled for 67% of the time. In other words these services ran on only 2 of the 6 days that week.
The three month's data also includes Sundays which tend to have better results than weekdays as there are fewer trains occupying the line. It is claimed to be nearly 100% complete. It gives a far better picture of the true situation as it affected passengers than ScotRail's own four weekly punctuality and reliability charts which are displayed at stations. These count any train which arrives up to ten minutes late as being "on time".
Seven of the northbound services have suffered cancellation and, (outwith the period), the 23:30 from Inverness to Tain was cancelled on 3 October. Thus 8 out of 16 services, or 8 out of 12 weekday services have been affected. Southbound, 12 out of 14 weekday services have suffered cancellation! Fortunately there has not been a weekday when all 20 of the 26 weekday services were cancelled, but the misery has been shared around.
The worst hit trains for long delays have been the long distance 06:20 and 16:00 Wick to Inverness services and the 10:37 northbound. The latter does not show up on our data because the long delays occur further north. On 1 October it was announced (on leaving Invergordon) that Glasgow Control had decided to hold the 15 minute late train at Helmsdale to allow the 12:35 Wick to Inverness train to come through the 35 minute long single track section between Forsinard and Helmsdale on time. This meant that the northbound service would become at least 66 minutes late. By missing out Thurso, and using taxis thence from Georgemas, some time could be made up to give a Wick arrival some 40 minutes late.
This scenario happens even more frequently to the 06:20 which, if it is more than 15 minutes late by Dingwall, is held at Muir of Ord to let outbound trains to Wick and Kyle through the 20 minute long section from Inverness. The 06:20 does not then reach Inverness until 11:40, some 65 minutes late.
There is not one single reason for this serious spate of daily delays this summer. There have been train faults, signalling problems, crewing issues and "temporary" speed restrictions. It is clear that the 20 to 25 minute deceleration imposed in 2005 has left this long single track route with insufficient resilience in its timetable for when problems occur. As Iain Coucher, the CEO of Network Rail said at our 2008 AGM "We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times on the Far North Line". Very little has happened since then and, as can be seen elsewhere in this issue, FoFNL is asking Network Rail to scope some major infrastructure improvements during Control Period 6 which covers 2019 to 2025. Reinstating the loops at Lentran and Kildonan would greatly reduce the 60 minute delays being endured by the 06:20 and 10:37 trains, but there are other issues such as the painfully slow speeds over the points at each loop which could also be addressed.
The passenger experience this summer has been bad. The industry is now used to calculating delay minutes to trains and invoicing the guilty parties. It would be equally appropriate to calculate the cost to passengers of the delay minutes that they suffer with lost connections, appointments etc. Far better to make sure the delays don't happen in the first place. The industry surely has some remedial work it needs to do to make the FNL trains run on time again and then to go forward by speeding up the services on this multi-user life-line.
For a larger version of the tables below there is a .pdf file here which will either display in your browser or open a new program.