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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
Network Rail Control Period 6
FoFNL Policy Document

Part 2 of a policy document setting out FoFNL's aspirations for Network Rail to include in its plans for work to be carried out in CP6.

Part 1 of this document was in Far North Express Issue 63


"We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times"

Iain Coucher, CEO of Network Rail at the FoFNL AGM in Inverness, 30 June 2008

A very senior person at the Regulator asked me on 14 October 2014 "How are things up where you are?" and I replied that the journey times were 20 minutes or more longer than they were 10, or even 20, years ago. "That's all the TSRs (temporary speed restrictions)" he replied immediately. I was at that time unaware of the substantial journey-time extensions that were planned for the December 2014 timetable, which render the argument below much stronger.

It seems incredible that some 6 years after the CEO of Network Rail made his explicit pledge to reduce end-to-end journey times on the FNL "we must find and exploit" (emphasis added) there are still temporary speed restrictions in operation. Journey time reductions can be made by actions solely in the hands of the TOC (Train Operating Company), and separate steps will be taken with the new franchise-holder to "find and exploit real opportunities" which the TOC can deliver. However the main reason for extended journey times is the state and condition of the infrastructure - track and signalling.

Rather than produce an endless shopping list of things it would be nice to have, we have limited ourselves to four areas of activity which we expect to see carried out by Network Rail by the end of CP6. We accept that it is probably too late to initiate any major work during CP5, but there are many minor works which should be carried out swiftly. In addition some of the preliminary scoping work for larger projects should start without delay.

Area 1. Network Rail should, as a matter of urgency, list (and make available to us) all the TSRs between Inverness and Wick, together with dates on which they were instigated and plans for removal. Where the nature of the TSR is such that its removal depends on the co-operation of another party this should be made clear so that FoFNL may make appropriate representations outwith the industry.
Area 2. Network Rail should draw up plans for allowing line-speed increases on plain line, whether by laying CWR or otherwise, with a view to such installation being carried out during CP5 and CP6 as part of an improved maintenance plan.
Area 3. Network Rail, in collaboration with the TOC and others, should devise a "clean sheet" timetable for the FNL, not one based on the current track infrastructure. Some constraints will naturally remain - Clachnaharry bridge and other bridges - but the present location of passing loops should not drive the timetable; rather the plan is to discover the ideal timetable and then to see what affordable infrastructure enhancements are needed to deliver it, starting the building process in CP6. With longer stretches of double track, mainly dynamic loops, this will greatly reduce the excessive speed reductions now required at loop entries and departures. Equally with much improved signalling (see Area 4 below) the need physically to stop in order to gain permission to proceed will be eliminated.
Area 4. The FNL and the West Highland Line will soon be the only places where RETB (Radio Electronic Token Block) signalling is still used. We hope that the improvements already promised will mean that there will no longer be delays while permission to proceed is granted. In the longer term, however, RETB must be replaced by something more efficient. The ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) trial on the Cambrian Line has proved successful, as has the Hertford Loop trial. Network Rail plans to install ERTMS on the East Coast Main Line, and we applaud this. We hope that, mindful of the success on the Cambrian Line, ERTMS, or an appropriate variant of it, will be developed for use on lightly-used lines like the FNL. This work should proceed in tandem with larger-scale projects on major high-speed lines.

It is no longer acceptable to state that infrastructure enhancements are unaffordable on the FNL. Spending on rail elsewhere in Scotland has been, and continues to be, at a pleasingly high level. However those areas not so fortunate cannot be ignored for ever, pushed aside by the argument that more benefit will be gained by spending south of Inverness. With the current rolling stock in use on the FNL capable of reaching 90 mph it should be possible, given the terrain and the number of stops, to achieve an overall end-to-end average speed including stops of around 55 mph, thus reducing the Inverness to Wick timing to around 3 hours. While still slow this would be acceptable.

Mike Lunan: 30 October 2014