...a capacity crisis on the HML
Double track on the Highland Main Line initially runs out 7 miles north of Perth at Stanley. ScotRail timetable planners work wonders trying to squeeze in all the traffic, but any expansion in the numbers of both passenger and freight services is now being compromised by the restrictions caused by too many long single track sections.
Late running by one train causes knock-on delays to several others en-route. It is now common to have to wait at Stanley for a delayed train coming south. Wabtec Engineering of Doncaster is far behind with its contract to deliver 26 sets of refurbished High Speed Trains with automatic doors by 2018. The conductor currently has to go along the platform to shut all the doors manually and this can delay trains by 7 to 10 minutes over the whole route.
Parliamentary answers suggested that phase 2 of the line improvements would include reinstatement of some passing loops, but this didn't happen. One at Murthly could have saved some of the waits at Stanley. Freight interests asked for the long loop at Ballinluig to be reinstated as all of the loops are too short for long intermodal freight trains to pass each other. It wasn't and neither was the resignalled loop at Pitlochry (which is the shortest on the line) extended such that when the Stobart/Tesco empties met the northbound Royal Scotsman there one day this summer there was a train jam!
The March 2019 NR/Scotland Freight Joint Board's report "Industry Growth Plan for Rail Freight" has a lot to say about the capacity problems of the line currently stifling growth of rail freight. Gauge and weight clearances mean that certain widely used containers for chilled and frozen produce cannot be conveyed and the cement train loses about one third of what it could carry. The known potential traffic for four additional freight train paths each way cannot currently be met.
The report sums all this up as "Network Capacity Pinch Points" comprising single line sections, lengths of loops and lack of passing locations. It has long been known that the Stobart train locomotive is being restricted to 20 containers because of this, but could haul 28 containers. The HML is crying out for more capacity.
All this against the background of the A9 trunk road dualling. Since 2009, when that was announced, it has been made clear that the rail improvements required ought to be finished first in order to get the passenger and freight flows established and prevent any possible reverse modal shift from rail to road, which would be against Government policy. Now that everyone is aware of the Climate Emergency, making the railway fit for purpose is even more urgent.
The A9 dualling could cause an access problem for Dunkeld Station. The community wishes to preserve level access which means lowering the new dual carriageway road at that point. This short stretch has now been costed at between £1bn and £1.6bn which is half the total projected budget cost of £3bn for the whole 80 miles of A9 dualling. It makes the £300m spent on doubling 16 miles of railway from Aberdeen to Inverurie seem modest. Even more so, when you realise that that includes a substantial amount for a traffic control system known as railway signalling.
Safety on the A9 is really important, but the Climate Emergency means that we must make more use of sustainable transport modes such as rail for both passengers and particularly for heavy freight. The largely Victorian state of the HML is overdue for substantial investment in double tracking, modern signalling and electrification. Transform Scotland's Vision 2030: Clean Rail document published on 2 September calls for decarbonisation of Scotland's rail network and underlines the need to start planning now to electrify the lines to Inverness and Aberdeen for 2030.
At FMQs in the Scottish Parliament on 5 September Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone asked the First Minister if she would be bold in the Climate Emergency and take funds out of new, big, roads projects and invest them in public transport instead? "Yes, we will be bold" was the reply.
FoFNL and many other organisations and individuals will be delighted about that.