"Quite the most irregular service in Scotland"
This quotation comes from Barry Doe's National Rail Timetable Review for December 15 2019 - May 16 2020 published on pp 54-63 of RAIL issue 897 dated 29 January 2020. After commenting on the large increase in the number of trains between Aberdeen and Inverurie he continues "Sadly, however, while there are 11 trains a day between Inverness and Aberdeen, not only is it far from hourly, but it's quite the most irregular service in Scotland".
Don't we know it! Since 1996 there have been moves to provide an hourly service taking two hours or less end to end from Aberdeen to Inverness. The state of play in 2011, from Network Rail document 116647 was:
An initial programme has been developed indicating that GRIP Stage 3, Option Selection report development will be carried out in 2011 and implementation works can be complete in 2016.
The estimated costs for delivering all objectives totals circa £203m and this is an all inclusive figure including a 35% contingency allowance and is to +/- 40% quality. The estimate has been prepared using appropriate rates within the Network Rail estimating database and this will be further refined in the next GRIP Stage.
GRIP Stage 3, Single Option Selection will examine the range of options in greater depth. The complexity will be in examining the inter-relationships and dependencies between the options to satisfy the objectives.
The existing train service fails to encourage significant modal shift and stifles opportunities for growth. To support modal shift to rail travel there are aspirations to open two new stations on the route.
The current passenger journey times and irregular service between Aberdeen and Inverness does not offer an attractive alternative to road travel. The journey times are presently in the range of 2 hours 12 minutes - 2 hours 28 minutes.
By the start of 2020, the line has been redoubled from just north of Aberdeen to Inverurie, Forres station rebuilt, signalling modernised and Elgin and Insch platforms lengthened to take six coaches. There are many extra trains between Inverurie and Aberdeen and extras to give a roughly hourly morning and afternoon service between Inverness and Elgin.West of Inverurie long single track sections such as 18 miles between Keith and Elgin and 15 miles between Nairn and Inverness still continue to prevent the desired hourly service between Aberdeen and Inverness especially an 08:00 commuter east from Inverness and a 16:30 return from Aberdeen.
The planning application for the now to be two platform station at Inverness Airport (Dalcross) has been delayed. This has meant that, in order to avoid the whole process having to start again from scratch, an application will be made to renew the existing planning permission for a single platform in the meantime.
Two platforms means the long promised and much needed double track, and the minimum hope is that this will extend at least as far west as the recently expanded Norbord wood factory at Morayhill to allow rail freighting of timber (and finished product) to restart from there and avoid the cost of double handling. The line from Inverness to Dalcross (Woodend) was singled in 1966.
HITRANS has published a report it commissioned from AECOM dated January 2020 entitled Inverness Rail East: a new station feasibility study. This considers three sites at Seafield and Stratton Farm near to the Inverness Retail Park and new housing on the Aberdeen line, and near the Beechwood campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands on the Aviemore line.
Beechwood would have the greater potential demand but would require a two platform station on a 1 in 60 gradient which would be non-compliant with the rules for new stations. The two Aberdeen line stations have been assessed on the premise of it remaining single track at those points. This might mean restricting the length of the future redoubling of track being considered for that stretch and starting the double section immediately east of the new station.