How far have we moved forward on improving the railways in the north in the past fourteen years?
Reaching the end of this parliamentary session has given us the idea of an "End of Term Report", in fact this is an "End of Three Terms Report".
The Scottish Parliament Election on 6 May 2021 has focused our minds on the future condition of the railways in the north of Scotland and the progress that has been made since 2007. That is a convenient starting date as it was the first election held after Transport Scotland took responsibility for the railways in Scotland.
In March 2007 we produced a special issue of our magazine with four pages solely outlining railway enhancements for Scottish Parliament candidates to consider. We said:
"Will you agree to work across party lines to hammer out a plan for Scotland's railways to 2035? If not, why do you think your party has wisdom not shared by others?" And...
"Commitment means action, engineers at work, test trains on the track, contracts signed and progress reports delivered".
In early April this year FoFNL sent an eight-page illustrated pamphlet, Vote For Rail! to all constituency candidates, and the relevant list candidates, of the five main parties, seeking explicit support for rail in the next parliamentary session. We received responses from 3.4% of the candidates. Although these were very positive it demonstrates the uphill struggle we have if we're to persuade politicians to take the issue seriously.
Although we are the Friends of the Far North Line, our passenger and freight traffic is inextricably linked to the fortunes of the two intercity lines that reach Inverness. This survey of the promises and failures of the last 14 years is in chronological order and covers all three lines at various points.
[2005 - major slowdown to services, 22 mins added to the Wick-Inverness journey time to around 4 hours 20 minutes, an average of just 40mph. An instruction from the Office of Rail Regulation to Network Rail (NR) on 8 July 2005 that NR must maintain routes to the published capability level at April 2001 did not lead to any action on restoring the 2001 end to end journey timings.]
2008 - Ian Coucher, then CEO of Network Rail, said at the FoFNL AGM in Inverness Town House on 30 June 2008, "We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times".
2011 - FoFNL's response to NR's 2nd generation Rail Utilisation Strategy (RUS2) suggested installation of colour light signalling and motorised points (including at Lentran) between Inverness and Dingwall North.
2016 - FoFNL's response to the July 2016 publication of the NR Scotland Route Study repeated the suggestion.
2016 - rail consultant, Tony Glazebrook, compiled a comprehensive report on the needs of the FNL. Fergus Ewing MSP therefore established the Far North Line Review Team, on which FoFNL was represented, to decide what work should be carried out.
2019 - Final Report on the FNLRT deliberations was published.
2020 - work begins on some improvements.
2021 - final plans for the "Lentran Loop" expected in the summer.
2007 - The incoming SNP government promised in its manifesto to speed up the Highland Main Line journey time from Inverness to Edinburgh by 45 minutes.
2008 - In his August speech in Inverness Town House, Alex Salmond promised that 35 minutes would be taken off the schedule by 2011/12. This was incorporated in the Strategic Transport Projects Review, published in December, as Priority 3 (after the Queensferry Crossing and EGIP).
2009 - in June the Transport Scotland board was offered an initial £90m from the Regulatory Asset Base (RAB) for the major HML upgrade. [The RAB was the UK Government's loan scheme for Network Rail which was later discontinued when NR's funds were centralised in the UK Treasury]. The board asked for a deferment for a year, as the project parameters were not sufficiently advanced.
2011 - SNP manifesto didn't mention HML upgrades.
2011 - in this election year the completion date was extended to 2025. The Infrastructure Investment Plan allocated no money until the financial periods 2015/19 and 2020/25 when the estimated total cost of £250m-£600m would be shared. The planned work was to include additional passing loops and increases in line speeds.
2014 - NR's much delayed GRIP3 report on enhancement options was published. Budget for "Phase 2" reduced to £120m.
2015 - expected release of Transport Scotland's electrification strategy in February. In correspondence with Transport Scotland Inverness MSP Fergus Ewing supported our suggestion that electrifying the HML before Central Belt-Aberdeen would give more impressive journey time savings by "flattening" the steep gradients on the line.
2016 - The Scottish Chambers of Commerce HQ in Edinburgh made "The elimination of single track sections of railways between Scotland's cities" second only to broadband speeds in their election wish list priorities. They said, "Single track sections of the railways linking Inverness, Aberdeen and the Central Belt are unacceptable in the 21st century".
2019 - two improved loops and associated signalling improvements completed at a cost of £57m. This descoping had more than halved the 2014 budget.
2021 - the full fleet of faster Inter7City trains now in service (two years late) but no plans known for future infrastructure improvements.
2008 - The Strategic Transport Projects Review stated that Priority 4 was to upgrade this line to facilitate an end to end journey time of 2 hours with a service every hour. It was the then Transport Minister's aspiration that this would be completed by 2016.
2011 - in this election year the completion date was extended to 2030.
2014 - major funding announced for station and signalling improvements and some doubling, as stated in 2008. However, only Phase 1 to be completed by 2019.
2020 - Phase 1 completed.
2021 - no announcement about Phase 2 commencement, which was also to have been completed by 2016 and would have included the urgently needed dynamic loop near Orton on the 18 mile long single track section between Elgin and Keith.
What is clear from this survey is that promises and plans tend to disappear. This must be due to the diversion of funds away from railways, along with the suffocating weight of process and the swamping of progress by the production of labyrinthine 'reviews'.
The government never explicitly announces descoping and/or extending planned completion dates. Keeping track of what is done, as opposed to what is said, is left to those who keep records and read such things as 'Budget Statements'.
There have been some very positive achievements in the last 14 years. The FNL Review Team was a fine example of how work needed can be identified, agreed upon and done. Many improvements have already been made, including making the level crossings safer; repairing and replacing animal fencing; improvements to the RETB protocol; and the installation of Customer Information Screens.
Phase 1 of the work promised on the Inverness-Aberdeen line is excellent but Inverness to Dalcross redoubling has not been achieved and the recently approved planning application for a two platform station at Inverness Airport (Dalcross) shows just a short station loop rather than a 1½ mile redoubling extension to the Norbord wood processing plant.
The small amount of work done on the HML is useful, but even it falls short of what is required for freight trains to cross other trains.
Generally the reluctance to invest in the promised line improvements has left us in the north of Scotland with the two intercity lines which are largely single track with no spare capacity. Recent long closures of the line south from Aberdeen "have shown the severe limitations of single track railways" for diversionary purposes...
HITRANS has run several trials for new freight services on all three lines, for timber and whisky related cargoes in particular - trains are the most sustainable, least polluting remedies for the declared Climate Emergency. Its imperative is modal shift to rail for both passengers and freight. It's important that much more freight be directed onto rail, particularly for longer distances, such as to and from Aberdeen, Inverness and Georgemas. We are in a parlous state when money for putting freight back on single track railway lines cannot be found even in a climate emergency!
Roads are financed differently. Hauliers and their clients do not pay for the costs of road deterioration although it is a major problem. The A9 is pitted in many places south of Inverness but also particularly north of Cromarty bridge and on the northbound carriageway south of Tore. Presumably this is caused by the road surface not having been designed for the present volume of traffic or for the axle weights that are now allowed. Another reason to invest in more rail freight capacity.
From the perspective of rail in the Highlands a major change is needed in the way potential value is identified. Transport Scotland's STAG appraisal tool and similar models in England have been found wanting for causing growth to gravitate towards the already favoured populated urban areas, London being the prime example and, in Scotland, the Glasgow-Edinburgh conurbation. The UK Treasury is now said to be looking for a more rigorous and egalitarian model.
Another parsimonious idea with good intentions is the strategy of focusing on the impossible, by making 100% use of the existing network wherever possible before agreeing to infrastructure enhancement. This has proved unhelpful to the Highland lines and puts an unworkable strain on single-track railways where lost time cannot be regained and the effects mushroom very quickly.
The Scottish Government must take a nationwide view of rail provision and ensure that there is enough capacity, and there are alternative routes, for the system to work effectively at all times. This will mean investing in new projects, such as the Forth Tunnel, proposed in Rail For All, and the electrification and redoubling of the route to England via Kilmarnock.
The brochure for the post Cabinet meeting with the public in 2008 had a picture of Inverness's Greig Street Bridge with the caption "Scotland Performs for Inverness and the Highlands". Underneath we were told "The Government has launched Scotland Performs, a tool that measures progress towards the over-arching Purpose (sic) of creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth."
Whatever happened to this? Did it sink without trace?
Dare we hope that the 2016-2021 government and its successor is reviving this idea by making Inverness a true Transport Hub of the Highlands? It has recently announced the purchase of land for the long sought-after Integrated Transport Centre in Inverness city centre, combining the railway and bus stations. Maybe the tourist office too?
Fast and efficient rail services for passengers (including tourists) and freight are what is needed for a sustainable future. Let's have no more delay: Please just do it!