The Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, Phase 2, Draft, was released for consultation on 20 January.
Once ratified this will be the final document in this extraordinarily long process. The frustration for rail campaigners in the Highlands is that what needs to be done has been very obvious for many years.
The shortcomings of the Highland rail provision can be identified with a cursory glance at what currently exists. North of Perth on the trunk route to Inverness we have single track most of the way, with a few passing places. Between Inverness and Aberdeen, another intercity route, we still have mostly single track, with limited passing places. North of Inverness the Far North Line is single track throughout with very few passing places and an extremely slow journey which takes almost twice as long by rail as it does by road.
These facts cannot be altered by any amount of detailed analysis. The Scottish Government's policy is for modal shift to rail and rapid decarbonisation. The only possible conclusion therefore is to electrify as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to double-track the intercity routes, and to provide enough passing places on the remaining single-track routes.
The Far North Line, which is already receiving some very useful enhancements, will need more passing loops if freight is to be added as planned. The discrepancy between road and rail journey times will also need to be addressed if car users are to be persuaded to become rail passengers. Decisions taken in the 1980s to upgrade the road north of Inverness, but not the railway, reflect the view at the time that rail was probably in terminal decline. Fortunately that view is long gone.
The operational problems on these routes have been obvious since construction in the 19th Century. The Highland Railway could not afford to build the necessary infrastructure because there wouldn't have been enough profit for investors. Society has become enlightened enough in the intervening years to understand that railway systems do not make a profit: they are an essential shared facility, paid for out of taxation.
Had the necessary work been started three years ago when the STPR2 process was begun much would have been achieved. Instead we now have stacks of publications and far less time.
The imminent release of the draft STPR2 Phase 2 document prompted me to revisit the Phase 1 report, which came out a year ago. The sheer quantity of words, Venn diagrams and tables to be found in its 96 pages is crushing. In contrast, Rail For All, the Policy Briefing commissioned by the Scottish Green Party, lists the same background imperatives and also lists what needs to be built to address these imperatives - in 18 pages. To be fair, the latter is only concerned with rail.
Of more concern is the difference between plans in STPR from 2008 and what has actually happened. There are some timescale quotes in Richard Ardern's article in this issue. Were this level of slippage to be repeated for Highland railways projects in STPR2, we wouldn't expect to see shovels in the ground until 2036. It has taken three years to produce a 'refresh' for the original STPR. Imagine what we would have thought if we'd been told then that fourteen years later the planned HML improvements would still be at the 'study' stage.
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