What should the word STRATEGIC imply? Surely not a crawl for 14 years while world climate suffers.
Alex Salmond's 'Declaration of Inverness' in August 2008 promised much but only a fraction has been delivered. This despite the two lines to Inverness being declared third and fourth priority in Scotland in the Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) in December 2008.
Passenger train journey times between Edinburgh and Inverness were to be cut by 35 minutes with an hourly frequency, and there was to be a fastest time of 2 hours 45 minutes with an average time of 3 hours. All by December 2012.
STPR gave a timescale: "for potential implementation during Control Period 4 (2009-2014)" and mentioned that "a commitment to Phase 1 was made in a Scottish Government statement on the 5th of August 2008."
Similarly, STPR promised Aberdeen to Inverness (A2I) journey times to be cut by 20 minutes to 2 hours with an hourly frequency also "for potential implementation during Control Period 4 (2009-2014)".
Stewart Nicol, CEO of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, has witnessed this over the last 13 years and fought for the Scottish Government to keep its promise. His most recent comment is reproduced elsewhere in this issue. As he says, "meaningful enhancement" for the HML appears to be stalled with "nothing substantive now planned" in contrast to welcome investment elsewhere in Scotland and England.
The progress promised by the last STPR in December 2008 for implementation within less than a decade has now receded to mere "aspiration" and another "target" of electrification of both lines by 2035 and 2045 respectively seems so far away as to be potentially another mere aspiration so far ahead that the present administration needn't worry about delivering it.
What will the tortuous and long overdue STPR2 eventually bring this year? If the word STRATEGIC really does mean what it says, the railway lines from Edinburgh and Aberdeen to Inverness should be comprehensively overhauled to make them really fit for purpose. This has become even more urgent to respond to the climate emergency (CE). The lines could have been ready now to cope with that but will instead have to play catch-up - and fast.
The CE requires decarbonisation and the transfer of much freight and passenger business from road to rail. We have known this for years but both Scottish and UK governments have been reluctant to act to make this happen.
DB Cargo UK [a rail freight company] has launched a campaign "Everyone knows it: freight belongs on rail" to help the governments achieve their targets of zero carbon emissions. They are asking the UK government to set out legally binding targets to decarbonise rail freight, and ensure investment is made to make rail infrastructure fit for the digital age to allow both freight and passenger trains to run more efficiently.
It is good to see approval given recently for major work to shorten journey times between Aberdeen and the Central Belt by 20 minutes and provide more capacity for freight. Surprisingly, the two long enforced closures of that line at Carmont south of Stonehaven have not seen any public discussion of urgent capacity improvements to the A2I line to act as a diversionary route for both Aberdeen or Inverness if either the Stonehaven or Aviemore routes should get blocked. Railfreight should now be an even bigger driver in getting the HML and A2I lines fit for purpose. This means getting rid of the long single-track sections of 18 miles between Keith and Elgin and the two of 13 miles each on the HML. Benefits will then accrue to the Far North and Kyle lines too.
Where is the strategic thinking? Why is it taking so long?