In the December 2021 issue of Executive, the magazine of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive, considers the Highland Main Line in the light of discussions arising from the scrapping of the East Midlands Parkway to Leeds section of HS2.
I was intent on doing something along the usual seasonal theme for this comment piece as we approach another Festive Season and the start of a fresh New Year. All that changed with the UK Government's U-turn on HS2, the high speed rail link between London and the North of England, a couple of weeks ago, scrapping part of the proposed route of this major infrastructure project. I'll leave the politicians in our midst to answer the blunt question I heard asked in the press melee that ensued, 'Prime Minister, is this decision a train wreck, after last week's car crash...?'
This decision was swiftly followed by significant comment and debate, which may well have passed us by in the Highlands? However, I was impacted by some of the comment and also struck by the rail journey times that were still being discussed, even with the withdrawal of this eye-watering investment in HS2.
Understandably, there were, 'expectations of high speed services...transforming the grim infrastructure that has long failed to link northern mill towns to the modern world. Past plans have now been revised and costs cut'. In terms of our rail connectivity between the Highland Capital Inverness and the Central Belt, the Highland Main Line (HML), we more than know all about that!
The 'rail industry', contributing to this discussion, are realistically contemplating rail journey times between the Central Belt and London of only three hours, which is to be welcomed and would undoubtedly transform travel patterns within the UK. All of this, for me, absolutely emphasises just how pitiful is the capability of, and the services that operate on, the HML.
Our situation in the Highlands is made all the worse by the progress we are seeing elsewhere in Scotland. The £70m investment in the Levenmouth rail link, with construction due to start next year, will undoubtedly transform the economic and social prospects of this area of Fife. The success of the Borders rail link, which opened some six years ago, has been outstanding by any measure, and demonstrates why a modern railway matters to aspiring rural communities and the businesses based in them. It is no surprise to anyone watching this space that there is a significant head of steam (pun absolutely intended!) building for the extension of this route from Tweedbank to the West Coast Main Line near Carlisle.
In addition to seeing other communities and businesses being transformed by the creation or upgrading of their rail infrastructure, we read of the introduction of TransPennine Express' space age looking Nova 1 train, which will be making its debut this week on their route between the north west of England and Scotland. From December 12th there will be a reintroduction of a two hourly service from Manchester to Glasgow, which when combined with the existing Manchester to Edinburgh services, provides an hourly service from the north west of England to Carlisle and Scotland. An hourly service to the Central Belt, from a city that's ⅓ more distant than Inverness and with journey times that are shorter than we have to endure on the HML.
In stark contrast to all of this welcome and appropriate investment, nothing meaningful is being done on the HML, nor is anything substantive planned. It would appear that our wholly appropriate aspirations for the HML are languishing in a somewhat overgrown and decrepit siding somewhere south of the Highland Capital.