Ever since the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, promised in August 2008 to reduce the journey times between Inverness and Edinburgh to an average of three hours, with a quickest service taking a maximum of 2 hrs 45 mins by 2012, there has been a mixture of denial (of the promise, at first) and later, obfuscation, about what has actually happened. So far no explanation has been given and Parliamentary Questions' answers have been somewhat unhelpful.
Rhoda Grant, one of our Vice Presidents has asked several questions about this. On 15 January 2019 she tabled a question asking why the target date was missed, what had been done so far, and when to expect the promised service level to be achieved.
The answer given said that the 2011 Infrastructure Investment Plan stated that the "Highland Main Line Rail Improvement project" would be completed in phases between 2014 and 2025. It then listed the first two Phases - Phase one, completed by the end of 2012 which had given an average 6 min reduction in journey time, and Phase two delivering a reduction of 10 minutes on the average journey time. (It wasn't clear whether that 10 minutes was on top of the 6 mins or included those minutes). The last sentence stated that the "long term aspiration" was the timings mentioned in the question.
Nearly four years later Rhoda asked again about progress to meet Alex Salmond's promise. Surprisingly, her actual question was replaced in parliament records by an altered version of her 2019 question.
The answer this time talked about lengthening several passing loops "to enable longer and more frequent freight and passenger services".
The only way that lengthening a loop will allow a more frequent service is if the original length was too short to accommodate a long freight train, causing the passenger train to be the one that has to wait in the loop. Or perhaps this implies some double-tracking: a higher frequency can be achieved either by adding more passing loops or providing double track sections long enough for more than one train to pass another, known as 'dynamic loops' and ideally at least four miles long.
Rhoda followed this up with a further question (see Parliamentary Questions) requesting a timescale for the journey time reductions promised in 2008. The answer, whilst repeating the intention of "lengthening passing loops on the line to enable longer and more frequent freight and passenger services" gave no timescale but did say, "We will fund the infrastructure enhancements necessary to produce further journey time savings on the Highland Main Line once a robust business case has been established for this expenditure."
Meanwhile the Transport Scotland website lists the Highland Main Line as "Under construction" and simply gives 2025 as the target date for the 2008 commitment. The page has a link entitled "View the Highland Main Line details" which says that TS expects the key outputs of an hourly service between Perth and Inverness "extended to Glasgow or Edinburgh" and a reduction of 10 mins on the average journey time, by May 2020. There is another link on that page: "Find out more at Network Rail's Highland Main Line site". Unfortunately this is a dead link and the NR website contains no HML page. On the general "Scotland Route" page it says, "Similar [to A2I] connectivity, journey choice and journey time improvements will be delivered by new infrastructure, new trains and new timetable for Inverness and for communities along the Highland Main Line to Perth and onto [sic] the Central Belt."
It is good to know that as far back as 2008 and 2015 respectively, the last two First Ministers fully appreciated the need for radical improvement of rail in the Highlands. Alex Salmond said in Inverness, "Railways must at least compete with the roads", and Nicola Sturgeon echoed that, saying that she believes people in the North should not have to choose between good rail links or better roads. The new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, once held the post of Transport Minister, so will be well aware of Highland railways' shortcomings.
The mention above of a "robust business case" still raises a warning flag for us. Until recently business cases seemed to require value for money in terms of the population served - a calculation which can never produce a good enough result in less-populated areas, with lengthy routes, such as the Highlands. We have been assured recently that that method has been superseded by something which takes many more factors into account. We would hope that factors such as the great reduction in pollution gained by transferring freight to rail would be included, along with the strategic object for the whole of Scotland of achieving fast, safe, environmentally-friendly communication between all parts of the country, and the economic benefits that would bring.
The passionate campaigning for dualling the A9, at a staggering cost for one length of road of at least £3,000m, has overshadowed the needs of people in the Highlands who wish to travel by rail, and has ignored the declared government aim of substantial modal shift away from road transport.
That £3,000m+ would go a long way to solving the capacity problems of the HML and speeding up the journey on the Far North Line enough to remove the temptation to drive.