Transport news and discussion in Highlands media this year has been dominated by the campaign to force the Scottish Government to complete the dualling of the A9 between Inverness and Perth. While the pleas for this to be done had until recently been based on the perceived lack of 'connectivity', there has been a shift in campaigning to mentioning safety issues alone. It was always hard to understand how the existing A9 represents a lack of connectivity anyway. As rail campaigners, we are acutely aware of the need for safe transport, and pleased that rail is by far the safest way to travel. The problems on the A9 have several causes, the greatest of which is probably conflicting traffic movements when joining or leaving the road. Turning across oncoming traffic is inherently dangerous, and is made more so when undertaken by travellers from countries which drive on the right, who can easily become confused. Dual carriageways do not solve this problem, as can be seen further south on the A9. There are two solutions: grade-separated junctions and left-in-left-out (LILO) arrangements. Neither of these require dualling and both would be far cheaper, and be in place to save lives far earlier.
Highland newspapers, especially the Press & Journal, have been running a major campaign to have the dualling of the A9 completed as soon as possible. In fact it is not the most dangerous road in Scotland in terms of deaths/injuries per person/km, although that is not obvious from the campaigning.
Dualling a single carriageway road is certainly one answer to removing dangerous overtaking. However, we'll never be able to afford to do that everywhere, so perhaps the government would be well advised to try and tackle this problem with driver education. Meanwhile, the bottom line for Highland transport as a whole is that money is needed now to meet the Scottish Government's own modal shift targets. The Highland Main Line needs more than electrification, although this will undoubtedly help. It needs significant investment to gain extra capacity and better timekeeping via more passing loops and/or doubling, as do the other Highland lines, including the Far North Line.
The Welsh Government understands that major road projects are unaffordable at present, whereas in public at least, the Scottish Government does not.
As FoFNL Convener I wrote the following letter to the P&J which was published on 1 August. It was published under the heading Let's take politics out of A9 debate:
Sir, - For rail campaigners, watching the A9 dualling issue unfold is a deeply frustrating experience. What should be a simple discussion about how best to make use of the limited transport funds available in Scotland has turned into something where views in favour of full dualling of the road are held with a fervour which brooks no alternative solution.
Although far more people and freight currently travel by road between Inverness and Perth than by rail, this has to change, and it is Scottish Government policy to make the change.
In order for that to happen, money beyond the £57m spent on the single track Highland Main Line in recent years needs to be allocated. It therefore makes absolute sense to look at far cheaper and quicker road improvements to replace the dangerous junctions on the A9 than the upwards of £5,000m and many years' work required for full dualling.
Since no country can afford to prevent dangerous overtaking by dualling all single carriageway roads there has to be a solution combining more aggressive signage and warnings, and education of some drivers in the amount of road space they need to overtake safely.
Our organisation is non-political, as should be the whole transport discussion, yet we see Douglas Ross describing the Green Party as "anti-car extremist". This is a disappointing level of debate, especially since the cause of this description was apparently Mark Ruskell suggesting the above road improvements. May we return to a sensible, thought-out discussion?
Unfortunately, "upwards of £5,000m" in the third paragraph was edited out. Since contrasting the probable cost of dualling with the recent £57m investment on the HML was one of the main points in the letter, this was disappointing - perhaps it was an unwelcome comparison.
Two more letters on the subject appeared in the following days:
Impatient drivers should slow down - P&J, 7 August
Sir, - The letter from Cameron Talloch (August 5) describing the frustration of drivers in a queue behind a lorry on the A96 pretty well sums up the reason for accidents on most Scottish roads, which is that lethal combination of an aggressive and impatient driver in a modern fast car.
If people would allow more time for journeys, and adopt a patient attitude to traffic, there would be fewer accidents and no need to improve roads that are already quite adequate for the low traffic volumes we have in Scotland.
It is the skill and attitude of drivers that needs upgrading, not the roads.
Malcolm Parkin, Kinnesswood, Kinross.
Railway in north could be answer - P&J, 12 August
Sir, - The A9 dualling is getting a lot of publicity lately and deservedly so. The railway? Nothing. Surely the rail connections should also be in the limelight?
With the additions of a few rail loops, a fast train service between Inverness and Perth and Inverness to Aberdeen could be introduced on both routes. I've travelled on all four routes, road and rail, over the years.
It's time for the railway system for the north of Scotland to modernise, reducing both road haulage and car traffic.
Anyone who has travelled by train in the EU will know that we are stuck in the dark ages here.
Roderic Kyle, Alford.
Then on 22 August the Press & Journal carried an opinion piece by Professor Jim Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, under the heading Upgrading Scotland's railways at the same time as its roads would be just the ticket.
Dr Hunter made many good points about the whole transport system in the Highlands. Describing a recent trip he commented:
I could have driven to Fort William. Non-stop, the drive would have taken me a bit over three hours. Longer... if, as would be a virtual certainty at this time of year, I'd got stuck behind a lorry and campervan convoy on the Loch Lomond section of the A82, a road with more turns and twists than a corkscrew.
Courtesy of ScotRail, and including 20 minutes between trains in Glasgow's Queen Street Station, I got to Fort William in something like four-and-a-quarter hours. But at £26.85, my day return fare (reduced, to be sure, by my Senior Railcard) came in way below the cost of an equivalent car journey. And the rail trip was an altogether more enjoyable experience than the drive would have been.
Instead of staring for what can seem like hours at the back end of the sort of truck that can so readily obstruct your progress, I was able to sit back in my window seat and take in unfolding vistas of a grandeur seldom on offer for as little as the few quid asked of me.
His enjoyment of the train journey gave him pause to consider:
...to make the kind of trip I made last week is at once to wonder why, in this country, we give such a dismally low priority to railways. As someone who was, for years, one of that road's frequent users, I very much get current pressure for an upgraded A9. But why not a simultaneous push for long overdue investment in the rail network?...Our rail routes, after all, are exactly as they were when laid down in the reign of Queen Victoria...[i]magine how things might be if tracks were to be upgraded, the network expanded, electrification made universal and - by way of boosting the drive to net zero - both rail and public transport more generally made truly affordable.
On the affordability front, we'd do well to follow Germany. There, it's presently possible to get, for the Euro equivalent of just £42, a pass that entitles you to a month's unlimited and nationwide rail, tram and bus travel.
One day, perhaps, we'll have politicians with the wit to follow Germany's lead.
Although at present both the Press & Journal and members of Scottish Provincial Press, such as the Inverness Courier, are preoccupied with the A9 campaign, they have in the past been keen to point out the need for real investment in the Highland rail network as well. This editorial from the Inverness Courier in 2015, on the occasion of the appointment of a contractor to carry out Phase 1 of the Inverness-Aberdeen improvements, makes interesting reading:
On the face of it, it appears good news - a principal contractor has been appointed for the £170 million upgrade of the Inverness-Aberdeen railway line - and to some extent it is.
Any investment is welcome and although the scheme will move as slowly as one of the route's antiquated trains - it is going to be about 15 years before all the improvements are completed - there are some short-term benefits.
By 2019 infrastructure will be created to enable local transport body Hitrans to build a halt at Dalcross (although, sadly, not at the airport), signals will be upgraded, 16 miles of double track laid between Aberdeen and Inverurie and a new station built at Forres. There will be more peak time trains between Inverness and Elgin and a half-hourly commuter service between Aberdeen and Inverurie.
But it still feels like tinkering with a route that is little altered since Victorian times. And when compared with the £3 billion estimated cost of dualling the A96 by 2030, £170 million is small change.
Good road links are vital to Inverness and the A9 dualling in particular is an important project which is long overdue. But it is equally important that the Highland capital sits at the heart of a modern inter-city rail network and that remains a distant dream.
Despite some minor improvements, journeys to Scotland's other major cities are painfully slow and barely changed from 100 years.ago. One of the reasons we are so reliant on the A9 is that the railway is not an attractive alternative for anyone wanting to do a day's business in the central belt and travel in relative comfort. Tellingly, we understand there is talk of introducing commuter flights between Inverness and both Glasgow and Edinburgh for the duration of the A9 roadworks, a clear indication that no one really believes the train is capable of taking the strain.
Yet all the evidence points to people being happy to switch to rail if the services are fast, regular, convenient and reasonably priced.
The recently reopened Borders Railway, an initially controversial £294 million investment, is barely able to keep up with demand and carried 125,000 people during its first month of operation. Passengers complained about being crammed into two-carriage trains and having to stand for the entire journey, forcing ScotRail to try and increase capacity by borrowing carriages from other routes. Nevertheless, earlier this month two services had to be cancelled and replaced by buses because the trains looked like becoming dangerously overcrowded.
The new railway has gained international publicity and is already boosting investment and tourism in the Borders in a way that no new road ever could.
It is the same story elsewhere in Scotland. Annual passenger journeys on ScotRail have surged 35 per cent over the past decade, from 68.7 million in 2004/5 to 92.7 million last year.
Locally the reopening of stations in Beauly and Conon Bridge have helped some of the peak-time traffic pressure on the Kessock Bridge, but in strategic terms Inverness is being left behind by this quiet rail revolution. The risk is that if the dualled A9 and A96 suck more people off the trains and onto the roads, passenger numbers will dwindle and the much-needed investment will never come. In fact, we are more likely to go backwards.
Money is scarce, we acknowledge that. But bringing a rail line up to 21st-century standards is cheaper than building a dual carriageway and equally important. We would urge the Scottish Government to look again at the Inverness-Aberdeen line and devise a scheme to enable fast, inter-city trains to run alongside regular commuter services and incorporating a proper link to Inverness Airport. If necessary, ministers should re-examine the need to dual the entire A96, or at least the timescale for doing so, in order to find the cash.
[Editor's note: Please remember that the above was written in 2015.]
It's interesting, illuminating, but usually in the rail context somewhat depressing, to look back at things people have said or written. Anyone with any doubts about the Scottish Government's failure to address the lack of proper intercity services into Inverness should consider these:
In the April 2013 edition of Far North Express, FoFNL convener John Brandon noted, "The Scottish Government is concentrating on the A9 and A96 accesses to Inverness - £3 billion for the former is the latest budget price - whilst procrastinating over improvements to the rail infrastructure. There is still nothing for the Far North Line in any government announcements. It's as though railways barely exist north of the Central Belt and not at all beyond the Caledonian Canal."
In oral questions in Parliament on 25 September 2014, Liz Smith MSP asked the Deputy First Minister "What action is being taken to reduce rail journey times between Perth and other Scottish cities?" Nicola Sturgeon replied that there will be substantial improvements to the Highland Main Line and commented "We are committed to a rolling programme of electrification which includes routes to Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness".
In the following year, on 23 March 2015, Nicola Sturgeon attended a ceremony in Inverness marking the launch of the new Caledonian Sleeper franchise in which she said, "People in the north should not have to choose between good rail links or better roads." A statement which the current Scottish Government would do well to bear in mind.
Although most of the debate at present is about the A9 and A96, which might seem somewhat removed from the Far North Line, any improvements to our neighbouring routes would also be of tremendous value to our line and its passengers and freight. If the Scottish Government can be be persuaded to ensure that sufficient funds are available for the necessary expenditure on all the Highland railways we might see more passing loops on the Far North Line, along with a restoration of the end to end journey time that pertained before the 2005 deceleration, when 25 mins was added because of new safety procedures.