Campaigners for Highland railway improvement project 'less optimistic'
Key railway improvements which could dramatically boost train reliability on two Highland lines may not take place as soon as had been hoped, campaigners fear.
Moves are afoot which could ultimately result in a new passing loop being created on the railway northbound out of Inverness.
There is currently nowhere on the single track for trains to pass each other between Muir of Ord and Inverness and, if the work to install a loop between the two is carried out, it is hoped it will help to end a notorious bottleneck that currently leads to massive knock-on delays on the Kyle and Far North lines when services run late.
Earlier this year Network Rail submitted an application to Highland Council planners which will ultimately enable it to work on land next to the Far North Line at Delmore – a short distance west of Clachnaharry – and install a passing loop.
But the project is in its early planning stages and costings are still being drawn up.
Advocates of a passing loop somewhere between the Highland capital and Muir of Ord have previously claimed it could cost as little as £1 million to install – although inflation rates will likely have seen that number rise since then.
And delays in publication of the costs, and any future confirmation of the project, have led to growing concerns that the work may not take place as quickly as originally hoped.
Indeed it is understood that such costings were originally expected to be revealed by summer of this year, before slipping to the end of 2023, and then falling back again to the end of the current financial year in March 2024.
Following a meeting with rail bosses last week where he hoped to seek an update on the project, the convener of campaign group the Friends of the Far North Line, Ian Budd, said he was now "less optimistic" of swift action than before.
"Where we at [with the project] has not changed at all. We're still waiting for Network Rail to give Transport Scotland final costings," he said.
He continued: "Money for the Delmore Loop is probably on the back burner. What is changed is there is less optimism that money will be available straight away to do it because of Covid."
He added that the impact of the Covid pandemic on passenger numbers had resulted in a loss of commuter income – which is at about 65 per cent of what it was before – and that this meant budgets were more stretched.
However, while he fears the project may be delayed, he is also in little doubt that it will eventually happen – owing to the huge improvements in service reliability the loop could bring for relatively little cost.
He cited one current example where a loop would make a huge difference – the 6.18am Wick to Inverness service.
This train is due in the Highland capital by 10.38am, with two services then heading north to Wick and the Kyle of Lochalsh just minutes after its arrival.
But he stressed that this narrow window can lead to huge headaches for passengers, explaining that the length of the four-and-a-half hour journey south meant it was not unusual for the 6.18am Wick train to be running late by the time it arrives in Inverness.
With two trains leaving almost immediately after its arrival – the departure for Wick is just three minutes later at 10.41am – any such delay to the inbound train either means knock-on disruption for the two other journeys, or the 6.18am Wick-Inverness train has to wait in Muir of Ord for both northbound services to pass.
He explained that if the latter occurs, the inbound Wick train winds up adding up to "an extra hour" to its already late journey.
He stressed that this massive uncertainty made it impossible for Caithness residents to rely on the train to travel for appointments at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.