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04/03/2020 - Task Force needed to press case for investment in Inverness - Perth rail service

 A major study is recommending that a Task Force be set up to press the case for long overdue investment in the Inverness – Perth rail service to provide for a more attractive, faster and sustainable service and one that can compete with road travel on the A9, which is in line for a £3 billion upgrade.


The study by consultants, Systra, commissioned by HITRANS, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands, demonstrates that, whilst the relative lack of progress on the Highland Main Line can be seen as “regrettable through a combination of circumstances”, a number of opportunities are emerging to address journey time and connectivity issues that previous investments have not resolved. It is recommended that HITRANS enlist support from all potential stakeholders for a “Task Force” approach to developing a comprehensive cross-industry consensus based on local needs.

The report notes that a significant number of investment and service enhancement promises have been made over the last decade, but many of these have not been delivered. Average journey times between Inverness and Edinburgh and Glasgow have not improved significantly since 2006, when an intended sub 3-hour journey time from Inverness to Glasgow and Edinburgh was announced in the “Scotland’s Railways” report, and later the Strategic Transport Projects Review. Similarly, services between Inverness and Perth have increased in frequency but have not achieved the 2-hour timing proposed as the average journey time in the 2011 Initial Industry Plan.
Transformational station investments have also remained elusive, with promised investments at Inverness and Perth yet to be delivered. Without these promised improvements, the necessary modal shift from road to rail, the opportunity to decarbonise Scotland’s transport network and the wider economic benefits that enhanced rail connectivity will bring to communities along the HML will continue to be out of reach.

In order to deliver these committed investments a number of possible interventions have been identified by the consultants that would deliver the aspirational 2 hours 45 minutes journey time between Inverness and the Central Belt as soon as possible.

Given the significant planned investment in dualling the A9 trunk road corridor, the report recommends it should be argued that a complementary “step-change” level of investment is required on the Highland Main Line that would deliver competitive journey times compared to road journeys and allow the line to perform at a level that a key strategic route demands.

This investment would also respond to the current climate agenda; the Scottish Government’s declaration in 2019 of a climate emergency has brought into sharp focus the contribution of transport to emissions, with a commitment to decarbonise Scotland’s passenger rail services by 2035 through the continued electrification of the network.

The report continues: “Electrification of the Highland Main Line would make a significant contribution to meeting both these key objectives, allowing the rail service to compete on journey time with the upgraded A9 corridor, delivering improved journey times, increased reliability and resilience, and delivering the zero carbon benefits that have been pushed to the forefront of the political agenda.

“Furthermore, providing low carbon freight services on an electrified route could instigate a modal shift from road freight, a sector in which decarbonisation is proving difficult. Full electrification would deliver the greatest benefits in all these areas, and should remain the ambition. However, given that continuous electrification may prove to be challenging from an engineering perspective or too costly to represent a value for money investment, it is possible that a discontinuous electrification programme – including the use of battery or hydrogen powered trains –should be considered as a potential first step towards the longer-term benefit of full electrification.

“In terms of station improvements, a programme of investment in the smaller stations along the route, creating high quality community centres – or localised mobility hubs, with linkages with local bus services, and vehicle and cycle charging stations – would provide benefits for the local rail users. Significant station investment such as this at stations would also enhance the visitor experience at destinations such as Aviemore and Pitlochry, facilitating the growing rail tourism sector in this region. “

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Note to editors: The Highland Main Line runs for 118 miles between Perth and Inverness. The route provides long-distance links between Inverness and Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, as well as providing local connections for intermediate stations between Inverness and Perth. Inverness provides a gateway to enable connectivity with the rest of the Highlands and Islands, allowing connections to the north coast via the Far North Line and to the west towards Kyle of Lochalsh.

The route is currently served by 12 daytime trains per day in each direction, with all except one daytime and one sleeper service to London operated by ScotRail. Some freight services also operate along the route. Analysis of the changes to the timetable over the last 20 years indicates that the number of daily passenger services between Inverness and the Central Belt has increased by three or four (depending on the direction). However, the existing timetable still falls short of the frequency of services to Edinburgh and Glasgow found on other ScotRail 7-Cities routes, with journeys often requiring an interchange at Perth, further increasing end-to-end journey time and customer inconvenience on an already relatively slow service. In addition to this low frequency and long journey time, it is currently not possible to arrive in either Edinburgh or Glasgow from Inverness prior to 9am.

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