Rail improvements can’t come quickly enough for the Highlands

A recent train journey gave me plenty time to ponder the glaring need for improved infrastructure on our rail network.

I was attending a Scottish Chambers of Commerce council meeting in Dumfries, which proved a logistical challenge involving more than six hours of travelling each way, four changes in all and a roundabout route that meant having to go via Carlisle both there and back.

At a time when we’re being encouraged to drive less, the journey would have taken less than four-and-a-half hours by car and would certainly been a more direct route. Only a faulty sat nav would have directed me over the border.

It was another eye-opening trip for me, following several previous experiences on slow and over-crowded trains heading north from the central belt. The lack of attention to rail infrastructure on the Highland main Line was already on the SCC agenda, but it is certainly higher up that agenda now.

A correspondent recently reminded me there are five possible rail routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow and all are electrified. Yet, 70 per cent of the land mass north of the central belt is dependent on just two rail lines, neither of which is electrified.

To be fair, there are a number of improvements planned. The Inverness-Aberdeen line is being upgraded in stages, with some work scheduled for completion this year and the whole project being delivered by 2030. This will improve journey times and see new stations built, including a long-awaited stop at Dalcross, near Inverness Airport.

By December, a revised Highland Mainline timetable, currently under development, will deliver marginal journey time reductions of around ten minutes and service frequency enhancements.

ScotRail has also promised to increase its national train fleet by 30 per cent by the end of the year, with almost all the trains being new or fully refurbished, including refitted Class 158 trains on the Far North Line, while refurbished Inter7City high-speed trains will connect Scotland’s seven cities.

I am looking forward to discussing the current situation and the feelings of the business community with Alex Hynes, Managing Director of Scotland’s Railway, who is our keynote speaker at the 2019 Highland Business Awards on 27 September.

The awards, being held as part of Inverness Chamber’s Highland Business Week, will be attended by more than 300 business leaders in the Highlands who will be keen to move things along as quickly as possible.

Following the First Minister’s declaration of a global climate emergency in April, the Scottish Government is seeking to set a net-zero emissions target for 2045, and to increase the targets for 2030 (to 70% reduction) and 2040 (to 90% reduction).

This includes strengthening the rail freight industry to reduce the amount of freight that travels by road. But it must also include further and faster improvements to passenger services for both business and leisure travellers.

There are some welcome developments coming down the track. But, like my journey to Dumfries, there is a long way to go and it needs considerable commitment and investment.