Campaigners attack ‘broken promises’ on Highland Main Line rail upgrade

RFG has joined transport campaigners in criticising the Scottish Government for failing to deliver on a promise made 10 years ago by the then First Minister to slash train journey times from Inverness to Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

To mark the 10th anniversary of the public commitment to cut 35 minutes from the average journey time by 2012, rail and environmental campaigners have highlighted that an average of just four minutes time saving has been achieved to date, leaving the largely single-track Highland Main Line from Perth to Inverness struggling to compete with the £3bn upgrade of the parallel A9 road.

Paul Tetlaw, of Transform Scotland, the sustainable transport alliance [3], commented: “In 2008, then First Minister Alex Salmond said that within four years the rail journey time would be cut to two hours forty-five minutes, but a decade later it remains on average around three and a half hours – yet A9 journeys are getting faster and faster as road dualling advances. The public were told that there would be additional rail passing loops and double-tracking, but all that is being delivered is resignalling of two crossing loops. Hourly passenger trains and an average journey time saving of 10 minutes are promised but with no additional track it’s highly likely we’ll see more delays and cancellations as more trains are squeezed onto the single track railway. Lessons need to be learned from the Borders Railway where de-scoping has created long single track sections which has led to poor performance. That’s the nature of a single track railway. The Scottish Government now needs to deliver on its promises with serious investment made in the railway to ensure there is a level playing field between road and rail.”

Ian Budd from rail campaign group, the Friends of the Far North Line [4], said: “The Highland Main Line is key to the whole regional rail network. Slow journey times and unreliability between Perth and Inverness have a knock-on impact on connecting trains to the Far North Line, Kyle and Elgin, and discourage people from switching from car to train. Rail travellers are entitled to see the Scottish Government deliver on its manifesto promises and make the step-change improvements which Alex Salmond announced 10 years ago. What we have at the moment in no way equates with the government’s stated transport policy.”
David Spaven from the Rail Freight Group [5] added: “Everyone wants to see fewer 44-tonne trucks on the A9, but the current very limited upgrade to the Highland Main Line offers little or nothing for rail freight [6]. Indeed the worry now is that rather than freight shifting from road to rail – the Scottish Government’s policy objective – we will see the loss of existing rail traffics, as the A9 gets faster and the single-track railway becomes increasingly congested. That’s economic and environmental madness. We need longer crossing loops, so that freight trains 40% longer than at present can compete much more effectively with road hauliers [7].”

The groups are looking to see firm, committed plans for doubling and electrification of the Highland Main Line as part of the Scottish Government’s newly-commenced ‘Strategic Transport Projects Review’ (STPR2). The original review, which reported in December 2008, concluded that investment in the Highland Main Line should be one of the three highest-priority investment priorities for the country — which makes the subsequent lack of investment all the more unacceptable. [8]


[1] As quoted in The Herald on 6 August 2008, First Minister Alex Salmond, in front of an audience of more than 100 in Inverness Town House, following a Cabinet Meeting, said:“Railways must at least compete with the roads . . . Work being negotiated with Network Rail will cut journey times [from Edinburgh to Inverness] to two hours 45 minutes – 35 minutes less than at present. This at least makes railway travel to the heart of the Highlands, in terms of time, competitive with roads. The railway journey times will be cut by a mixture of projects including line improvement, additional passing loops, double-tracking and signalling upgrades. They will cost £54.5m and the timescale for implementation is 2011-2012”.

[2] Two-thirds of the 118-mile Highland Main Line is single-track (with nine crossing loops). The parallel A9 is entirely dual-lane or dual-carriageway.

[3] Transform Scotland is the national alliance for sustainable transport, bringing together organisations from the private, public and voluntary sectors. Transform Scotland has been running its ‘Inter-City Express’ campaign for the past few years.

[4] FoFNL is the campaign group for better passenger and freight services on the Far North Line which links Orkney with Inverness and points south.

[5] The Rail Freight Group represents users and suppliers of rail freight throughout Britain. David Spaven is its Scottish Representative.

[6] The crossing loops at Aviemore and Pitlochry are being resignalled, with the loop at Aviemore lengthened – but the capacity of both loops will be taken up all day by a new hourly passenger service frequency.

[7] The Class 66 locomotives which haul the daily Stobart / Tesco container train from Central Scotland to Inverness have enough power to pull a train of 28 containers – the equivalent of 28 lorries – but the lack of long crossing loops restricts the operation to just 20 containers.

[8] The Scottish Government’s ‘Strategic Transport Projects Review’ in 2008 identified upgrading the HML as the third-top priority among 29 schemes across Scotland. Investment of between £200m and £450m was envisaged, including ‘additional loops, dynamic loops or lengthening of double track sections’.