The study said that there needs to be a more attractive, faster and sustainable service that can compete with road travel on the A9, which is in line for a £3bn upgrade.
The study, by consultant Systra, was commissioned by HITRANS, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands. It said that the relative lack of progress on the Highland Main Line can be seen as “regrettable through a combination of circumstances” but that a number of opportunities are emerging to address journey time and connectivity issues that previous investments have not resolved. It is recommended that HITRANS enlists 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 three-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 two-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, it said. 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, it added.
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. 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.”
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, says the report. 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.