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Railway passing loop plan for Far North Line a 'significant step' towards improved reliability of Highland services

By Philip Murray

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A ScotRail train heads out of Inverness city centre on the northern line. Picture: Gary Anthony.
A ScotRail train heads out of Inverness city centre on the northern line. Picture: Gary Anthony.

A "SIGNIFICANT step" in the fight to improve rail service reliability on the Far North and Kyle lines has been hailed by campaigners – after engineers signalled that long-called for improvement works may finally be in the offing.

Long-suffering passengers will be hoping to experience fewer delays after plans for a new passing loop emerged.

Network Rail is looking to create a new 630-metre-long passing loop on the shores of the Beauly Firth which could help to mitigate a long-standing gripe of Highland travellers.

The existing track has nowhere for trains to pass each other between Muir of Ord and Inverness, meaning that late running trains can cause knock-on disruption to services running in the opposite direction as they have to sit and wait for the other service to finally pass by.

Campaigners have long argued that the network should reintroduce a passing loop at Lentran, roughly half way between Beauly and Inverness, to ease a known bottleneck between the Highland capital and Dingwall.

And it appears that those calls are finally set to be answered – albeit in the form of a new loop closer to Inverness than that envisaged by advocates of Lentran as a location.

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Instead of Lentran, the proposed new loop – Delmore – sits roughly a mile west of Clachnaharry.

Explaining the choice of site, a Network Rail spokesman said: "We looked at a number of locations as potential options, including at Lentran. The outcome of the options appraisal was the development of the plan for the site at Delmore.

Locator of train at Inverness Train Station. Picture Gary Anthony..
Locator of train at Inverness Train Station. Picture Gary Anthony..

"Using a range of criteria – operational benefit, engineering complexity, environmental impact, impact on lineside neighbours et al, Delmore emerged as the preferred site with the best potential for delivering the wider outputs required – capacity, reliability and performance improvement."

The organisation is also optimistic that it will improve reliability, but added that although a screening planning application has been submitted to Highland Council in connection with works associated with the project, there are still some hurdles to cross before the loop itself is constructed.

"The purpose of this new loop is to unlock additional capacity. The addition of a passing loop will improve reliability but will also improve the overall resilience of the network and support performance in general.

"The application is at an early point in development and we are still some way away from submitting for planning consideration. We cannot yet predict a timeline for the delivery of this work or calculate an investment value until it is significantly more developed."

However, news of movement on such a long called-for railway improvement has been warmly welcomed by Friends of the Far North Line convener Ian Budd, who hailed the development as a "significant step" in the push for better rail services in the Highlands.

He said that he understood the choice of loop location boiled down to data from timetabling experts which showed where on that stretch of the line that the worst or most frequent delays occurred.

"We are perfectly happy [with the news]," he added. "There have been signs of movement and it's looking positive. It's a significant step".

Mr Budd added that the move to install a new loop followed recent engineering upgrades to radio signalling on the track, which will enable trains to pass each other on passing loops at faster speeds – reducing possible delays there –and that this has in turn helped to lay the ground-work for a future loop.

He sounded a note of caution that the final project will still have to go before Transport Scotland for full approval once costings are decided, and that there is always a chance it could decide not to press ahead – but stressed that the fact there have been moves towards installing a new loop was very positive.

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