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Network Rail silence on ‘vital’ Delmore passing loop on Far North Line worries Highland railway campaigners

By Philip Murray

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Vital infrastructure improvements that could transform the reliability of trains in the northern Highlands appear to be in limbo after rail chiefs again failed to provide any timescale for the work.

Campaigners have been calling for years for a passing loop to be reinstated on the Far North Line between Inverness and Beauly.

The old passing loop at Lentran was ripped up by British Rail back in the 1980s despite the line remaining in operation.

And its loss has led to years of knock-on impacts on trains on both the Far North and Kyle of Lochalsh lines, with delays to a single service sometimes causing a domino effect on others - where otherwise punctual trains are forced to run late themselves simply because there’s not enough places to overtake the delayed service or pass it coming the other way.


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The lack of any passing loops between Inverness and Muir of Ord became a chokepoint in the network, and the Friends of the Far North Line, and Highland politicians, have long called for a new one to be installed - arguing it would dramatically improve service reliability by removing this domino effect.

And last year it looked like progress might at last be in sight, after a planning application was lodged by Network Rail Scotland in connection with potential works on a 630 metre long passing loop. Although this was not at Lentran, and was instead earmarked for a site nearer to Inverness at Delmore, the effect on reliability was expected to be similar.

But that’s where the project, which advocates argue would cost relatively little, appeared to hit a wall. When asked when work might begin, Network Rail said it was waiting on budgets being assigned.

The news last summer that a loop was being actively looked at was followed by months of silence, with word on budget approval for the scheme slipping back again and again, from summer to late 2023, and then to the start of the new financial year in April 2024.

Reliability of ScotRail services on the Far North Line and Kyle of Lochalsh Line would be boosted by a new passing loop, campaigners argue.
Reliability of ScotRail services on the Far North Line and Kyle of Lochalsh Line would be boosted by a new passing loop, campaigners argue.

That date has also now come and gone with nothing but silence, and when asked for an update, a Network Rail Scotland spokesperson said: “We’re always looking at ways to improve the reliability and performance of Scotland’s Railway.

“Work is being done to find a solution that is value for money. Once this work is complete, the next step would be to submit our case to Transport Scotland for a funding decision.”

The response has worried Highland rail campaigners, given it lacks any timescale for the work to begin and also raises suggestions that Network Rail is still looking at various options that are “value for money”.

Friends of the Far North Line’s convener, Ian Budd, said the wording and lack of anything concrete raised concerns.

“I fear that the Delmore Loop is something that isn't regarded as sufficiently important to do,” he said. “It worries me because we had a lot of strong comments from Transport Scotland to support it [when we last met with them]. They agree it's a good idea but now are looking at logistics.”

This focus on “value for money” also raised alarms, he said, adding: “I have an issue with how they decide where something is value for money? Putting a loop in doesn't provide a source of income directly, but it makes the trains more reliable [which in turn brings in more money].

“People are very aware of some services being very late into Inverness,” he added, saying that this can lead to people “simply avoiding the train”.

And he stressed that a new loop could be transformative, improving reliability of services without significant financial outlay - with the result being a win-win where more passengers are attracted to the routes and the operator makes more money.

He said the vagueness of Network Rail’s latest comments suggested that it doesn’t currently have the money, but would like to do the project and doesn’t want to say no.

Mr Budd added that he had “sympathy” for rail bosses, as budgets are tight, but that Holyrood pledges to spend much of the transport budget on major road projects like the A9 and A96 was undermining other forms of transport like rail.

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