The railway station at Forres is now at its third site. The original station was built at the passing loop next to the signal box when the Inverness and Aberdeen Junction railway, between Nairn and Keith, was opened in 1858. This completed the line between Aberdeen and Inverness – the Great North of Scotland Railway between Keith and Aberdeen had opened in 1854 and the Inverness and Nairn Railway in 1855.

The Inverness and Perth Junction Railway opened in 1863 to give Inverness a route to the South. Due to the difficult terrain immediately South of Inverness it joined the Inverness and Aberdeen Junction railway at Forres, necessitating the construction of a triangular junction station a few hundred yards West of the signal box and its passing loop.

The opening in 1898 of a direct line between Inverness and Aviemore significantly reduced traffic through Forres, although its line to Aviemore stayed open until 1968. The remaining platform was sharply curved, with a 20-mph speed restriction some distance from the signal box and passing loop. As will be seen, these operational constraints were removed with the opening of the third station at Forres on 17 October this year.

A signalling mix

The line between Aberdeen and Inverness is 108 miles long and entirely single track except for 5 ½ miles of double track between Insch and Kennethmont. Its maximum line speed is 75mph.

It has a mix of signalling technologies, with electro-mechanical signal boxes (SBs) unless otherwise stated. Aberdeen SB has a push-button panel with a Scottish Region geographical interlocking which controls the track circuit block working to Dyce SB (6 ¼ miles) which has a control panel. From here there is tokenless block working to Inverurie SB (17 miles) and Insch SB (27 ½ miles) from where the double line to Kennethmont SB (33 ¼ miles) is absolute block. There is then tokenless block working to Huntly SB (41 miles) and Keith SB (53 ½ miles).

Forres new station in September.

Until October, signalling between Keith SB and Elgin SB (71 ¾ miles) was tokenless block with single line token working from there to Forres SB (84 miles) and Nairn SB (93 ¾ miles), which has a Siemens WestCad control system with West Race interlocking. When this was installed in 2000, signallers no longer had to ride their officially provided cycle to operate the block instruments in the stationmaster’s office and points from the East and West signal boxes at each end of the 350-yard platform. From Nairn, there is train circuit block signalling to the Inverness signalling centre (109 miles) which has an NX panel with solid state interlocking.

A transport priority

The Scottish Government published its Strategic Transport Projects Review in 2009. This prioritised 136 possible investments in accordance with the requirements of the Scottish National Transport Strategy and identified 29 transportation schemes that best served Scotland’s needs. The top four priorities were:

  • The new Forth road bridge;
  • Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvements programme (EGIP);
  • Highland main line improvements;
  • Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements.

The line between Inverness and Aberdeen is predominantly a single line with an irregular service of around two hours between trains. Journey time varies between 2 hours 9 minutes and 2 hours 26 minutes. Between Aberdeen and Inverurie, there are additional trains to give a roughly hourly service. Over the past ten years, there has been an average 87 per cent increase in passengers using stations between Inverness and Aberdeen. However, most of this increase is at the two stations closest to Aberdeen, Inverurie and Dyce, where the increases were 247 and 146 per cent respectively.

To improve the service, Transport Scotland required infrastructure enhancements that would:

  • Enable stations to be built at Kintore and Dalcross with no detriment to current journey times;
  • Allow for some additional peak services between Inverness and Elgin;
  • Provide a half hourly service between Aberdeen and Inverurie;
  • Maintain freight access on the route;
  • Support the longer term objectives of an hourly service with a two-hour journey time.

When Abellio was appointed to run the current ScotRail franchise in October 2014, its plans to run refurbished four and five-coach High Speed Trains (HSTs) on all ScotRail intercity services from December 2018 were revealed (issue 150, April 2017). Infrastructure enhancements on the Aberdeen to Inverness route would thus need to take account of these “new” trains, which offer significant passenger benefits.

The first train arriving at the new Forres station.

Delivering A2I

In October 2015, the Scottish Government announced that BAM Nuttall had been appointed as principal contractor for the first phase of the Aberdeen to Inverness improvement project (A2I). At the time, BAM announced that it would be delivering the work together with partners AECOM, CH2M, Stobart Rail and Siemens.

This award was the first major item of work in a nil-value eight-year Highlands Enhancement Programme framework contract that Network Rail had awarded to BAM with the intention of promoting early contractor involvement.

The original plan was to commence by redoubling the track between Inverurie and Aberdeen. However, it was decided to focus on works at the western end of the line (phase one) whilst detailed design work was undertaken for the eastern end redoubling (phase two). The phase one work consisted of platform extensions at Insch, a new station at Forres on a new straight loop, platform extensions at Elgin, where the loop was to be extended and a turnback capability provided, and passive provision for a new station at Dalcross. Signalling, telecommunications and level crossing improvements between Inverness and Keith were also included.

Network Rail’s programme manager, Colin MacDonald, advised Rail Engineer that the total value of the A2I programme is around £330 million. He explained that, although the phase one work would result in some time savings through the abolition of the manual token exchange and straightened track at Forres, the intention was that this would ensure that the two new stations would not reduce current journey times. The phase two work will offer further time savings.

Hotel BAM

Colin gave Rail Engineer a tour of the work at Forres at the end of September, starting with an initial briefing in the BAM site office there. This is more than a site office as it provides temporary accommodation for around thirty complete with a fully equipped gym. With a shortage of hotels in the immediate vicinity, this is a cost-effective way of accommodating the workforce.

BAM site facilities are at the former goods yard, which is leased by Network Rail off Moray Council. These also include a disused timber workshop that has proved useful for off-site work and is to be retained for the phase two works.

The site office also includes a mission room with one wall full of different-coloured sticky notes pasted on a date/zone grid as part of the planning process. As Colin explained, these showed that the phase one works required a significant amount of disruptive access, culminating in a ten-day blockade between Inverness and Keith from the 6 to 17 October.

Earlier in the year, between February and May, there had been four 53-hour weekend disruptive possessions between Inverness and Elgin and a 77-hour blockade between Forres and Keith over the late-May bank holiday weekend. The disruptive possessions were used for all the required preparatory work, as well as laying the points and as much track as possible so it could be tied in during the blockade, when the new signalling was commissioned.

Rail Engineer’s visit coincided with a briefing session for key stakeholders from the Moray and Highland areas, who were also given a tour of the almost-completed station. This event was run by Stacey Macdonald, Network Rail’s communication manager for the project. She explained her work engaging with the local communities including arranging numerous drop-in events.

Stacey also explained that the project had engaged local contractors where possible. For example, A J Engineering at Forres designed, fabricated and installed both the new station and its footbridge while Leiths had provided much of the material for the new station from its New Forres Quarry.

The third Forres station

Work to build the new loop and station at Forres started in October last year. The loop replaces the line through the old station with its 20mph speed restriction. It is 1.25 kilometres long of which 600 metres is new track on the closed goods line with the formation made up and drainage provided as required for the double track loop. This required the widening of one underbridge and parapet works at another, as well as alterations to a user worked crossing. With the new alignment, there was also a requirement to move a GSM-R mast to a location beside the new loop.

The new station at Forres is on the new loop alignment, so it was built in a high street environment. It has two 160-metre-long platforms, to accommodate a five-coach HST, linked by a footbridge with lifts. Both lines have bi-directional signalling, which will enable most trains to stop at the southern platform, where the station entrance, ticket office and waiting room are located.

The station has a 58-space car park, double that of the old station, and has ticket machines, long line PA, customer information screens (CIS) and help points, for which multiple new power supplies and telecommunications links were required.

Kirsty Watson is ScotRail’s project manager. During Rail Engineer’s visit she was checking that the facilities at the new Forres station were suitable. This is part of her role to confirm that all aspects of the A2I project meet ScotRail’s infrastructure, operations, communications and customer experience requirements. Kirsty has been involved with previous projects, such as the Borders Railway and the Airdrie Bathgate project. Her role requires her to collate the train operator’s requirements in sufficient time for these to be incorporated in the project design. She considers that, whilst standards specify many station requirements, there are many other aspects that need to be considered if a new station is to function effectively.

The work at Forres includes the closure of the remotely controlled manual level crossing at Waterford, just east of the site of the former Forres signal box, where the line speed has now been increased from 20 to 75 mph.

A new half-kilometre link road, featuring a bridge over the new loop, has replaced the level crossing. It is located immediately to the west of the new station, passing through the site of the old station and connecting with the A96 road. A critical path item during the blockade was the completion of this road through the old station platform and trackbed to join an already-built junction with the A96.

Colin pointed out a not-so-obvious consequence of this increase in line speed. Next to the old level crossing is a removal company’s lorry park. As the risk of one of these lorries being driven onto the new 75mph line is now substantially greater than with the previous 20mph line, a substantial reinforced-concrete wall, with footings under the company’s yard, was built next to the railway.

Work at Elgin

At Elgin, the 650-metre loop was extended at both ends to 1.5 kilometres long and the ground frame at the entrance to the freight yard immediately east of the station was replaced by motorised points, providing a potential turnback capability.

The extended loop required the formation to be made up and drainage provided. It also passes through the level crossing at Wards Road and through the site of Elgin signal box, which controlled the crossing and so had to be demolished. Wards Road crossing was closed throughout the blockade when it was converted to manual control from Inverness SC with CCTV supervision and its surface relaid to accommodate the additional track. This presented a logistical challenge due to the road congestion that was anticipated from the closure of this busy crossing. Hence much material was stockpiled prior to the blockade.

The blockade works also included the extension of Elgin’s 125-metre platforms to 160 metres and associated platform resurfacing with associated additional lighting and service alterations.

Elgin signalbox about to be demolished.

Signalling and telecoms

During the blockade a new “Highland Workstation” was commissioned at the Inverness signalling centre. With the closure of Elgin and Forres signal boxes and transfer of control from Nairn, this workstation now controls the line between Inverness and the fringe with Keith SB, over which there is now tokenless block working. Train detection is by axle counters, which the project had to install between Keith and Nairn but which were already in use between Nairn and Inverness.

This transfer of control included the telephones for 20 user-worked crossings and the operation of Wards Road crossing in Elgin, as well as new staff protection lockouts at Forres and Elgin. Significant quantities of redundant signalling equipment had to be recovered, including all signals previously controlled by Forres and Elgin signal boxes.

To support existing and new operational and station systems across the route, the project has provided a new multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) transmission network. This required further network upgrade works between Aberdeen and Dundee and between Inverness and Perth to ensure diverse routing.

Further telecommunications work included the provision of an internet protocol telephone concentrator at Inverness, for the user-worked crossing phones previously controlled by the closed signal boxes, and the alteration of GSM-R call routing as required by the transfer of control of Inverness.

New stations

The new stations at Dalcross and Kintore are subject to separate funding arrangements and so, while they are not currently part of the A2I programme, passive provision is still being provided. Dalcross is eight miles from Inverness. It will provide improved access to the city’s airport, one mile away, and will serve the airport’s business park that owns the land on which the station will be built. With a 150-space car park, it will also provide a park-and-ride service to Inverness and serve nearby planned housing developments. Although it will have a single line platform, its design will give passive provision for a future double track.

The Scottish Government has given the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS) a £3.34 million contribution, which is expected to cover 60 per cent of its costs. The remainder will be met by HITRANS and other scheme partners, including Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The new station at Kintore, 13 miles from Aberdeen, will have a 166-space car park and is to be built immediately north of the town off the main A96 dual carriageway road on land which is now subject to a compulsory purchase order. Its cost is estimated at £12 million.

The Scottish Government is to provide sixty per cent of this cost with the remainder to be provided by the station’s promoters, Aberdeenshire Council and the North East Regional Transport Partnership (NESTRANS).

To the east

After the completion of the blockade works on 17 October, the first train to arrive at the new Forres station was welcomed by an orange guard of honour. Three days later, the station was officially opened by Moray’s MSP Richard Lochhead, who was joined by ScotRail managing director Alex Hynes to celebrate what Stacey Macdonald described as “the biggest investment in the north-east’s railways in living memory”.

All that now remains of phase one of the project is tidying up, recoveries and demobilisation, after which BAM Nuttall will move to the east for a seamless transition into the phase two works, which are due to start in January. These will reinstate 24 kilometres of double track between Kittybrewster, just outside Aberdeen, and Inverurie, with passive provision for the new Kintore station. Double-tracking straight to Aberdeen through the Schoolhill and Hutcheon Street tunnels in the one-mile section between Aberdeen station and Kittybrewster is not part of the current A2I programme.

Colin explained that many control cabinets will have to be moved, which will require complex functional staging arrangements. The work must also take account of Waterloo Goods and Raiths Farm freight traffic at Kittybrewster and Dyce respectively.

On completion, Dyce and Inverurie signal boxes will be closed and control passed to Inverness signalling centre, which will then control both ends of the line with its central section remaining under the control of manual signal boxes.

The A2I East works, and thus the current A2I programme, is expected to be complete by December 2019. Before then, planning needs to start on the next stage of the Highlands Enhancement Programme. An interesting question is which of the options in Network Rail’s long-term Scotland route study this will be. These include some double tracking and signalling improvements on the Highland main line between Perth and Inverness and, for the Far North lines, a loop between Inverness and Dingwall and a chord at Georgemass Junction to provide a service to Thurso without reversing.

Whatever comes next, it is good to see serious railway investment taking place in Britain’s far north.

Written by David Shirres