LIKE the rest of Britain's railway, the Scottish network has witnessed sustained increases in traffic over the last decade. Passenger numbers on ScotRail services have risen by more than 30% since 2004, reaching 81.1 million journeys in 2011 and despite the challenging economic climate, forecasts anticipate sustained growth in the short and medium-term. Changes in the coal industry mean the picture is more mixed for freight, although the intermodal sector remains strong with rising volumes.

The Scottish Ministers' High Level Output Specification (HLOS), which sets out the investment programme for Network Rail's 2014-2019 funding period assumes background growth of at least 15% in passenger-km over five years, and the figure is likely to be even higher when route-based growth from other planned investments and measures included in the new ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises are taken into account.

In addition, Scotland's transport minister Mr Keith Brown announced in December that peak fares will be capped at inflation and off-peak fares will fall in real terms in an effort to boost patronage and sustain the modal shift which has gathered momentum over the last 10 years.

The Scottish government will invest £3.3bn in rail infrastructure between 2014 and 2019, which will be allocated to infrastructure manager Network Rail through HLOS. A further £1bn of government-backed investment has also been allocated to strategic network enhancements, together with financial support of around £1bn over the five-year period for regional and sleeper services.

A significant project already underway is the Edinburgh - Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP), which involves electrifying and upgrading the Glasgow - Falkirk High - Edinburgh and Glasgow - Cumbernauld lines. Following the completion of a strategic review into the project last year, the Scottish government revised the specification, deferring electrification of the line from Cumbernauld to Stirling, Alloa and Dunblane, as well as the line through Falkirk Grahamston, the freight-only branch to Grangemouth, and the Winchburgh Junction - Edinburgh loop. Plans to increase Edinburgh - Falkirk High - Glasgow frequencies from four to six trains per hour (tph) were deferred, negating a number of infrastructure enhancements, including the remodelling of Greenhill Junction west of Falkirk.

ScotlandThe review also suggested that the business case for 6tph in the short-term might weaken the prospects for a high-speed link between Edinburgh and Glasgow (see panel below).

Under the revised plan, EGIP will reduce the fastest journey times between Edinburgh and Glasgow from 50 minutes to 42 minutes and although the current service pattern of four trains per hour will be maintained, additional capacity will be provided through the operation of longer trains. This is likely to require platform extensions at a number of stations, including Glasgow Queen Street, where work could be carried out as part of a broader modernisation of the station.

The initial phase of EGIP is moving forward quickly. In January Network Rail awarded a £40m contract to Carillion for electrification of the 50km Glasgow Queen Street - Cumbernauld line, which includes platform lengthening at Cumbernauld and turnback facilities at Springburn. The project will be completed in 2014, when Cumbernauld services will be diverted to the low-level platforms at Queen Street to operate as an extension of existing Springburn - Dalmuir services.

The redevelopment of Edinburgh Haymarket station, due to be completed at the end of the year, is progressing well and structural clearance work has been completed at various locations along the route in readiness for the start of electrification, which will be completed by the end of 2016.

An announcement is also expected soon on the procurement of a new fleet of emus for Central Belt services, which will allow the redeployment of dmus to strengthen services elsewhere.

The review brought the total project cost of EGIP down from £1bn to £650m, but while the changes have proved controversial, Transport Scotland director of rail Mr Aidan Grisewood argues it is misleading to describe them as cuts. "The minister has been explicit about his keenness to deliver the Stirling/Alloa/Dunblane electrification by the end of 2019 and there's no reason why it can't be done," he says. "Stirling is the next logical step beyond EGIP phase 1, and future phases will follow."

As part of HLOS, the Scottish government has agreed to fund a rolling programme of electrification covering up to 100 single track-km per year following on from the completion of EGIP. Other lines identified in the industry's Strategic Business Plan for electrification during 2014-2019 include Glasgow - Whifflet/ Coatbridge, Glasgow - East Kilbride/Barrhead, and Glasgow - Shotts - Edinburgh.

An innovative project completed recently which is likely to be a model for future infrastructure schemes in Scotland is the electrification of the 8.8km single-track suburban branch from Corkerhill to Paisley Canal southwest of Glasgow. This line was effectively an island of diesel operation in an area where almost all other services were electric. Reliability was a problem, largely because the timetable was not geared to dmu operation, and the route suffered 17,000 delay minutes per year with only 16% of trains arriving on time.

Network Rail estimated the cost of electrification at £20-28m, but cost-benefit analysis suggested a positive business case could only be achieved if the price tag was below £12.2m. This was a perfect opportunity to test the viability of alliance working between the franchise operator and the infrastructure manager, a key part of the industry's cost-reduction strategy introduced in the wake of Sir Roy McNulty's value for money review.

The partners studied a variety of options with the objective of carrying out the bare minimum of works required to support a half-hourly service operated by emus. Neutral sections were extended under overhead structures which avoided the need to raise bridges, while the track was lowered at certain points to maintain clearances for freight trains and dmus. The use of a rail-mounted crane to install overhead line equipment piles reduced noise and allowed 200 piles to be installed in a residential area at night without disturbing residents. Grisewood says ScotRail negotiated with a local bus company to allow train tickets to be used on buses during line closures, which were largely restricted to evenings and weekends.

The electrification contract was awarded in June 2012 and electric services began operating just six months later.

"All routes have different characteristics but the experience of Paisley Canal sets the standard for future projects across the country, and not just electrification projects," says Grisewood. "Novel ways of doing things can deliver major savings, and through the alliance the disruption to passengers was minimised and the project was delivered quickly. Clearly there's potential for innovation and substantial efficiencies from alliancing, particularly around a more coordinated approach to managing disruption. Culture is as important as structure when it comes to making these alliances a success."

In addition to EGIP, a number of other infrastructure enhancements are included in HLOS for implementation between 2014 and 2019. These include the first phase of the upgrade of the Aberdeen - Inverness line, which will improve commuter services into both cities with new stations at Kintore and Dalcross. The long-term aim is to provide an hourly service between Inverness and Aberdeen with an average journey time of around 2 hours.

The second phase of the Highland Main Line upgrade will support the introduction of hourly services between Inverness and Perth, extending alternately to Edinburgh or Glasgow with an average journey time reduction of 10 minutes. Transport Scotland says the improvements will also make freight operations more efficient.

Further south, civil works are underway on what is hailed as Britain's largest railway reopening project. The £294m Borders Railway involves rebuilding a 48km section of the former Edinburgh - Carlisle Waverley Route between Newcraighall and Tweedbank with seven new stations. The line is due to be completed in mid-2015, although Grisewood says Network Rail and contractor BAM Nuttall could hand the line over by the end of 2014.

Network Rail says the £53m remodelling of the junction at Carstairs and electrification of the Edinburgh Suburban line will also be necessary to deliver the outputs specified in HLOS.

New franchises

Another important development for Scotland's railways is the tendering of the new ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises.

The main ScotRail franchise will be a maximum of 10 years with a break option after five years. The franchisee will be expected to improve train performance, introduce contactless fare collection and enhanced passenger communication facilities, including onboard Wi-Fi, and manage the procurement of new rolling stock. Bidders will also need to show how they intend to work more closely in alliances with NR, as the current franchisee FirstGroup has already demonstrated through pilot projects. "The framework alliance that already exists has delivered tangible benefits, and it makes sense to take that a stage further in the next franchise," Grisewood says. "The industry sees opportunities to reduce costs through alliancing, and we want to encourage the industry to develop a proposition for how to take the concept forward. Paisley Canal and other projects demonstrate that good progress has already been made in this area in Scotland."

The 15-year Caledonian Sleeper contract covers the operation of overnight services from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness, and Aberdeen. Turnover for the service in the 2011-12 financial year was £20m and operating costs totalled £25m. The total cost of operation across the duration of the new franchise will be around £375m, and investment of £100m is planned, half of which will come from the British government with the remainder coming from the franchisee and the Scottish government.

Grisewood argues that it makes sense to split sleeper services from the main franchise because they are a niche operation with a discrete market.

"The sleeper is a very distinct product," he says. "Within a larger franchise it would never receive the management attention necessary to develop and grow the business. A separate franchise, benefiting from a dedicated management focus, driven by innovation and coupled to a major investment provides the opportunity to transform the product and allow it to realise its potential. This is the best way to achieve an internationally-renowned service which is emblematic of the best of Scotland."

Prospective bidders will be invited to prequalify this Spring for the contract, which is being tendered three months ahead of main ScotRail franchise. "We've decided to stagger the procurement because of the resource requirements and also because it makes things easier for bidders," says Grisewood. "From the discussions we've had so far we look forward to receiving some very innovative bids for this franchise. If, however, we are not satisfied with the quality or value for money of those bids we still have the option to fold the sleeper services back into the main franchise as a contingency."

Naturally the impact of the botched procurement of the Intercity West Coast franchise and the crisis that followed has been felt north of the border, and Grisewood says Transport Scotland has carefully studied the conclusions of the reviews led by Sir Sam Laidlaw and Mr Richard Brown. The current contract has been extended by four months until March 2015 to give Transport Scotland time to fully evaluate the findings and make any necessary amendments to the bidding process.

"The failure of West Coast has obviously been a shock for everyone involved in franchise, and given the scale of what's happened it was important for us to consider recommendations on both the policy and process sides," says Grisewood. "Scottish ministers had already decided to pursue a 10-year franchise with a five-year review point, which is consistent with Brown's recommendations. We have a well-resourced commercial unit at Transport Scotland managing the process and we've also been cautious with our programming, allowing at least 20 months for procurement."

Grisewood says that despite the West Coast fiasco, bidders remain confident in the Scottish franchise contests. "Engagement with the market so far has been good and the timescale has been well received by prospective bidders," he explains. "We haven't seen any evidence of bidder confidence in our programme being knocked by what happened with West Coast."

From the scenic but isolated lines of the sparsely-populated Highlands to Glasgow's dense and busy suburban network, the diversity of Scotland's railway presents many challenges.

But with passenger numbers rising consistently across the country, improving journey times, and the prospect of further investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, the prospects look extremely positive.

"The minister's objective is to maintain passenger growth, make the railway more affordable, and improve accessibility for the people of Scotland," Grisewood concludes. "There is clear evidence that investment has spurred a modal shift to rail and we need to ensure that continues in the future."

High-speed proposals gain momentum

LAST November Scotland's deputy first minister Mrs Nicola Sturgeon announced that Transport Scotland would develop proposals for a high-speed line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which could reduce the journey time between Scotland's largest cities to less than 30 minutes.

The government is keen to complete the project by 2024. "Our initial feasibility work shows that's an ambitious timescale, but it's achievable within 10 years and we're planning on that basis," explains director of rail for Transport Scotland Mr Aidan Grisewood. "We've begun work on detailed route options and development of the business case, and we're working with the British government on how the plans can be developed alongside High Speed 2 (HS2). The business case will get stronger if we can achieve a connection to England more quickly."

At present there are no plans to extend HS2 to Scotland, and HS2 Ltd has no remit to develop lines in Scotland. Nonetheless, Britain's Department for Transport has announced it will commission a joint study with Transport Scotland to look at phase 3 development, consider requirements for new lines, or upgrades to achieve the critical three-hour journey time between Edinburgh/Glasgow and London. Grisewood says Transport Scotland has appointed a high-speed project manager, who will begin work this month.