TENS of millions of pounds will be spent on a transformation of the vital rail link between the Highland capital and Aberdeen.
New stations will be built, a key section of track will be doubled up and platforms will be extended so they can accommodate bigger carriages.
The five-year, £170million plan will cut journey times and allow extra services to be added as more and more people opt to leave their cars at home and let the train take the strain.
The massive investment was revealed yesterday by First Minister Alex Salmond, who said it would have a “real effect on the commuters and rail passengers in the north of Scotland”.
The revamp package includes infrastructure for new stations at Kintore and near Inverness Airport, as well as relocating the station at Forres on a straight section of track rather than on a bend.
The major upgrade will also involve doubling the track between Aberdeen and Inverurie, extending platforms at Insch and Elgin to accommodate larger trains and improving signalling at Elgin.
Mr Salmond said: “There has been a significant rise in Inverness and Aberdeen passengers in the past year.
“To cope with that in the future, there will be better trains with bigger capacity and more reliability. There will be reduced journey times even with the two new stations.
“We are spending money to redouble the track between Aberdeen and Inverurie, which has been single track since the 1960s.
“The station at Forres is on a bend and the relocation allows bigger trains to stop there and also enables faster journey times.
“These improvements allow faster journey times even with the two new stations.”
Further spending in the future will be focused on creating an hourly service between Inverness and Aberdeen and cutting the average journey time to about two hours.
Services between Inverurie and Aberdeen could be doubled to one every half hour and there will extra capacity for trains between Elgin and Inverness.
Mr Salmond said the work would start next year and he hoped the stations at Dalcross and Kintore would be in place before the end of the five-year plan.
He added that the new Inverness Airport station would create a “key commuting area” for the Highland capital and Elgin and was also important for the airport and major tourist attractions such as nearby Castle Stuart Golf Course.
David Dickson, Network Rail acting route managing director for Scotland, said the new stations could potentially be in place by late 2017. Network Rail also planned to increase parking at Inverurie and had permission from the Office of Rail Regulation to dispose of land to the local authority, he said.
Meanwhile, Transport Scotland has given ScotRail permission to introduce new services from May, including putting on eight extra trains on Sundays between Aberdeen and Glasgow to create an hourly service.
There will also be a new early-morning peak service from Huntly to Aberdeen and additional weekday services between Inverurie and Aberdeen.
Wi-Fi will be in place on the Inverness-Aberdeen and Inverness-Glasgow services by September and there will also be automatic ticket barriers at Inverness station by the summer.
ScotRail boss Steve Montgomery said: “We are seeing strong demand for Sunday services between Aberdeen and Glasgow. Adding four express trains in each direction will give people many more journey opportunities.”
He said the other additional services would tackle overcrowding on the Aberdeen commuter services.
The new timetable comes into force on May 18.
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