A happy New Year and good health to all our readers! In our own area we have been remarkably fortunate of late: little if any of the torrential rain and flooding that have afflicted others south of the Central Belt, and no appreciable rail disruption - though delays and cutbacks further south will inevitably have inconvenienced longer distance travellers. At least ScotRail offers generally outstanding levels of customer care.
New Year prompted me to shake out a trusty bottle-green velvet cloth and polish my crystal ball. (It is charged by starlight and so still works in the winter.) What hopes might it reveal?
First, one or two more class 158 units, so our busier workings might have enough seats, and to provide at least one all-year-round Sunday service. The class 158s have proved a mixed blessing. Reduced journey times are most welcome, but these units are not exactly in the first flush of youth, and it shows; the exemplary reliability of the 156s has been lost. ScotRail is by degrees surmounting this temporary setback, but we aren't quite there yet.
In time perhaps we might even get rather more adequate legroom - it may be fine for short journeys in Strathclyde, but it does become irksome after the first hour or so! - and improved space for bulky luggage and bicycles on all of them. Today's cars are very comfortable and the railway has to accept this has raised reasonable expectations; 'cramming them in' is no way to entice people on board. This is especially so in the Far North where, for historical reasons, the car remains quicker on the A9.
Sooner or later the accountants must yield, or at least give fair weight, to those with a grasp of marketing. Secondly, and urgently, action should be agreed and implemented to unscramble the persisting failure to offer integrated travel in the City of Inverness. Current railway customer parking is thoroughly discouraging, and signposting between rail and coach stations lamentable: this is no way to encourage rail travel or to welcome the tourists we are supposed to attract.
Thirdly, to look more widely, the proposal for an overnight motor-rail service (there was talk a while back but it somehow died away) needs reappraisal in depth; say twice weekly from Euston and Crewe or Leeds (York is less convenient) to Stirling and Inverness. This would free people from the unenviable and tedious motorway chore to reach the Highlands. It would merit subsidy for reducing air pollution, and offering safer transit.
Fourthly - this is ambitious; the crystal grew a bit dim here, so I polished anew - a fourth daily train, and one or two extra trains between Tain and Inverness, hopefully to give a regular interval service in the more populous southern section. There is no doubt that greater frequency, offering wider convenience, choice and flexibility, will encourage very many more people to forsake their cars on a regular basis. Another aspect is family travel costs, commonly, if mistakenly, perceived in terms of a simple comparison of petrol and fares. Highland Council may seek to address this in two ways, by wider publicity of true comparisons and/or by further subsidising of a special family concession. A workman's season rate might also merit serious consideration.
Beauly station reopening is due this year - at last! If what appears a rolling programme of easing crossing restrictions is maintained (accelerated?) a few more stops could be introduced without jeopardising end-to-end timings. So what about Conon Bridge (for Maryburgh), Evanton and Halkirk in the next three years? All substantial and growing settlements currently denied access to the railway that passes through them. Just a thought.
Above all, bear in mind the adage "Use It Or Lose It". Our passenger train service only operates thanks to the franchise agreement; while we expect this to be maintained there can be no certainty that it will be if usage fails to justify it. Here in Kinbrace I see rather too many trains pass with a minimal payload. I do urge local members and their families to use the train whenever they can. Unless we do, we shall see cutbacks rather than improvements, and have no one to blame but ourselves.
Finally - I venture out on a limb. Amid the recent chaos there has been a groundswell of talk about re-nationalisation of the whole railway. Frankly this is not a practicable option. Quite apart from all else, as Gerard Fiennes, a railwayman of distinction, observed, "When you reorganise, you bleed." I think we have bled enough! There are soon going to be changes, and renewal of longer-term franchises. What we need is not leeches but healing.