First and foremost I would like to share good wishes for the New Year with all our members and other readers. Such goodwill may be tendered with rather more faith than eager expectation for 2003.
How then about the traditional Good Resolution and that is that we undertake to gain at least one new member this year? A wider membership would strengthen our hand in securing our aims. Please give it a go!
Earlier last year we were told that major railway investment was to take place. The backlog of maintenance and overhaul would be largely eliminated, new stock would be forthcoming, and various improvement schemes would duly follow. Not all our dreams would be realised real progress would be seen. As Christmas approached a far more stringent regime was announced. The assumed private investment had dwindled and most of the government backing was already earmarked: standards would be raised, with some service cutbacks, and capacity improved only where relatively minimal outlay could sustain it; major schemes would be deferred or put on a very low back burner.
This dismal volte-face was the result of costs spiralling out of control. Far too much work goes out to expensive consultancies and the Health & Safety folk don't help by keeping on shifting the goalposts outward - for reasons they no doubt feel laudable but which exceed any rational statistical analysis. This is something the Strategic Rail Authority is determined to address, and in time no doubt will.
Two current trends seem to me particularly misguided. One is the introduction of new trains with airline style seating which are still too tight for comfort on longer journeys. The second is the absurdity of introducing short trains and running them at excessively frequent intervals. This is bus mentality run amok. I find it hard to believe that Edinburgh/Glasgow really merits 4 trains an hour. This practice occupies too many train paths and reduces route capacity. What we need is fewer trains, running to time reliably, day in day out.
The choice of shorter instead of longer new franchises also seems curious to me. Railway timescales are invariably long, and costs relatively immense. What mechanism can be introduced to offer operators a realistic incentive to invest and develop initiative?
What of our own route? With luck, modest improvements can be expected. In the short term we have high hopes of a more frequent service between Inverness and Tain, if the prudent scheme to make this possible has advanced far enough not to be axed. In the medium term we realistically hope to see more crossings upgraded to permit higher running speeds, additional units to increase the capacity of regularly overcrowded trains (to say they can't be afforded is just not good enough) and to offset the risk of breakdown and cancellation, and a renewed station at Halkirk with a Thurso branch chord to permit through running.
In the longer term we should continue to campaign for improved new rolling stock (the hard worked 158 units being distinctly middle-aged), designed and laid out with reasonable Highland needs in mind. And for more diversion of long-haul freight from the congested A9 to rail - preferably from at least Stirling. Caithness members will not like it but, in the current national context, Dornoch Link prospects are fading even further. I rather fear we'll be lucky if we can hang on to the railway we've got.