2005 was a difficult year for the Friends of the Far North Line. A great deal of the Committee's time was occupied with internal matters which became so heated that the Chairman was forced to resign through ill health. I am glad to say that Richard Ardern is now restored to full operational capacity and that he has been re-elected to the Committee. His experience will be essential to restoring FoFNL to full operational capacity as well.
When I moved to Thurso in November 2005 I was blissfully unaware that the Friends were about to elect me as your Chairman. When I began to understand the unhappy state of affairs, however, I decided that my experience of dealing with the whole range of passenger aspirations ought to be made available to my local bit of the railway. Having been booted out of office by the government, along with about 150 others across Great Britain, my first inclination was to mutter darkly about never bothering to do public things again, but the black mood soon passed and here I am writing this Introduction. I am happy to say that I served only about 60 seconds as your Chairman before the AGM agreed with my request that the office be called that of Convener henceforth. And no nonsense about the Constitution not saying so!
So what am I planning to do? First and foremost to heal the wounds. FoFNL is a broad church capable of holding people with differing views and viewpoints. What I will not tolerate as Convener, however, is disruption of the aims and objectives of the Friends. We are all subservient to those.
The other immediate objective, which will have taken place by the time you read these words, is to make once and for all a clear and unambiguous statement about FoFNL's position on the building of a Dornoch Link. It is this:
FoFNL believes that the Scottish Executive should issue tenders for a full appraisal of the costs and benefits, including socio-economic benefits, of improvements to the service on the Far North Line. This should include, but not be confined to, the building of a Dornoch Link. FoFNL will support any reasonable moves from other bodies and parties which seek to persuade the Scottish Executive to adopt this policy.
Having let everyone know that this is our policy we can then leave the Dornoch Link to one side for the couple of years or so before a thorough appraisal would be published. This will free the Committee - and members - to concentrate on the myriad small things which can be done to improve the line, and the service offered along it. Highland Rail Partnership has been instrumental in delivering the new Invernet service at the southern end (if Lairg can be so called) of the Line. The FoFNL Committee was successful in its request for a fourth train south from Caithness. We should build on this and seek the next phase of improvements on the route.
I intend to meet senior figures at Network Rail, First ScotRail and Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate to discover exactly what and where the obstacles to a faster service are. Some are geographical and buried in the lairdly folklore of a bygone age. Others, however, are depressingly recent and in my mind eminently capable of yielding to rational examination. Lord Cullen's requirements leading to a thoughtless blanket application of TPWS is a case in point.
This is a rather longer Introduction than is usual, or than I intend it to be in future. However, I think it's important at this stage in the Friends' history to set out where I intend to lead members over the next year or two. I hope to have your support and I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible at our various meetings and outings in 2006.