I have to start by bringing the comments I made in the September 2007 Headcode up to date. We won't know how much money is likely to be available for Scotland's railway until "Easter" - ORR has pronounced that its first look at the figures suggests that the Scottish ones stack up (whereas the English ones don't) and that there will be some cash available for Tier 3 projects. (Tier 3 projects are the ones, in effect, which haven't started yet.) So there may be money to start to improve the Highland Main Line, but it seems very unlikely that there will be money for the FNL and other routes off the main intercity network. FoFNL will continue to press for improvements to the infrastructure, however, and will continue with its policy of seeking small enhancements which will be affordable. Where enhancement can be combined with routine maintenance there seems a better chance of persuading the railway's funders (Transport Scotland and the various RTPs) that investment will represent value for money.
National Express has replaced GNER, but it's too early to say whether there will be any noticeable change. Initial impressions (admittedly in December, when running a railway is trickier) are not particularly good. Failure to carry on-board complaints forms doesn't look clever. Mr Bowker was very good at running a railway when he did so at arms' length: how will he fare when has to get his hands dirty?
On our own patch FoFNL has had a meeting with FSR to understand the poor reliability of the 158s. Even the refurbished sets are prone to engine and other failures. The FSR 158 fleet is close to the bottom of the published DMU reliability tables and although the operating conditions are harsh - lots of hills and lots of stops - they should perform a great deal better than they do. FoFNL will continue to monitor 158 failures and press for significant improvement over 2008.
I had a meeting in Caithness with Stewart Stevenson, the Transport Minister, in November, and discussed with him the provision of a station at Halkirk and the construction of a new chord at Georgemas.
We will work with all agencies and other bodies to get improvements, and we look forward to the publication of DorLAG's STAG study early in 2008. This should set out once and for all the strength of the value-for-money case for building the new bits of railway connecting Golspie to Tain directly. DorLAG has been invited to join the Caithness Transport Forum, and I look forward to their participation in that body.
I make no apologies for all the abbreviations - these were all explained in the last Newsletter, and will be kept up to date.