Reports from the 1999 Annual General Meeting
The open meeting commenced with a talk from John Holwell, Market Manager, Scotland, E.W.S. Railways, entitled "Highland Rail Freight Development".
Mr. Holwell opened his talk by thanking our, absent, President, Robert MacLennan MP for the considerable work he has carried out on behalf of freight, describing him as an "unsung hero". As would be expected, Safeway was the first company to be mentioned and he described the types of delays that can be encountered in negotiating grants etc. It is their intention to introduce 2 shift working between Inverness and Perth. The re-introduction of the night shift taking place after a 10 year gap. They are hoping to run at 75mph wherever possible and aiming for a 98% right time arrival which will better than the Mail trains for punctuality. A very interesting statistic quoted was that 50% of the goods on supermarket shelves has travelled by train.
Reference was made to the freight trial to Caithness and because of the long lead times involved in planning new ventures the aim is for a 6 day/week regular freight service to take place in the first half of year 2000. All the usual freight items with which we are familiar were mentioned and he expressed disappointment of the unpredictability of timber traffic. Lineside loading of timber has 5 sites identified with 2 sites close to achieving use.
The hard work of Frank Roach at trying to achieve a freight focus at Invergordon was referred to. The spiralling of predicted costs of the work involved had caused the Harbour Authorities to pull out which was a great pity given the fact that 7 wagons of fish food had arrived on the day of the AGM by rail in Inverness for forwarding, by road, to Invergordon. Pipe traffic into Fearn had been successful but during the handling of agriculture limestone dust has been a problem. Potatoes are still a popular load from Inverness and Lovat Water are hoping for an increase in traffic should there be a ban on the import of French water! A lack of specialised wagons is hampering developments with the Nairn Sawmill who are keen to move forward.
Mr. Holwell then invited questions; the first of which was to do with the handling of pipes for the site at Evanton. The major difficulty with this site was a geographical one with there being a significant height differential. The discussion then continued on the competition faced by Rail from the shipment of pipes by sea. A question on whether Safeway had organised themselves a siding adjacent to their new store in Inverness brought the response that because all the containers used by Safeway were end-loaded it was impossible to unload the goods from the side of the wagon; unlike curtain-sided lorries. Mr. Holwell re-affirmed their intention to triple rail business in 10 years. He expressed optimism that they will continue to show many advantages over road haulage as road congestion and drivers hours and conditions continue to give the road haulage industry problems. Having said that he pointed out that some coal trains are now so successful that they are running out of suitable paths in the timetable, plus the demands on specialist wagons, such as for timber, had caused headaches for staff.
The final question, on the possibility of delivering motor fuel by rail, brought the response that although EWS realised that British Rail priced itself out the market, the problem now is that Grangemouth has no interest in co-operating with EWS to reinstate this form of freight handling.
The next speaker for the afternoon, Dr. Douglas Williamson, member of the Rail Users Consultative Committee, Scotland, (RUCC) introduced his talk with a 'Who', 'What', and 'How' of the RUCC. The members are from all walks of life with none of them professing to be specialists and they are independent of the Rail Regulator. They attempt to represent the concerns and aspirations of the consumer of rail services and they hold regular meetings, which are open to the public, at a variety of venues around Scotland. They meet weekly with ScotRail management and have major meetings at directorate level with ScotRail and Railtrack at 3 - 4 monthly intervals. There are less frequent meetings with GNER and Virgin.
Dr. Williamson then went on to tell us what the RUCC is not prepared to do. They are not prepared to conduct campaigns on behalf of organisations because so often this leads to conflicts between the user groups and the RUCC feels that it can not been seen to show favouritism. The RUCC is quite prepared to provide a platform for all interested parties to express themselves. He then went on to give some examples of typical conflicts they deal with. The carriage of cycles and luggage versus the provision of extra seats has given rise to many concerns. This has been exacerbated by the planned introduction of the Class 158 trainsets. All the good work carried out on behalf of the cycling community to increase cycle capacity on the 156s had now been undone with the, very much, reduced capacity of the 158. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister has instructed franchise holders to increase cycle capacity Dr. Williamson was confident that a solution will be reached.
The second conflict highlighted was that of stopping trains at 'remote' stations and trying to achieve shorter journey times. This is a conflict of interest experienced all over the country. Not too surprisingly the question of the RUCC's interest in safety was mentioned. The RUCC recognise the very safe nature of railways but continue to press for higher standards. They advocate a gradual approach to safety improvements, because it is quite clear that the railway requires a great deal more money to be spent to save 1 death than in any other form of transport.
The next conflict of interest covered was that between rail passengers and the taxpayers. The Government favours the renewal of franchises because it means re-bidding is necessary and therefore new people might be brought in. However the downside is that existing franchise holders are understandably reluctant to commit themselves to major expense in the last few years of a franchise. It is quite clear the public must make their wishes known as to how future franchise holders must perform and the RUCC have made their 'wishlist' known, but because the subsidy is not being increased then our demands will have to be less.
During the question and answer session that followed his talk, Dr. Williamson was asked about the RUCC's attitude to mini-franchises. The response was that the RUCC are not happy with the idea, they fear a lack of flexibility and are worried that service cancellations would ensue. An alternative is to extend the franchise, but again the question arises as to the commitment during the last few years. Dr. Williamson was asked about the RUCC's approach to the question of fares. They are now prepared to consider the question of fares but with income coming from passengers, OPRAF and Strathclyde, each contributing a third then this influences the amount of bargaining that can be done.
The next questioner drew attention to the poor publicity for RUCC public meetings and cited the case that a meeting hasn't been held in Inverness for some time. Dr. Williamson promised to attend to this situation. The next subject raised related to the seating design and arrangements in the class 158 trainsets. The high seat backs and the placing of the seats out of step with the windows caused considerable viewing problems from the trains. Dr. Williamson acknowledged that the RUCC were aware of the concerns of the travelling public over these matters and stated that the Health and Safety Executive were supportive of high seat backs, but that this was a flawed concept when applied to forward facing seats. The franchise document specifically refers to the view from the seat but it was felt that ScotRail couldn't care less and were keen to place as many seats as was practical into the space available.
A lengthy discussion on safety aspects, some quite technical, followed at which it was felt that the 156 and 158 designs were of a high standard.
Dr. Williamson's contribution was concluded with a discussion on methods that could be applied to the modification of the carriages to facilitate the transport of cycles and bulky luggage such as rucksacks.
After the customary break for refreshments and the chance to informally chat amongst the members the business part of the meeting commenced.
Friend's Chairman John Melling started the proceedings by apologising for the absence of our President, Robert Maclennan. Parliamentary business had forced him to stay in London. John Melling referred to the sad death of the previous Chairman, Harry Miller and asked that those present observe a moment of silence in respect of his memory.
In his report the Chairman referred to the ongoing refurbishment of stations and the impending installation of the Georgemas plunger. He acknowledged the sterling work being carried out by Frank Roach, Highland Rail Development Officer in increasing the opportunities for freight on the line, and the continuing satisfactory performance of the Dingwall Commuter train augurs well for the future.
The 125th Anniversary celebrations went well and gave opportunities to show a commitment to the line with promises of 15 minutes off journey times and an increase of 15% in traffic.
The work of the committee was then referred to; we have 164 members who are communicated with by 3 newsletters in the year. The committee meets at various locations such as Kinbrace, Muir of Ord and Beauly. He referred to the Publicity Leaflet that has been produced and the publicity gained by holding an exhibition for a week at the Helmsdale Timespan centre manned by various members supporting our Secretary, Keith Tyler. We are increasing our public awareness by involving Community Councils along the line, and continue to work with the Highland Railway Partnership and the Highland Railway Heritage group. A major piece of work during the year was the re-writing of the Constitution.
For the future, John Melling felt that our challenges were the introduction of a Tain Commuter train, the re-opening of Beauly Station, improved passenger services at weekends and the refurbishment of the 158 trainsets.
He concluded his report by thanking the retiring committee members, John Moore and Keith Harman.
The meeting was presented with the published accounts which were approved
The amended Constitution was accepted by the meeting.
In the election of Office Bearers, John Melling was re-elected as Chairman, Keith Tyler we re-elected as Secretary, Ron Stevenson, former Chief Executive Highland Regional Council, was elected Treasurer, and Frank Spaven continues as Membership Secretary. In the voting for the 2 committee places Donald MacCuish and Roger Piercy were elected. Scott Oswald were re-appointed as Auditors and thanks were expressed for the service they provide.
The meeting concluded with suggestions being made as to how to improve the relationship between the Society and its members. Given the fact that a high proportion of our membership is resident along the line it was felt that extra meetings should be held at various locations with a talk or tour and the opportunity for a 'blether'. The idea of holding another conference was suggested; our first having firmly established the credibility of the Friends.
Extra services all year round to enable students etc. to arrive in Wick/Thurso late on Friday night and to return to Inverness for connections further South on Sunday evening were discussed.