At this, the first chance we've had, we extend cordial good wishes to our members, each and every one, for health and happiness in this New Year.
Much has changed in the last four months; we find ourselves facing new uncertainties, worldwide. Even in our own country, a good many rings are coming to the boil, to use a domestic metaphor. Ripples are spreading and intersecting. The underminers are at work. The optimistic response, however, is to see this as an opportunity to let in fresh air, reinvigorate our common sense and spring clean our priorities. Are we up to it? This brief reference to matters way outside our own remit may be forgiven on this occasion, since sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome may well influence all of us.
The Far North Line
Throughout the appreciable snow and bitter winds over the festive season, ScotRail successfully maintained all our services and on this, in such conditions, we feel they deserve our congratulations. They also added a second unit to the last northbound train on busier evenings in the run up to Christmas, easing congestion and returning the next day. Loadings to Helmsdale and beyond seemed amply to justify this initiative, welcomed by travellers. It was all the more welcome as, when we earlier raised this possibility, more than once, ScotRail maintained they had no spare units. We thank them, and hope the exercise was cost-effective enough to repeat. We also hope that winter Sunday loadings will support retention.
Beauly station sits ready but unopened (at the time of writing), like an unwelcome Christmas parcel, but we have high hopes it will be unsheathed before long and fulfil its potential. Quite when, in the prevailing railway hiatus, it will be become realistic to press for any further re-openings is far from clear. We have to conclude the 'Dornoch prospect' continues to recede.
A matter for concern is that the National Express Group, who operate some 20% of passenger services in the UK through their various franchises, of which ScotRail is the most extensive and certainly one of the most successful - is recording diminished optimism. With so much currently 'on hold', who can blame them? We certainly hope that when, as forecast, the number of franchisees is reduced ScotRail survives intact and under the same operator.
We support, and trust we may yet see before too long, an increased pattern of services on our line as far north as Lairg or Tain.
A Railway In Waiting
The outlook for this complex but vital industry is not encouraging, and recent Government announcements give little cause to rejoice. The investment they flourish is not exactly new, and the private sources of finance essential to support it may well be prejudiced by the precipitate action of the Secretary of State last October. A few quotations may offer comment enough:
"It is difficult to avoid an instinctive feeling that Byers has walked into something that is rather deeper than his boots." - 'The Guardian'.
"This is a country where people can rise on merit and even, such is the fairness of the system, completely without it." - Miles Kington in 'The Independent'
On the face of it, it does seem a shade wilful to put the basic element of the railway into limbo before having any clear programme for reshaping and re-motivating it. We need a working, reliable and developing railway, not a lot more station rebuilding - though, as delays and overcrowding seem likely to persist, a rapid influx of larger and better equipped waiting rooms may not come amiss.
Strategic Rail Authority - One awaits with modified anticipation some indication of this body living up to its name! They wasted two years. We may see significant stirring in the embers before long.
Railtrack - The immediate result of coming under administration is that substantial funds are now diverted from real investment in the railway into meeting holding regime fees while much needed projects are more or less indefinitely postponed. The company's shortcomings were cruelly exposed at Hatfleld, leading to the immense disruption of emergency maintenance. But it seemed to have learnt some hard lessons and was making sturdy progress with improved TPWS safety measures. Thanks to the Secretary of State acting In what he perceives as the interests of the public, there is now an extended interregnum while decisions are reached on how to regain forward momentum.
WCML upgrade - Welcoming the chance of a major project, Railtrack fell into bed with Virgin rather too hastily; a completely revamped West Coast main line, with higher speeds and tilting trains, was beguiling. It now appears that a prime reason that costs escalated so steeply during phase 1 was that the intended advanced train control system - a forecast European requirement, and which would have made lineside signalling superfluous - encountered teething problems and remains unavailable. The only other way to permit higher speeds was extensive renewal of traditional signalling, vastly more expensive. It is now assumed that phase 2, to permit 140 mph running between Euston and Crewe, is indefinitely postponed. The dismal news is that, for little more than the huge expenditure involved, we might have had a brand new high-speed line from London to Glasgow. Wonderful thing, hindsight.
ECML upgrade - All we have of this grand scheme is the first phase, Leeds transformed - and not before time. The rest is 'on hold'. This line has needed additional capacity to cover passenger and freight growth for 2 years. It must surely come, but is delayed.
A Real Cause for Grief - The media have long delighted in knocking the railway and encouraging us all to deride it. So much has been written of late, rather too much of it inadequately informed. Any company, however renowned and successful it seems, is only as good as its staff - in railway terms all the way from the humblest porter and carriage cleaner, through the permanent-way teams and the engineers of all departments to management and the board room. The various skills and years of experience have regularly inspired a remarkable degree of dedication and proper pride in their calling, to use a phrase that may now seem out-moded. Since privatisation new staff with 'outside expertise' have begun to find out what running a railway business really means (or have speedily jumped ship), and former BR staff seem to have taken the changes in their resilient stride. But you cannot turn such varied talents of high calibre on and off like a tap, and he or she who disengages them does so at their, and our, peril.
To my mind the most grievous aspect of the present railway regime is the demotivation and damage to morale that the current hiatus is inevitably causing. Abrupt loss of share savings through absolutely no fault of their own is no way to treat loyal staff. Energetic and far-sighted action can salve such present wounds, if just for once ministers can bring themselves to safeguard a truly fundamental and irreplaceable asset - our railwaymen.