Top Rail Personnel Address Friends Meeting in Tain
Alastair McPherson is employed by National Express Group (NEG) and claimed not to be a railman but a businessman with an extensive transport knowledge who is in control of a team of experienced people. NEG is a plc from the public sector background and is a multi-modal transport operator - coaching, buses, airports and rail, which is the biggest division. He reassured us of the importance of the rural railways and he is obligated to run the network and maintain rail mileage. He hopes to blend private enterprise with public services concepts to create innovation and freedom.
For the Highlands he hopes to build on existing network and offer stability to prevent people worrying about money being diverted elsewhere. He plans to fill gaps by integrating rail with road by linking Oban, Fort William and Inverness with through ticketing enabling further linking to Ullapool. He recognises the importance of tourism.
He wasn't going to make promises that he couldn't keep because he has to negotiate with Railtrack which can sometimes be very difficult. He indicated that he is always open to ideas, some of which have already come from the Friends. He is unable to deliver the Tain commuter train because he considers the risk is far too great at present. He promised that he would experiment next year with a Dingwall commuter service Monday to Friday even though projections indicate that a loss will be made. He announced the 50% discount for Highland Rail Card holders from 15 -20th December and promised that there will be some new initiatives in the Spring. He also promised to look carefully at the Inverness - Edinburgh/Glasgow services.
A Question and Answer session followed during which he was asked on what basis was it decided that the income from Tain service would be so low. He replied that the previous offer to look at the service had been made in good faith but he was constrained by the BR board and the new ScotRail board had found the proposal unacceptable. He has ordered a new look and invited discussions with local Councillors. He hopes the Dingwall experiment will prove the figures to be pessimistic and acknowledged that the Marketing of his services will need to be looked at. He was doubtful about the re-opening stations such as Evanton, Conon Bridge and Beauly because he considered it would be detrimental to journey times. Comment was made about the poor marketing of the £9 tickets of which so few people had been made aware of, and it was suggested that the 50% discount be extended forward a week. He recognised that ScotRail has been historically a high price operator and that they will have to look at deep and prolonged discounting.
Further discussion took place on the opening hours of toilets in Inverness Station and the transport of bikes. Alastair MacPherson said that they were aware of the frustrations of cyclists and hoped to make improvements.
Our Chairman, Robert MacLennan MP in summing up stressed the importance of marketing. Alastair MacPherson responded that he hoped for positive developments with the appointment of the new Rail Development Officers acting as a catalyst.
John Holwell was then introduced and invited to talk about Freight.
English, Welsh and Scottish (EWS) is an American owned Company and he announced their plans for the purchase of new locos and wagons. EWS recognises the need for an immediate improvement in rolling stock and their plan is to double freight business in 5 years and treble it in 10 years. He summarised developments over the line; such as pipes, aviation fuel, agricultural lime, steel/freezers, lineside loading of timber, potatoes from Inverness but soon to be from Tain. He realised that the Safeway initiative in the South could not be matched in the North due to lack of equipment. Freight is increasing South from Inverness with the major influence on any future developments being the Killicrankie tunnel and the gauge that can be achieved by track modifications.
A wide ranging discussion took place which included the consideration that Highland water be taken by train to the South of England to relieve the drought conditions. A quotation had already been prepared for water to be taken south from Edinburgh.