RAIL LOBBY PINPOINTS IMPROVEMENTS TO FAR NORTH LINE
A Highland rail lobby yesterday firmed up the improvements they want to see introduced for far north passengers from the operator of the new Scottish franchise. The Scottish Executive is expected to announce within the next fortnight the preferred bidder for the latest seven year contract due to start in mid-October. Three firms are vying to win the franchise with the National Express Group - the parent company of existing operator Scotrail - facing competition from First Group and Arriva.
The Friends of the Far North Line thrashed out the detail of the improvements they are seeking at their latest quarterly meeting in Thurso yesterday. Their suggestions include an later north-bound evening train on Friday evenings from Inverness to allow more people to reach Caithness for the weekend and a fourth daily train, leaving Wick at 8.30am and returning at 2pm. FoFNL is also renewing its plea for improved connections, which they claim are particularly poor from the Aberdeen direction.
Chairman Richard Ardern said it was also pushing for greater passenger comfort and more space for luggage and bicycles. He said: "Ideally this would involve a new train but the Strategic Rail Authority is presently dead against the expenditure involved but we are pushing them hard on this. "Scotrail are talking of reconfiguring the present units. "It will be up to the new franchisee to this forward or surprise us with something better." FoFNL's offer to meet all of the bidders about their plans last summer was only taken up by National Express.
Mr Ardern said its policy thrashed out yesterday would be published in full shortly. FoFNL was set up 11 years since when Mr Ardern said there has been 'slow, incremental improvements' in the service for far north passengers.
Turning to the renewed campaign being mounted for a rail crossing of the Dornoch Forth, Mr Ardern said FoFNL supports the idea but said too many uncertainties exist about the project. The group is calling for a new updated publicly funded study to look into the socio-economics benefits and cost-effectiveness of a spur over the firth. "That would clear the air a bit and let everyone know what it would cost and whether it could be achievable. "It's far better that we're talking with clarity and know exactly what is involved." Mr Ardern said FoFNL is currently committed to maintaining the existing route, including the inland Lairg Loop, which would be by-passed were the short-cut over the firth to go ahead. FoFNL member Roger Piercy said: "There's no doubt there would be a vociferous outcry from the Sutherland communities that would be by-passed were the Lairg loop to go. "Communities in the north would have a great deal of arguing to do to support the argument of a Dornoch link at the expense of the loop." Members of FoFNL broke off their meeting to talk to representatives from Thurso and Halkirk Community Council.