scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator


This is my thirteenth - and last - Headcode: I shall be handing over the Convenership to new hands in July. It seems a good time to review what FoFNL has achieved in the 3½ years since I was elected in November 2005, and to offer an idea of what the Promised Land might look like.

FoFNL itself was in some turmoil - the vexed question of the Dornoch Link divided the members. The 2005 AGM polarized the position, with around 40% of those present clearly in favour. When their candidate was defeated many left FoFNL, but the loss in members was much lower than 40% - clearly the activists had few supporters among the membership as a whole. A new body was formed by these activists, with its primary purpose being the promotion of the Dornoch Link. I have always taken the view that, however attractive on paper such an idea might be, in the real world of limited funds and competing priorities it is a non-starter. The impact of the recession merely strengthens my conviction. We have seen that CP4 (railway-speak for the period 2009-14) will have no spare money for anything big - the new Forth Crossing will see to that. The clever trick will be to ensure that good ideas are worked up during the early stages of planning for CP5 (2014-19), which as far as I am concerned starts now. FoFNL's agenda must be the identification, and promotion, of projects which have a chance of ticking the boxes within Network Rail and First ScotRail. FoFNL is now a body with its eyes focused on the achievable.

As far as the railway is concerned FoFNL can point to some significant improvements. Not all of these, of course, have been achieved by FoFNL on its own. Part of the skill of your Committee is its ability to work with other industry partners and funders, adding our weight to doors which are already creaking open. Among these have been the substantial input to the specification for the mid-life refurbishment of the Inverness-based 158s. These now have doubled cycle space and improved toilets and interior fittings. The main change, however, which was certainly FoFNL's, was to ensure that seats were aligned with windows (which brought the additional benefit of making them slightly further apart). Most passengers probably don't notice this - after all, it's how trains always used to be - but sitting in a Voyager gazing at a window deadlight is no fun. It's worth noting that the Haymarket-based 158 refurbs do not have this improved layout. We were successful in persuading Transport Scotland that our long straggly touristy line was worth spending a bit more money on.

There are now four trains a day in each direction. No longer does the Caithnessian who has an hour's business in Inverness have to twiddle his thumbs for six wasted hours before returning home. The extra morning train south means an extra welcome 90 minutes in bed before setting out. The extra trains connect with the Orkney ferry at Scrabster, so the benefits are felt in Orkney as well as along the FNL itself.

The unseen, but not unsmelt, benefit for which FoFNL can claim all the plaudits is the installation of retention-tank toilets on our 158s. The story has been told in previous Newsletters, and doesn't need to be repeated here, but it stands as a good instance of allowing a bit of unfocused outrage to be translated, by involving the Press and by getting people to write letters to politicians, into simple straightforward action. That it cost a couple of million quid means that FoFNL's gratitude (and that of all passengers, lineside workers and residents) is all the greater.

But it's not all joy: there's still a lot to be done. In the short term (CP4, say) there are myriad small schemes (a few tens of thousands of pounds) which would speed things up - a minute here, a minute there. FoFNL reckons that 25 minutes could be shaved off a ludicrously long journey time without spending serious money (serious is when you get to several million). In the medium term (CP5) there is a crying need for a bit of serious spending in building in robustness to the approach to Inverness (railway-speak for eliminating delays to services caused by a delay somewhere else). Redoubling the line from the swing bridge at Clachnaharry out to Clunes would be a huge step forward, but even a loop at Lentran would deliver significant improvement (and, in the long term, save money). In the long term we have to notice that a "mid-life" rolling stock refurb takes us only to about 2022 or so. We need a new train by then. But the Inverness allocation (which is by no means confined to the FNL and Kyle Line) is only 24 sets - far too small a production run. FoFNL has begun to address this need, and has thought about other similar lines whose rolling stock needs are similar - seasonal tourist traffic with luggage, cycles and an inexplicable desire to look out of the window, eat and so forth. There is a lot of rolling stock trundling around the branch lines of the network whose clapped-out-ness is much greater than that of our 158s, and a coalition of needs will be a good one to establish.

The railway, perilous though the nation's finances be, is in good heart. In Scotland, thanks to 10 years of forward-looking government, it has seen substantial growth both in size and business. The political will to go on improving isn't likely to disappear whatever may happen south of the Border. High-speed rail between Scotland and London is on the agenda of all parties, although one shouldn't prepare the sandwiches for the first run just yet. Closer to home the need is to remind politicians that a railway running through only three parliamentary constituencies is just as important as one running through dozens, even though it may carry fewer passengers. I am confident that your next Convener and the Committee will be up to the task, and I wish them well. I've had enormous fun - may they do so too.

Mike Lunan