The minutes of the AGM and the previous Committee meeting were discussed and some amendments made.
Frank Roach, Highland Rail Development Manger was invited to address the meeting and he gave us a far reaching and detailed overview of developments at local and national level. He reported on various published documents and brought us up to date with activities within the Highland Rail Partnership which has now been joined by the freight company, Direct Rail Services and the leasing company, Porterbrook.
The Chairman then reported on his attendance at a Highland Rail Partnership meeting. Items of interest were a new timber project in Caithness and that AEA Technology had been asked to cost a menu of modifications to the 158 units to improve cycle and luggage capacity.
The Treasurer's report was received and the finances were seen to be in good order. The decision to increase our contribution to the Highland Rail Partnership was discussed.
The Membership Secretary reported that renewals this year had been poor but there was no normal pattern with renewals, a lot depending on the timing of the newsletter and its reminders. It was agreed that the next newsletter would draw attention to existing members the importance of recruiting new members.
The Secretary tabled a collation of all versions of the various Policy Documents that had been compiled. It was decided, after a short discussion, to form a sub-committee that would finalise the layout and content of the document.
The secretary reported on his meeting with Rob Gibson, MSP who has strong views on the feasibility of a Dornoch Link, and Frank Roach reported that he was due to meet with Maureen Macmillan, MSP on the subject of the vandalised Muir of Ord Station.
It was decided to reverse the decision of the previous meeting and stay in membership of the Highland Railway Heritage. Both Keith Tyler and member, Keith Harman were prepared to remain as Directors and it was agreed that an effort would be made at the 2004 AGM to attract new interest from the membership.
The Chairman will be presenting a paper at the Rail Passengers' Committee for Scotland's seminar 'Working together to build a better railway."
It was agreed to publish a complimentary copy of the first edition of the Friends first newsletter and include it with the next newsletter.
Alistair Roy agreed to present his views on the Dornoch link to the next meeting which is scheduled to take place in Thurso on Tuesday 11th.
The meeting was attended by representatives of Halkirk Community Council and Thurso Community Council. Apologies were received from John Duncan, John Melling. The previous meeting's minutes were accepted.
Frank Roach gave us a detailed overview of the railway scene for the Far North. It is hoped that the contents of all 3 ScotRail franchise bids will be made public, and there are 4 bidders for the GNER franchise. The summer day return fare for Caithness - Inverness will be £19 with some slight adjustments to timings. Invernet driver training has been delayed and it is hoped that Invernet will start in June 2005. He mentioned that the northbound winter Sunday train was the busiest of the week. There had been a delay in moving timber from Kinbrace, Norfrost have a grant for swapbodies and the oil tanks are now uplifted by a southbound 'Safeway' freight train. Frank then gave a review of developments for all the stations on the line with the main problem being vandalism but it is hoped that CCTV will be a solution. There have been some changes to shelters and it was hoped that there will be some tidying up of rubbish.
Richard Ardern gave a summary of the 'Case for Rail" report. Because of the very negative approach of the SRA consultant's report on the Aberdeen - Inverness line it was hoped that HIE's consultants might look also at the figures. Richard reported that he was pleased with the February meeting of the Rail Passenger Committee and his presentation seemed to be well accepted. He had taken the opportunity to meet the Friends of the West Highland Lines.
The Treasurer tabled the accounts for the full year which showed that the organisations finances were in good order. The Membership Secretary reported that the number of renewals was low but the number of new members had improved. Keith Tyler reported that, as usual, Highland Rail Heritage was finding it very difficult to attract steam operators to come as far north as Inverness.
Alastair Roy presented the views of those who support the Dornoch Link. They are convinced that there would be significant economic benefits to the Far North during the building of the Link and its subsequent use. They are convinced that tourists are put off by the 4 hour journey and that it is not feasible for them to do an out and back journey in the day. They consider that there would be reduced costs for freight users and that the link would reduce some of the social detrimental effects that have recently taken place in Caithness. Justification could be made to eventually extend the commuter service to Golspie which would give benefit to residents of Dornoch. During the discussion which followed Alastair was asked to justify the claim of the oft-quoted 45 minute saving. Apparently it can be calculated by using the 75 mph speed rating of the track and the 59 minute journey time between Tain and Golspie. In response it was suggested that the rated speed of the track is rarely the average speed overall, time had to be allowed for the Dornoch stop, and the 59 minute time occurred only once a day. He was asked what the plans were for the Lairg loop and envisaged it would be retained and that it might be attractive to a steam train operator.
The Chairman next reported on the Innovation on Rural & Regional Railways Conference and continued with the SRA Community Rail Development consultation. He reported on the unduly negative financial approach of the SRA report it being obvious that the Scottish angle was very different. He tabled his response to the Community Rail consultation.
Members discussed the proposal for a Summer Excursion to Kildonan to experience gold panning with a contact of Keith Tyler.
The Chairman reported on the meeting with Maureen Macmillan MSP at Muir of Ord station to discuss the vandalism. He had received an invitation from Rob Gibson MSP to attend a seminar in Dornoch re. the Dornoch Link. A film of the original line from the Mound was to be shown in Dornoch on the same day.
Members were asked to give some thought as to the location and content for the AGM. The disgusting state of the tracks at Platform 6 in Inverness was raised.
Five committee members attended and agreed the previous minutes. The Chairman brought the meeting up to date on his understanding of the new ScotRail franchise and reported on his attendance at 2 Highland Rail Partnership meetings and one Rail Passenger Committee (RPC) meeting. At these meetings disappointment had been expressed at the lack of progress on improvements on the Inverness - Aberdeen line. The amount of timber moved by rail from Kinbrace was lower than last year due to continuing problems with rolling stock. It is anticipated that there will continue to be a RPC for Scotland after the re-organisation of the English and Welsh RPCs.
The Treasurer reported a healthy situation for the finances and with the Membership Secretary being absent a report from him was read by the Secretary. A considerable number of reminders have had to be sent out this year and the committee will be addressing how best to reduce the confusion that exists amongst members regarding the membership year and when the date by which renewals are required.
The situation regarding the Highland Railway Heritage was discussed and it is obvious that it is not fulfilling the initial enthusiasm that heralded its formation.
Some minor amendments were carried out on our Policy Document and the timetable for its dissemination was discussed.
The program for the AGM was discussed and will be finalised after we have met with our President.
The success of the summer excursion to Kildonan was briefly discussed and it was agreed to continue offering our members events in addition to the AGM, to attend. It is hoped to announce in the January newsletter an evening talk in Inverness on a railway related subject.
Frank Roach brought us up to date with developments, present and future, on the line. He was able to expand on what might be expected when First ScotRail commences business in October, especially some of the 'quick fixes' that would give a good feel to the start of the franchise. He was quizzed about the very poor levels of punctuality on the Far North Line and whilst all data is still being analysed it is apparent that technical controls over driver performance is a consideration. With the advent of more Class 170 Turbostars on the Highland Main Line there will be no through running from the Central Belt to Wick/Thurso which should allow some extra flexibility in the timetable time. On the subject of freight we were informed of some very interesting developments associated with gauge improvements on the Inverness - Aberdeen line. New timber projects should show an increase in freight traffic on the line.
It was discussed whether we should have closer contact with the Association of Community Rail Partnerships but it was decided to leave the connection through the Highland Rail Partnership.
The Secretary reminded the meeting that he had fulfilled his obligation as Secretary and would not be seeking re-appointment at the AGM.