Convener's AGM Report - 2007
Since we last met in Brora eight months ago the Committee has - yet again - found itself with a substantial work load. Three Newsletters have been produced which reported in outline what we've been up to.
The Network Rail Route Utilisation Strategy - the infrastructure blueprint for all the things which Network Rail think worth doing if the money is provided - was published shortly after last year's AGM. It was gratifying to see that some at least of the points FoFNL made in its response to the Consultation were taken on board. It remains to be seen how much priority the Secretary of State and the Scottish Government Ministers give to the list of schemes - we expect a major announcement within the next 10 days. Two, in fact, a High Level Output Statement (government-speak for shopping list) and a Statement of Funds Available (how much they have in their wallet). The fear is that the first will be all-encompassing but the second - with much wringing of hands - will say not yet. FoFNL will be making a public response in due course. There is so much that could be done for relatively little on the FNL, and we continue to press for a start to be made.
We responded in considerable detail to HITRANS's Regional Transport Strategy - another blueprint document. In simple terms, if a scheme isn't in the RTS it won't get funded. Again we were partially successful in ensurinq that Inverness's eye was not wholly diverted away from Caithness and the Far North Line.
We published an extra Newsletter in April to coincide with the May Election campaigns. In it I spelt out a 30-year vision for all of Scotland's railway. It was sent to a much wider range of people than our normal Newsletters - indeed it went to all constituency candidates for the four largest parties and the top three in the regional lists. It was also sent to a selection of candidates for the Highland Council. How successful this extra effort will be won't be apparent for some time. Acorns have this dilatory habit. But it's a document we can point to in future and against which we can measure improvement. It will be interesting to see whether an extra Newsletter in 2011 will be full of praise or of disappointment.
As well as all this writing and policy-making I've continued to have meetings with the industry. Richard Ardern and I met Michelle Crawford, the new regional manager at Inverness. Later the same day we were among the audience at a passenger (or customer, as it's quaintly called) forum in Inverness chaired by James King of Passenger Focus. I've attended meetings, including the AGM, of Highland Rail Partnership and taken the opportunity that these meetings provide of networking (we used to call it hobnobbing) with various industry stakeholders (we used to call them colleagues). As you will have seen in the Newsletter I've been re-appointed to an industry safety body which meets three times a year in London - the grandly-named Rail Industry Advisory Committee. I used to serve on this until 2005 as a member of the old Rail Passengers Council, and it was gratifying to find that they apparently couldn't do without me. Much of the business is concerned with inward-facing matters like how guidance for industry workers should be written, but some of it is outward-facing, dealing with big safety issues like level crossing abuse. As we all know this is - sadly - a big problem on the FNL. We have over 80% of the most unprotected public road crossings in Scotland on the FNL and Kyle lines, and there's a huge education job still to be done in two areas. First, teaching road users that the train will always win in any collision with a car; and secondly, reminding the roads authority that they have a responsibility too. Fortunately the 2006 Act gives the Secretary of State power to require the roads authority to contribute towards level crossing upgrades. How he uses this power (or how Scottish Government Ministers use it) is something we're watching.
But the big effort in the last 8 months has been one in which many of you were involved as well. Some of you may have seen, or even travelled in, the first of the refurbished Class 158s. It appeared in Thurso earlier this month and my timing in getting pictures of it to the John o'Groats Journal on what was a quiet news day in Caithness ensured splash coverage on page 1. I am on record as giving it "8 out of 10". Nothing ever gets 10 in my book, and 9 was withheld because of the fact that the toilets continue to discharge onto the track. FoFNL mounted a vigorous public campaign earlier in the year to draw attention to this - a fact which clearly astonished many people - and many of you wrote to the papers and to politicians demanding an end to this outdated and disgusting practice. I'm glad to say as a result of this campaign, that there is a chink of light. We were told at the public meeting in Inverness that Network Rail - whose responsibility it is to clean the tracks, and whose employees get sprayed with the stuff - is prepared to fund half of the cost of the necessary work. It isn't a done deal yet, but I can't think it's very likely that First ScotRail would make such an announcement in public unless they were pretty convinced that something would be done fairly soon.
So I can report progress, albeit slow, on many fronts since last November. Some done; much still to do. I'd like to thank my Committee colleagues for all their work - Roger Piercy for his unfailingly excellent and informative Newsletters, lain MacDonald for his insight into signalling and other technical track-related matters, Gavin Sinclair for his operational and timetabling input - often wholly unseen but nonetheless vital in informing our inputs into the Great December 2008 Revision (of which more next year), Angus and Janice Stewart for their formidable husband-and-wife team in keeping the membership records and making sure the money flows in, Anne Sutherland for her commuter experience (and legal expertise) and, last but certainly not least, Richard Ardern for his huge input to just about everything we do on your behalf, and on behalf of all rail passengers in these parts. Thank you to them and to all of you for your support.