Convener's AGM Report - June 2008
The last 12 months has seen big steps forward on Scotland's railway, and FoFNL has had its part to play. We have contributed to a variety of consultations by various agencies and have enjoyed continuing high-level contact with First ScotRail, Network Rail, Transport Scotland and with Scottish Ministers. It is no exaggeration to say that FoFNL's views are listened to with interest by decision-makers in the industry and beyond. We may not always get what we ask for, but that's because we aim high ... but not unreasonably high.
Since our last AGM in Thurso last summer the refurbishment of the Class 158s has continued and is now nearly complete. Two refurbished sets have been damaged by level crossing misuse and it will be some time before these re-enter service. Once they do all passengers will enjoy the superior interior comfort and cycle and luggage space, all of which were things we asked for. Members will know that we mounted - with your support - a campaign to install controlled-emission toilets to bring to an end the disgusting practice of discharging waste directly onto the track. I am delighted that this has been heeded and that work will start next month on the necessary facilities.
We have been in detailed talks with First ScotRail about the timetable, not least the long-awaited provision of a 4th train north from Inverness to Caithness. This will start in December, leaving Inverness shortly before 2 o'clock, bridging the 7-hour gap between existing departures. It will be possible to have breakfast - admittedly an early one - in Caithness, spend an hour and a half in Inverness - long enough for many tasks - and get home in time for tea. It will also allow Orkney folk to get the late ferry home from Scrabster. I don't think this train, or the 4th train south introduced a couple of years ago, would be in the timetable without FoFNL's pressure. But there are small changes too, which should make for a better and more reliable timetable. The big challenge is to persuade Transport Scotland to fund the necessary small enhancements which will enable the end-to-end journey time to be reduced to something more acceptable. Your Committee will continue to press for these improvements, most of which are fairly small in railway terms. Replacing a loop at Lentran (or better still, redoubling the line between Clachnaharry and Clunes) will give First ScotRail a much more reliable timetable. No longer would it be necessary for a train to wait at Inverness before a late-running arrival entered the station: this spread any lateness throughout the day, surely something it's worth spending a few million to eliminate.
The Scottish Government, and Transport Scotland, are continuing to do an excellent job in developing Scotland's railway - part of my job is to remind them that the railway comes north of Inverness - or indeed Perth.
I have attended conferences in Edinburgh and London on the railway generally, meeting John Swinney and lain Coucher at these; and in Birmingham on rail safety - the last time Gwyneth Dunwoody addressed an audience just a few weeks before her death. She will be greatly missed in her chairmanship of the Transport Select Committee and a few industry leaders must be a bit relieved that so feisty an adversary will no longer have her beady eye on them. Although FoFNL is only a remote rail user group whose patch is a long way from anywhere that matters, I think it's important that the industry and its leaders continue to have irritating chaps from beyond the Great Glen showing the flag on your behalf.
The Office of Rail Regulation appointed me as a "passenger interest representative" - there's only one apart from Passenger Focus - on the Rail Industry Advisory Committee. I had been a member of this body with my Rail Passengers' Council hat on until we were abolished in 2005, so it was pleasing that someone somewhere felt that my contributions had been worth something. As well as a general passenger hat I also wear a Scottish hat, and a colleague from Transport Scotland is also a member. Between us we seem to cover most of the required ground.
When you first elected me in November 2005 I intended to remain in office for only 2 years. The change in the timing of the AGM made it necessary to extend that to 2½ years, and my intention was to demit office today. However the matter of former member John Moore's threatened legal action against FoFNL is still unresolved and it would be unfair to a new Convener to force him or her into the middle of a fracas. I therefore decided last year to stay in post - if you so elect - for one more year. If Mr Moore's action is still unresolved then - which seems pretty unlikely - a new Convener will just have to cope.
I want to thank all my colleagues on the Committee for the work they've done in the past year in the confident belief that many of them will continue to do so in the coming year. Janice Stewart, who agreed to act as Treasurer for a short period, has intimated that she wishes to stand down. FoFNL owes her a debt of gratitude for being willing to act at a difficult time, and I thank her personally for so doing. She isn't here today - nor is Angus - because he was in hospital for planned surgery over the weekend. I'm sure you will all join me in wishing him a swift and successful recovery so that he can resume - if you so elect - the wands of office in due course.