AGM 2008 Speakers
Friends of the Far North Line Annual General Meeting, Monday 30 June 2008, Inverness Town House
Members and guests were welcomed to the first FoFNL AGM to be held in Inverness. Mike Lunan, Convener, said Inverness Town House was the only location outside London in which the full Cabinet met, when Lloyd George was prime minister.
FoFNL President John Thurso MP gave an introductory address (joking that this is the closest he'll get to attending Cabinet!) in which he stressed the importance of rail - a growing importance with the high price of fuel.
Network Rail Chief Executive Iain Coucher gave an overview of where the company stood with regard to the funding likely to be available over the next 5 years, and how challenging the restricted amount allowed by the Regulator would be. Nevertheless in Scotland at least the railway would continue to grow, with new railway being built between Airdrie and Bathgate (making a 4th route between Edinburgh and Glasgow), to Glasgow Airport, and in the Borders. He acknowledged the importance of routes like the Far North Line, and further acknowledged that journey times were still too long. "We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times", he said. In a Far North Line context he said that Network Rail needed to be specific about what they were aiming for - what was the journey time target? - who was the target market? FoFNL will be taking up his invitation to supply answers to these detailed questions. In a national context he repeated the message he had delivered earlier in the month that Network Rail would be developing work on substantial electrification projects - "trains do not have to be powered by fossil fuels" - and mentioned possible new high-speed lines - "an interesting debate". FoFNL, even at its most ambitious, doesn't think a high-speed electrified line to Thurso is particularly likely. However, Iain Coucher did note that level crossing misuse was a serious issue and that in some locations line speeds would have to be reduced which would increase journey times further on the Far North Line.
Nigel Harris, Managing Editor of RAIL magazine, gave a down-to-earth speech in which he looked at the line, and its attractions and drawbacks, from an outsider's point of view. Nurturing and improving long rural railways was vital and Friends groups did excellent work in many parts of Britain. On the map, he said, it was "a no-brainer" that cutting off the inland detour made sense, but now that a report had shown the cost to be £117 million it was equally clearly a no-brainer that officials would not even begin to consider it. He said that with a cost-benefit ratio of only 0.3 it was so far from the required minimum of 2.0 that no amount of persuasion would shift official views. In answer to questions Iain Coucher supported this view, asking whether, if Scottish Ministers told the people of Caithness that there was £117 million to be spent on transport, the answer would be "build the Dornoch Link".
Frank Roach, of HITRANS, gave a brief update on current projects for development of freight which might include a new train service to Altnabreac (with a new siding there) for transportation of logs. Other matters included the results of a study into resignalling Inverness to Dingwall, a briefing on the new December 08 timetable. Regrettably work at Conon Bridge has been delayed although the new timetable allows for trains stopping there.
Although the provision of a 4th train northbound from Inverness to Wick is in the timetable for December 2008 (with driver training well under way) no formal announcement has yet been made. Equally unannounced is the installation of controlled-emission toilets on the Class 158 trains used on the line and the necessary emptying facilities required at Inverness. Work is due to start on these this month, but the public still doesn't officially know about these long-sought and very welcome improvements.
In the formal part of the AGM Mike Lunan, the Convener, reported on the year's work and achievements (4th train north, significant contribution to the details of the Class 158 refurbishment - due for completing in July, the controlled-emission toilets, and other small improvements to the timetable - better connections and eliminating unnecessary delays). He was questioned about various aspects of the year's activities, and about future policy. After some discussion (relating back to the comments of the earlier speakers) he was asked whether the Dornoch Link would appear in the submission FoFNL made to Network Rail about detailed enhancements. He replied "no". The Committee's view had been for over 2 years that it would support all calls for a detailed professional report into all the enhancements on the FNL, including the Dornoch Link, emphasising the socio-economic benefits. That report had now been published and had, disappointingly, predicted a cost, and a cost-benefit, which were so far from what Transport Scotland would even begin to consider that further effort was pointless. FoFNL would continue to work on persuading the rail industry and its funders that small and medium enhancements were the answer to reducing journey times, and that these could and should be started on within a couple of years.