As I take up the reins as Convener of the Friends of the Far North Line I should tell you briefly who I am. I retired just over five years ago after more than thirty years working in the railway industry. For most of this time, I was an operations planner, so you now have two of us - Convener and Secretary - one working and one retired. Professional railwaymen usually steer well clear of user groups. Most tend to be very parochial and not at all knowledgeable about the industry. The fact that FoFNL now has three - a retired signalman is also one of our committee members, as I'm sure you don't need reminding - shows how highly regarded it is as a pressure group and this is reinforced by the calibre of the speakers whom we are able to secure for our AGMs.
My first thought on taking office is that my predecessor, Mike Lunan, is a hard act to follow. I don't need to repeat what he said in his last Headcode in May but the Society's achievements under his leadership were, not to put too fine a point on it, spectacular. Mike was very magnanimous in crediting others within the railway industry with many of the improvements but there is no doubt that it was his leadership which helped to achieve them. There is still more to do. However, the new Forth Road Bridge is going to suck in funds for the next few years so we must be realistic about what we can and can't achieve. There is nothing wrong with having a "wish list" but there is no in point asking for things which we know cannot be afforded. So, as Mike said, we need to concentrate on those things which could, with modest expenditure, improve our lot. Not least amongst these is the question of erratic heating of our class 158s and we have been assured by First ScotRail that this is being worked on. General reliability of the units is also a concern, as evidenced on the day of our Annual General Meeting when eleven of our members, plus the Managing Director of FSR, were over an hour late when their train failed in Easter Ross. This incident alone caused disruption for much of the day, including several trains having their Thurso stops withdrawn to pick up time.
Business is up. At several stations, growth is well into double figures and our thoughts must now turn to how this can be addressed. The normal solution would be more trains but the railway is now "full" between Inverness and Dingwall in the morning and evening peaks. This strengthens our case for re-instatement of some of the double track between Clachnaharry and Lentran. The shorter term solution may be four-car trains but rolling stock in Scotland is tight as can be seen by FSR's announcement that it is to hire in a second loco-hauled set for the Fife Circle. The proposed work on Kessock Bridge will bring more commuters onto the railway so some more rolling stock will have to be found from somewhere. Meanwhile, the committee is concerned about the removal of catering on the first train in each direction and is pressing FSR for a reversal of the decision. We know that Hitrans shares our concern over this.
Further ahead, is it too soon to be thinking about a fifth train? Even a sixth one? Perhaps portion working again in Caithness?