Our President, John Thurso opened proceedings to an audience depleted by the late running of the 0706 Inverness to Wick train which had failed at Tain.
John spoke about how his support of railways now extended the length of the country with his involvement of the Bluebell Railway in Sussex as patron to the fund-raising for the locomotive Sir Archibald Sinclair Battle of Britain Class 34059 named after John Thurso's grandfather. John had first come across the loco on a visit with his children to the Bluebell Line and discovered the name plate laying to one side. Full details of the locomotive can be found here .
John continued by expressing his pleasure and satisfaction that the debate on high speed rail was gathering momentum. Our next speaker, the finance minister John Swinney MSP, had had the foresight to travel by train the evening before and was therefore on hand to address the meeting on schedule. He expressed his wish to encourage more people to travel by train and when questioned about extending the service of free travel for the elderly on rail he commented that it was unaffordable. He praised the work done by FoFNL and said the views of the local community can help to influence government policy. He gave a strategic overview of the rail network and reminded members that funding for projects will be tighter in the current recession. David Simpson, Route Director Network Rail, told the meeting that plans were being put forward to improve the signalling on the Far North line by upgrading the Radio Electronic Token Block system which is over 20 years old. The improvement would be comprehensive and involve replacing the older parts with modern equipment. Plans are being developed to improve the linespeed from 75mph to 90mph between some key sections.
Steve Montgomery, Managing Director of First ScotRail, once we had caught his breath after arriving on the late running service, explained that the company has refurbished the class 158 trains that are used on the Far North Line and thanked FoFNL for the campaign to install retention toilets which means that waste is no longer deposited on the tracks. Reliability will be improved on the 158s with new underseat heating being installed. He reported that passenger numbers have increased significantly on the Far North Line: 82% at Dingwall, 25% at Beauly, 26% at Invergordon, 30% at Muir of Ord and 38% at Fearn, thanks to the new timetable now operating which provides, from Dingwall, three arrivals into Inverness before 0900. The Highland Railcard remains popular.
Inspector Bob Cameron, British Transport Police, outlined his plans for the service based in Inverness which included increasing the manpower available. He intends to communicate with the FoFNL membership through the newsletter.
Frank Roach brought the membership up to date with information regarding Conon especially with the forthcoming Kessock Bridge works and the need to get it open in time. He referred to a Switch and crossings study including the motorising of RETB points. A level crossings study on the Line is being carried out and that there is a proposal for a timber terminal at Altnabreac.
Time constraints limited the question and answer forum which concluded the first part of the meeting.