Railways Bleeding To Death
The 33rd statutory meeting of the Rail Passengers Committee Scotland held in Elgin on 2 and 3 September was desperately dispiriting. The mood was summed up by the Convenor, Mike Lunan, who said he sensed that the railway system is bleeding to death at present.
The big disappointment was the lack of progress on infrastructure improvements to increase capacity and speed up journeys on the Aberdeen to Inverness line. Costings for marrying Forres station and passing loop on to the same site are still awaited, but the postulated cost of a new four mile loop at Orton was stated to be £28M.
Delegates were able to compare this with the £15M cost of a two mile double track diversion and two new VIADUCTS at Portrack just north of Dumfries currently under construction. Another example of how railway costs are out of control was provided in the Network Rail annual report handed out at the meeting. In 2002/3 their UK Safety and Compliance Director alone received remuneration of £872,000!
The Aberdeen to Inverness improvements were featured in Railtrack's 1997 Network Management Statement with a suggested completion date of 2002. Over £1M has been pencilled in from the ERDF transitional funds for the Highlands, but a decision needs to be made in the very near future or the money will be given to non-rail projects.
The Convenor pointed out that this was only one example of the many projects put forward during the last seven years, few of which had been delivered. He was highly critical of the fragmented approach written in to the Scotland Act. The Scottish Executive has been quite successful in influencing operators such as ScotRail, but can do little on the infrastructure side with Network Rail. There needs to be more joined up thinking and above all a sense of urgency.
The Strategic Rail Authority presentation was unable to demonstrate this sense of urgency. Instead they are to embark on producing a series of "regional planning assessments" starting with Kent and the south east. This programme will not be completed until 2005. Meantime, the SRA has to make a "case for rail" to the Chancellor this autumn against a background of rail costs barely under control and the UK budget being reined in.
Members were extremely worried by this. The local implications were flagged up in the context of Network Rail/SRA's suggestion of halving routine maintenance on so called "secondary lines". It was pointed out that on single track railways, extra speed restrictions would play havoc with the crossing of trains at loops and the timetable would become unworkable.
Jim Bellingham, of Network Rail, was able to report that £2M had been spent on repairing the line either side of Elgin after last autumn's floods. He was also able to say that signalling work at Perth was about complete to enable Inverness trains to use platform 3 again and spare passengers the long trek to platform 7. He promised to report back on when the speed restriction over the refurbished Moy viaduct would be lifted and on when work would be done to remove the restriction northbound climbing up to Druimuachdar, both on the Highland main line. Similarly, he would supply information on the Findhorn viaduct restriction just west of Forres.
Peter Cotton, acting MD of ScotRail had news that was good in part. Inverness depot will henceforth maintain the twenty class 158s used on the lines north, west and east of Inverness. They will operate 16 diagrams in winter and 17 in summer (the extra train to Kyle). He held out the possibility that these units could now be better customised to the needs of the north lines, but could give no guarantee that finance would be forthcoming for this. Now where have we heard that before?
Even worse, on the train returning to Inverness, the writer was interviewed by the consultants working on the Highlands and Islands Enterprise commissioned study on the value of the railways to the Highlands and Islands. One of the questions was "what would you do if all the railways in the Highlands were closed down?" One of the suggestions on the form for the interviewer to tick was to move out of the area altogether!
Do they know something we don't? Whatever happened to the bright future forecast for the railways by the Government only a few years ago? We will all have to redouble our efforts and lobby like mad to support our railways from the Philistine forces now at large.