Earlier this evening Class 37 no. 37684 'Peak National Park' ran gently through Kinbrace resplendent in maroon livery, only modestly powering up for the 1:150 climb north. Somewhat later, after I had enjoyed 'My Fair Lady' yet again and France had won the World Cup, it returned south with two loaded wagons. The good news is that this was a profitable train, our passenger services depend on subsidy; only charters pay their full costs. The bad news is that such freight workings are often so short for the power available, and there are not nearly enough of them.
Yet there is a good deal of highly pro-active negotiation going on. It takes time. In the interim it can be frustrating. Earlier this summer Railtrack lowered the track in Killiekrankie tunnel to give 8'6" containers direct access to Inverness; for some months no freight took advantage of this. But it will come. It will develop. Our local pick-up freights deliver directly into the Enterprise network, and as one goes south there is a vigorous increase in freight traffic. Goods are once again resuming their traditional role as the railway breadwinner.
Here in the north we are lucky. ScotRail regularly tops the charts fror reliability, customer service and punctuality. Mind you, I have a sneaking suspicion of a clandestine Paddington inheritance on the latter, at least as far as our own line is concerned; the fine GWR reputation for early London arrivals was found to be based far less on spirited running than remarkably slack running schedules, making it quite hard for competent drivers not to arrive early! Of course reliable on-time arrival is comforting and commendable. A good many of us have vital onward connections. And I know 'recovery time', prudently built in to the public tiemtable, has its place - but is it in part overdone? Southbound one usually stops at Tain for some 3 minutes, at Invergordon for much the same or longer, at Dingwall for much more than twice that (one is tempted to nip out for some shopping - is that the idea?!) and again at Muir of Ord. To my mind at least 12 minutes could readily be pruned from end-to-end timings without jeopardising an on-time Inverness arrival. The Wick/Thurso - Inverness time continues to be a perennial source of criticism.
The other day I was reflecting on the fact that early steam trains used to take well over 6½ hours. What World War 2 servicemen had made of it as the very last leg of a prolonged journey I shudder to think! Southerners, then as now, seem to think Inverness is about as far north as one can go.
To return to the present I begin to think a target of 200 minutes, it sounds better than 3hr.20mins., realistic. In the medium to longer term we could campaign for a fraction under 3 hours. That would involve a significant capital investment to ease linespeed restrictions. This in turn will depend on much greater use, leading to more trains and a persuasively credible business case.
What can we do in the immediate future? I mean it's all very well to be in a Society like ours, but what practical help can we give? Well obviously to use our trains as much as possible, and encourage our friends to do the same or at least give it a try. They will say it's more expensive, ignoring the hidden add-on costs of motoring. They will say it takes longer. What do they do with the relatively short time they save by driving anyway? (See letter in Feb1999 Newsletter).. And a train is so much more relaxing than a car. Another thing we might try. The Heart of Wales Line Travel Association, HoWLTA for short, have groups who 'adopt' their local station, smartening it up, weeding, where suitable providing and stocking pamphlet racks to advertise local attractions and events, as well as getting pocket rail timetables into local shops. Would any members support similar action on our line?
Two important provisos. First, if you undertake something you must be prepared to do it regularly; few things look less appealing than an empty leaflet rack, or one with out-of-date or dishevelled material. Second, and even more important, any activity of this sort must be authorised and co-ordinated. Our stations are leased by ScotRail from Railtrack and we can only act with proper permission.
So if this idea takes off, and I for one certainly hope it may, please contact me, your Secretary 01431 831211, and I will mediate as co- ordinator with ScotRail. They may need to take on board such an idea, and understandably might want to monitor a modest pilot scheme first, but I think they may come to welcome such an initiative.
First things first. Let me hear from some of you, and we'll see if this is a runner.