Following publication of theRailtrack Network Management Statement,in the jargon NMS, of which a Scottish version was usefully prepared to focus on our more specific concerns, - in which context one recalls the ever-relevant comment, "I believe in taking the Broad View - how does it Affect ME?"!! - Railtrack held Consultative Sessions in Aberdeen and Glasgow. Their aim was to bring together the reactions of as many actively and potentially motivated organisations towards establishing a broad consensus. Thus fruitful partnerships could be developed to supporting viable rail improvements in response to anticipated public and commercial need.
The NMS is a moderately weighty document. The Scottish version has been generally well received. One criticism is that it is a bit thin on specific forecast improvements in the Highlands. Its timescale is not, shall we say, over impetuous. However, Railtrack has committed itself to greater transparency and accountability, so that future Statements of Intent are likely to be followed by further Consultations. They intend to listen, take on board what they can, whilst explaining why other matters cannot realistically proceed. I find this highly encouraging.
I was invited to participate on behalf of FOFNL, and was very glad to do so. While obviously the Society is not in a position to offer anything appreciable in the way of funding, we want to be aware of the discussions taking place and the resulting business plan packages that may enable Railtrack to move forward on a well researched basis.
It was also good to meet some of the people who will play key roles in developing proposals. At the same time it is clear that voluntary groups like ours can usefully participate, not least by keeping our members informed and, through them, striving to canvas wider and effective public support. However in such matters sometimes there is a need to respect confidentiality. A delicately balanced negotiation can be put in jeopardy or even lost irretrievably by a careless remark. So we may sometimes seem a bit more reticent than necessary.
It will be obvious to anyone interested in rail development, both historical and contemporary, that in the nature of things railway investment almost always involves massive capital sums and an extended timescale. In my view, not unshared I venture to think, is largely why governments, with their 5-year vision and susceptibility to short term public reaction, have invariably proved unfit to offer consistent guidance. Maybe John Prescott will break the mould, but I would not advocate holding one's breath, though wishing him well.
My personal desire to see substantial track redoubling south of Inverness on the Highland mainline, and at least as far as Elgin on the Inverness-Aberdeen line, with the reopening of up of stations serving up to a dozen well-established communities is very unlikely. Think of them as beguiling star-twinkles! Station reopening can only be contemplated on a case by case thorough evaluation basis. Track reinstatement, with all the wiring, switching and signalling implications, is very expensive. Sadly this isan unlikely prospect in this sparsely populated area. It will need strong up-front support for regular interval services to secure the handful of passing loops that would facilitate this.
Further commuter facilities may be reaching outline discussion stage. Two very different schemes have been raised, for which realistic cases need to be consolidated, Aviemore-Inverness and Stonehaven-Inverurie. However Railtrack cannot offer such developments as speculation, putting at risk more urgent priorities and the security of its shareholders. Serious Local Authority input and external funding would be needed.
Keith-Inverness and - our own prime goal - Tain-Inverness with a connecting coach link from and to Dornoch could be added. But these are as yet only my own forecasts.
Well yes, you are entitled to say, at last he has mentioned the Far North Line - which is what we are about! Entirely true. No question. My defence being that we have to view our more local concerns in their wider context. But there is more. On the Far North Line some modest reduction in end-to-end timing is in early prospect with the new timetable. Further progressive reductions, without impinging on prudent recovery times that substantially guarantee on-time terminal arrivals, are possible but can only be achieved when funding packages can be assembled and committed to removing some of the more onerous crossing line-speed restrictions. This will happen only when those in a position to facilitate such works are sufficiently motivated.
Overall we are fortunate in that Railtrack only have to deal with two operating companies, ScotRail and EWS, in our part of Scotland, with both of whom they enjoy a mutually constructive relationship.