This Headcode will be largely on one subject: Conon Bridge railway station and the attempts by many people and organisations to reopen it. I make no apologies for this: in my opinion, it is the most important current campaigning issue of the Friends of the Far North Line. As I'm sure most of you know, the reopening has been planned for several years and, at one time, we believed that the money was in place. In fact, the current Far North Line timetable includes time for most the trains to call there. However, the money seemed to have disappeared into thin air. The true story is that, in order to avoid raising Council Tax for two years, the Edinburgh government took away HITRANS's capital budget and distributed it to five local authorities. Four of those have no interest in Conon Bridge station but the remaining one does not have sufficient funds to finance the station. On Friday, 10th September, the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, visited Inverness and attended a meeting organised by Conon Bridge Community Council. Some progress was made towards the station reopening and, although a sum of money has now been promised by the Minister to take the project to full design stage, it is a challenging target for it to be open in time for the major road works on the Kessock Bridge, which may start in 2012.
The cost of the station is given as £750,000, or £1.1m including optimisation. This seems rather a lot of money. Back in the late 1980s, I was involved with Network SouthEast's Chiltern Line Total Route Modernisation. At the time, we were quoted ten thousand pounds per coach length for a new platform. That was only the Civil Engineer's costs and didn't include lighting, public address, station furniture or signage but those extras were not prohibitively expensive. £10,000 in 1988 is slightly more than £20,000 today. In July, the Department for Transport issued a paper called Reforming Rail Franchising. Although this only applied to England, some of the figures were interesting. We were told that Network Rail now quotes £5,000 per metre for a new platform. In fact, one Train Operating Company in the south of England has been quoted £10,000 per metre. That is an incredible inflation rate and seems to bear no relationship to actual inflation. Chiltern Railways is carrying out its own work for its Evergreen 3 project and its platform costs are lower. One element of the project is the construction of a new station at Water Eaton to the north of Oxford. Although I haven't been able to find out the exact cost of this station, I am given to understand that it is around four times that of Conon Bridge. For that, Chiltern will get two six-car platforms, fully fitted out; a footbridge with two lifts; a booking office and other staff accommodation; provision for bicycles and buses; and a 700-space car park. Now, no one can tell me that Conon Bridge is anything like a quarter of that so why is it so expensive? Can it not be built using a modular system? Could it be constructed in a "green zone" (away from the operational railway) and be slid into position in a single, overnight, possession? Does it have to be built by Network Rail? Can it use suitably trained local builders and suppliers rather than using NR's global contractors?
I throw down the gauntlet to all those involved - Transport Scotland, Network Rail, ScotRail, Highland Council, HITRANS, even Conon Bridge CC - generally to come up with the answers to these questions and, more importantly, a way in which all the paper and hot air which has been generated over the years can be translated quickly into picks and shovels on site.
There's just room to mention one other subject. After a couple of years of seemingly getting nowhere, at last we have succeeded in getting Dunrobin Castle station to be open on the same dates as the Castle and for trains to stop there during the opening hours and not at other times. Much of the hard work for this has been done by our committee member, Bob Barnes-Watts and I thank him for this. The revised arrangements will start next year and, as a quid pro quo, the Castle will publicise the railway station. So, with 50,000 people a year visiting the attraction, let's hope that this is good news for the Far North Line.