scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Campaigning Letters to Stewart Stevenson

6th June, 2010.

Stewart Stevenson, MSP,
Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change,
Victoria Quay,
EH6 6QQ.

Dear Mr. Stevenson,


FoFNL is writing in respect of the letter dated 1st March from Gillian Hastie at Transport Scotland. This was discussed at our committee meeting on 31st May.

We feel there are many valid reasons why the Lentran - Clunes Loop Project should go ahead, not least the new one of helping to alleviate the inevitable severe disruption which will be caused to road users by the 6 months of major road works on the A9 Kessock Bridge in 2012 and a further 6 months on the Cromarty Bridge in 2013.

The single track line from Inverness to Muir of Ord is already at capacity for much of the day and can only accommodate three trains per hour in different directions. Users switching from cars or buses over the bridges would at least expect there to be an hourly frequency in each direction during the working day. This is not currently possible and any delays to the present timetable cause major disruption and lost connections.

HITRANS is currently investigating reinstating the goods yard at Invergordon to serve the big new Balcas wood plant and the expected future renaissance in rail freight and so there will be a requirement for more paths for freight trains also.

The beneficial effects in carbon reduction terms of this increase in rail freight and in passengers captured to rail (owing to the disruption on the bridges) and hopefully thereafter retained as rail users will be a significant contribution to Scottish Government policy targets.

The 1st March reply from Transport Scotland merely said that "The STPR concluded that the cost of such intervention would outweigh the benefits." Subsequently, we were very surprised to see your response via David Thompson MSP to one of our ordinary members who had written off his own bat. In your letter dated 21st April the answer is couched in terms of a much larger project - STPR Intervention 126 which includes other schemes on the whole line including a "new Dornoch Crossing." That is of a totally different order of magnitude and it is hardly surprising that a different BCR would result! The Dornoch Crossing is a scheme which FoFNL recognises would be "nice to have" in an ideal world but is unaffordable in the real one.

The Lentran scheme found favour in the Room for Growth report of 2006 which provided the basis for the STPR schemes in the Highlands. Scott Wilson had to leave it out of their final recommendations only because of worries over the RETB system's frailty.

RETB is currently being upgraded to cope, passenger numbers have increased by 40% in the two years to 2009, freight prospects are good, and the Kessock Bridge is getting steadily busier and Inverness more congested. For all those reasons and now the addition of the severe disruption which will result from the lengthy road works on the Kessock and Cromarty bridges, we firmly believe that the Lentran - Clunes Loop Project would be worthy of urgent evaluation with a view to implementation by 2012 to ease the Kessock Bridge disruption scenario.

Please would you consider looking at this discrete project in its own right as part of the ongoing work on Bridge alternatives? The Inverness to Muir of Ord stretch is the key to the whole line to both Wick and Kyle. Removal of this bottleneck will allow the line to contribute so much more to Government policy aspirations.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

John Brandon, Convener.
Cc: Bill Reeve, Director, Rail Delivery, Transport Scotland,
Steve Montgomery, Managing Director, First ScotRail,
David Simpson, Route Director, Scotland, Network Rail,
Frank Roach, Partnership Manager, HITRANS,
Dave Thompson, MSP

Dear Mr. Stevenson,


Almost all the hard work has now been done to get the Conon Bridge Station Re-opening Project to the stage where it is ready to build:

At Christmas 2007, you said, "Conon will re-open." This was repeated by Bill Reeve in his presentation in Oban on 19 February 2008 to the AGM of the Highland Rail Partnership when he said, "expect Conon to open."

The cost of some £750k, (or just over £1M with optimism bias), was to come from the HITRANS capital budget over two years. The HITRANS capital money was withdrawn by the Government as part of the concord to freeze the council tax, the money going to the five constituent councils of HITRANS and no longer being ring- fenced for transport projects.

Consequently, the project is included in the Highland Council capital budget but the Council would like to see other partners such as Transport Scotland help to provide some of the money.

FoFNL firmly believes that this project is of considerable value. It meets all the Scottish Government's objectives to encourage use of public transport and reduce congestion and carbon levels. As the carbon reduction targets for transport are not being achieved at present, and road congestion over the Kessock Bridge and in Inverness continues to increase steadily, it would seem sensible to complete this "ready to go" project.

Another compelling reason to get more people off the bridge and on to the trains is the 6 months of resurfacing work planned for the Kessock Bridge in 2012 which will cause major delays. Transport Scotland is currently looking at ways of alleviating this problem and has a budget for this.

FoFNL therefore wishes to ask you to work with Transport Scotland and Highland Council to come up with the necessary funding package to ensure the station is reopened during 2011.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

John Brandon, Convener.
cc: Bill Reeve,
Frank Roach,
Dave Thompson, MSP,
Cllr John Laing, Chairman, Transport, Environmental and Community Services Committee,
The Highland Council,
Cllr Angela MacLean


Dear Mr. Brandon,

Re-opening of Conon Bridge Station

Thank you for your letter of 6 June to Stewart Stevenson MSP, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change regarding the re-opening of Conon Bridge Station. As matters relating to railways in Scotland are delegated to Transport Scotland, your letter has been passed to me for reply.

Scottish Ministers are committed to focusing investment on making connections across Scotland better and to providing sustainable, integrated and cost effective public transport alternatives to the private car. The Strategic Transport Projects Review published in 2008, set out the transport priorities for Ministers for the next 20 years. These include 15 strategic rail priorities and a number which will improve service provision in the Inverness area.

Ministers are responsible for funding and specifying the rail network in Scotland, but there is also a role for Local Authorities and Regional transport Partnerships in identifying and funding local transport priorities. The development of a station at Conon Bridge was identified by HITRANS as a local/regional priority in the Regional Transport Strategy. Following discussions between transport Scotland and HITRANS in 2006, it was agreed that Transport Scotland would support the inclusion of a new station at Conon Bridge within the timetable. HITRANS would, however, meet the capital costs.

Following the Concordat within the Local Authorities in November 2007, responsibility for funding local transport transferred from the Regional Transport Partnerships to Local Authorities, although the strategies of regional Transport Partnerships may still inform local decision making.

Since 2007, the share of the Scottish Government budget going to councils has risen year on year under this administration, and local authorities have more freedom than ever before to invest in local priorities, such as Conon Bridge Station.

I hope this helps to clarify the present position.

Yours sincerely,

Sharon Wood, Rail Policy Officer, Transport Scotland.

Given this inadequate response we wrote to the Editor's local MSP:

John Farquhar Munro MSP
5 MacGregor's Court,
IV15 9HS

Dear Mr Munro


The FoFNL Committee has discussed Transport Scotland's response of 29 June (copy enclosed) to our letter of concern concerning the current hiatus over the funding of Conon station. We would be grateful if you would convey our deep concern to the Transport Minister that a joint funding package between central and local government is needed to advance this project which the Minister and Transport Scotland have both previously said "will open".

We understand that the project is ready to go. Planning and design are complete and the stopping time allowance is already in the timetable. Transport Scotland has said it will meet the operating costs and Hitrans were to provide the capital cost.

The problem has been caused by the Government removing capital funding from Hitrans and giving it to the five constituent authorities. The money has been split five ways so Highland Council has a big problem on its hands to come up with all the money on its own at a time of financial stringency.

The station project is still as relevant as before. It meets the Government's targets for a "healthier, safer and greener" Scotland and improves social accessibility and encourages people to use a sustainable mode of transport rather than the private car. It will provide a big boost to the local economy.

With the major Kessock Bridge road repairs coming along in 2012, reopening the station would make an additional contribution to easing the extra congestion which will be caused. Transport Scotland has a budget for works to ameliorate this disruption and is also looking for longer term solutions for the current congestion on the bridge.

For all these reasons it seems to us to be entirely reasonable that the Government should share the capital funding costs so that the station can be reopened before the road works are started on the bridge. We hope the Minister will find our arguments persuasive.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

John Brandon, Convener FoFNL
Roger Piercy, Committee Member

Cc: Councillor Michael Foxley, Administration Leader, The Highland Council
Councillor Angela MacLean.

Stewart Stevenson MSP reply to John Farquhar Munro MSP:

Dear John,

Conon Bridge Railway Station

Thank you for your letter of 29 July, enclosing correspondence from your constituent John Brandon, Convener of The Friends of the Far North Line, on proposals fro the re-opening of Conon Bridge Station.

I am sorry to hear of Mr. Brandon's disappointment over his response from Transport Scotland on the issue fo funding for the development of Conon Bridge Station. However, the responsibility for funding the development of the station now falls to Highland Council.

As my officials explained to Mr. Brandon, the development of a station at Conon Bridge was originally identified by HITRANS as a local/regional priority in its Regional Transport Strategy. Following discussions between transport Scotland and HITRANS in 2006, it was agreed that Transport Scotland would support the inclusion of a new station at Conon Bridge within the timetable.

The Concordat signed between the Scottish Government and Local Authorities in November 2007 transferred responsibility for the funding of local transport priorities from the Regional Transport Partnerships to Local Authorities. However, the strategies of Regional Transport Partnerships still inform local decision making.

Since 2007, the share of the Scottish Government budget going to councils has risen year on year under this administration, and local authorities have more freedom than ever before to invest in local priorities, such as Conon Bridge Station.

I hope this information is of assistance in replying to your constituent.

Kind regards,

Stewart Stevenson MSP

We also contacted the Editor's local MP, Charles Kennedy who replied:

"I think it is both unhelpful and counter-productive for the FOFNL to be excluded from Friday's meeting. I have no direct locus here to intervene myself but you should feel free to quote me on that one."

The prospective Lib-Dem MP Alan MacRae offered the following thoughts:

I agree that it is very counter-productive that FOFNL has been excluded from Friday's meeting and I am not sure what the rationale behind this decision is.

Although I have been closely involved with this campaign and have, through the pages of the Ross Shire Journal, suggested that Mr Thomson should invite me to the meeting it appears that I also have been excluded.

I have spoken at length to Councillor Angela Maclean with regards the meeting (she is being 'allowed' to attend!) and if you contact her I am sure that she will make representations on your behalf - although this obviously does not substitute for your presence. On a personal level I see the reopening of Conon Station as being vital to the area, particularly with the works on the Kessock Bridge due next year. I am very keen for the project to go ahead wherever the funding comes from - I was hoping that a funding mix similar to that that saw Laurencekirk reopen could be achieved and was delighted that Highland Council had included £100,000 for the surrounding roads and parking in their capital plan. However, without wanting to descend into political point scoring, I have been genuinely surprised by the insistence of the Scottish Government that a local authority should fund something on the national rail network. I understand the removal of the capital budget from HiTRANS has muddied the waters but Frank Roach and others have assured me that the monies with HiTRANS at the time of the transfer to local authorities did not include money for Conon.

Anyway, it is thoroughly disappointing that yourselves, as those who know most about the surrounding rail network were not invited to Friday's meeting. Meanwhile, you can be assured that Conon Station will remain firmly on my political radar until such a time as it is opened.

Please keep in touch with any news from FOFNL.

Kind Regards,

Alan MacRae