AGM 2010 Speakers
Our president John Thurso, MP addressed a well supported meeting with the theme "Connections". On the subject of freight he reminisced that when he first became spokesman on Transport he went back to first principles on the flow of freight around the country and how it was important to realise that palletised goods had to flow into the Far North from dedicated freight villages in the south if there was any real chance of increasing the amount of freight handled on our Line. He then referred to High Speed rail and whilst he would have loved to see the line starting in Wick he had to be grateful that during the run-up to the 2010 election all political parties indicated support for High Speed rail and the hope has to be that the current financial crisis doesn't cause people to lose interest.
Convener, John Brandon, then called on Frank Roach, Rail Development manager, HITRANS to give his report.
As usual it was an upbeat report giving details of various studies that are being conducted. A rail freight capability study is to be published soon which ahs attracted a lot of attention and when available will have some very interesting features when accessed on-line. Investigations are well advanced with the provision of new sidings and connections to facilitate the handling of timber. Switches, crossing and level crossings have all been looked at in detail by consultants in an attempt to identify areas of potential journey time reductions. What, to the uninitiated, appears to be an obvious solution usually turns out to be the opposite and very expensive. Conon station continues to be a problem due to the funds that were originally being available having been passed on to the Highland Council without the constraint of ring fencing. The partial closure of the Kessock bridge was a hoped for incentive for finding the money to open the station, but instead Frank has had to identify methods of strengthening the commuter services in the hope that 50% of the car travelling public could be attracted onto rail.
The Room for Growth report is being re-visited given the original predictions of growth were substantially under-stated. Frank commented that it was good that the rolling stock had been refurbished as it would be extremely difficult to achieve the same in the current financial climate.
Transport Focus is conducting a Passenger Survey. Frank concluded by referring to our connecting lines, south and east. In answer to questions on the condition of the sleeper coaches and the poor record in making predictions of new station usage Frank said that whilst the coaches are being kept in good condition the shortage of Mk II coaches will become a problem. On the subject of predictions he pointed out that it will always be a case that the worse case scenario will be taken whilst working out the cost-benefit analysis.
The Convener then called on Jonathan Pugh, Head of Rail Regulation and Standards, Transport Scotland to address the meeting.
Jonathan, a career railway man, joined Transport Scotland (TS) when it was created as a result of devolution in 2005. TS is responsible for funding and infrastructure and reports directly to Scottish ministers and is responsible for government spending of around £600m per annum. He works closely with the Office of Rail Regulation to ensure Network Rail delivers its committed activities. TS has planned for growth in passenger numbers of 20% between 2009-14, with growth on the Far North Line (FNL) delivered within the existing infrastructure as there are no scheduled major proposals for infrastructure improvements. TS manages the franchise, including the SQUIRE regime that monitors and enforces delivery standards.
He acknowledged that the recession is adversely influencing their ability to plan new investments and that the GB-wide issues around rolling stock orders and cascades may make sourcing additional resources difficult.
He encouraged FoFNL to continue engaging with TS as it is important that local knowledge and ideas are made known. He is certain that with the change in franchise in 2014 there will be significant differences and with the next High Level Output Specification there will be opportunities to develop the relationship with NR. They would like to share our ideas on timetable improvements, improving tourism and offering suggestions for schemes that have a high cost/benefit ratio. He acknowledged that often consultations are not flagged up in advance and that he will ensure that his colleagues are aware of these issues for individuals and groups, as well as trying to experience first-hand local issues.
JP responded to questions on how to make contact with TS and acknowledged our concerns regarding the re-opening of Conon Bridge station and the difficulty with the funding not having been ring-fenced. JP was reminded that with the delay in the work on the Kessock Bridge it might be possible for Transport Scotland to consider diversion of those funds as there would be a knock-on effect with the reduction in traffic.
A case was put to JP that Dunrobin Station should be a time-tabled stop at those times of the year that the castle is open as the Castle is a very popular tourist destination with the majority of public having to travel by car and coach. It was felt that First ScotRail are far too rigid in their interpretation of the franchise.
JP was encouraged to involve TS to consider transport corridors so as to maximise the benefits so that recognition could be made of the advantage of the Inverness - Aberdeen Line over the 'parallel' A96. Richard Ardern reminded JP that we consider that frequency and connectivity on the Highland Main Line were more important than journey time. Richard continued to press the case for far better rolling stock from Inverness east and south, hopefully to Inter-city standard, even to consider the introduction of loco-hauled trains. JP reminded the meeting of the unlikelihood of any new diesel trains being ordered given the current (pun intended) emphasis on electrification.
David Martin made a plea for a much simpler fare structure and a study to be made into the cost of fares. JP accepted that there was a problem and the difficulty was how to set a price structure that enabled the industry to stimulate demand and to manage that demand. There will be a fares policy consultation in the future.