Those of us who do not live in the north of Scotland could be forgiven for thinking that the whole of the highlands north of the Great Glen were completely cut off by heavy snowfalls from the end of November for the best part of ten days. Certainly, that was the impression given by the First ScotRail website which told us that all trains north of Inverness were cancelled owing to weather conditions and that there was no alternative transport because of the impassability of the roads. However, we became aware that Stagecoach buses were operating normally over many of their routes, albeit without being able to serve some of the smaller communities, and that the A9 and A862 were actually open. Indeed, one of our committee members was able to travel from Tain to Wandsworth in south-west London by public transport but, sadly, none of it was by rail in Scotland. Overnight, he travelled back to Inverness by train, including on the Lowland sleeper which, according to FSR's website, was cancelled. We realised that freight trains were running north of Inverness as were light locomotives fitted with snowploughs. So, what was going on? Well, as far as we could tell, the class 158s which normally work the Far North and Kyle lines were being used to cover for class 170s, many of which were out of service with frozen snow in their brake pads. The Highland Main Line and Inverness - Aberdeen services were both operating a reduced service without, it seemed, any class 170s being in evidence. Another of our committee members travelled from Aberdeen to Inverness on one of the handful of trains running and said that there were very few passengers. They had, presumably, been put off by the FSR website telling them of major reductions in the level of service. Again, we know that the A96 was open normally. Around about that time, the weather improved slightly and trains started to run again. Our second committee member made a personal approach to the Managing Director of FSR about the situation, to which he received a prompt reply. The improvement in the weather was only short-lived and heavy snowfalls returned. This time, however, FSR made valiant efforts to run trains north of Inverness, although it took a few days for the whole of the line to be reopened and for passenger trains to resume throughout. We do not know if the personal approach was what made the difference but it is unfortunate that one was necessary at all. It has taken some twelve years for rail traffic to build up into Inverness from the north and it could have taken as many days to lose the lot. We shall see what the long- term effect has been in due course. Sadly, one of the casualties of the weather was the four-car train into Inverness on the Saturdays approaching Christmas so we know that that is business which cannot be regained, at least not until the next Festive season. The ability of the rolling stock to withstand inclement weather is something which we can raise with our speaker at this year's AGM in Wick on 18th June, Kenny Scott, who is the Engineering Director for First ScotRail.
In this edition of the newsletter, there is a piece by our secretary, Gavin Sinclair, in respect of train service proposals which he and I have been working on since the spring and which were presented to Transport Scotland and HITRANS at a meeting in Glasgow in September. I was accompanied at that meeting by John Ellis, former Director, ScotRail, who is a member of the Friends of the Far North Line. The salient point of our proposals is an hourly train service between Inverness and Tain to compete with the buses and to alleviate delays which will be caused by the partial closures of Kessock and Cromarty bridges. TS undertook to progress a business case but, sadly, events have conspired to delay this process, namely the late delivery of class 380s for Ayrshire coast, and the cascade of rolling stock resulting from this; and the weather conditions which have prevented a number of meetings at which such things would have been discussed from taking place. We are hopeful that the process will get under way soon. Also for this edition, the former Managing Director of Regional Railways, Gordon Pettitt, who is also a member of FoFNL, has written a piece about how journey times might be improved, initially at the southern end of the route, but which contains a recommendation that a loop in the Lentran area may prove counter-productive. This article, we hope, will ferment a lively debate and we would hope to see comments from members in the next edition of the newsletter.
Mention of that prompts me to remind members that May's newsletter will be that last one to be edited by Roger Piercy, who has advised the committee that he does not wish to serve after the next AGM. He has edited the newsletter since edition number nine and will be a hard act to follow.