FoFNL Conference, Dingwall, 11 June 2012, Report
Richard Ardern, standing in as Chairman observed that It was exactly 150 years ago today that the railway opened to Dingwall, where special guests retired to the National Hotel (the venue for today's meeting) for an eleven-course lunch. FoFNL members today would enjoy a simpler lunch offering of tea and sandwiches.
FoFNL President John Thurso, MP addressed the meeting. Dingwall was just one mile outside his constituency boundary. John Thurso wished John Brandon, on behalf of all members, a quick recovery following his recent operation. John Thurso reminded FoFNL that his policy was to start HS2 from Wick and not from the south and that he was delighted with the rail freight developments at Georgemas. It is important that rail does the 'heavy lifting' of freight across the country. It is encouraging news that Tesco are looking at transporting goods by rail, thence by ferry to Orkney, and it was hoped that the Tesco stores in Caithness would benefit from rail delivery to Georgemas, following on from Safeway in recent years. The economy in the Far North is changing with the circumstances at Dounreay. However, John Thurso was encouraged by the net increase in employment in Caithness. The success of the Far North Line, with the growth in the number of services and passengers using the line, is very dependent on the economy of Caithness.
David Simpson, Scotland Route Managing Director at Network Rail, addressed the meeting. David commented that FoFNL works with the industry in an enthusiastic, professional and serious but yet challenging way which delivers results, and FoFNL is respected throughout the Scottish rail industry. Network Rail wants to see the Far North Line succeed. Commenting on the 150th year anniversary of the line to Dingwall, David joked that this was only '30 Control Periods'.
Network Rail in Scotland is now devolved from London, which means that David and his team have more control locally. David manages a budget of £550M. Train performance (delay minutes and PPM) is behind target and a recovery plan is in place such that Scotland is now on the right side of the ORR. A mild and windy winter (as opposed to a cold and snowy winter the previous year) brought a new set of challenges in keeping the railway open for business and has affected performance results. Network Rail will be transparent in moving to publish results for a 'right time' railway, recording the number of trains that arrive on time as opposed to 'within' 5 or 10 minutes.
A new style of open level crossing with mini-half-barriers (AOCL + B) is now on trial at Ardrossan prior to introduction at many of the crossings on the Far North Line. The Grip 3 report on the Inverness - Aberdeen line improvements was presented to Transport Scotland in May and hourly services with new stations at Dalcross and Kintore will hopefully be in the first phase to be implemented. Highland Main Line line-speeds will be increased in December 2012 and phase 2 will be looking for quick wins and at extra loops required.
Beauly station reopened 10 years ago using a 'low-cost' approach (a short platform where only one door on the train is allowed to be opened). This is a model that could be used for a new station at Conon Bridge. A design contract has been awarded to look at options for 15m and 98m platform lengths. The timetable for reopening Conon Bridge has been accelerated to account for the partial closure of the Kessock Bridge in 2013. The line from Glasgow Central to Paisley Canal will be electrified and this will release one DMU diagram which will allow for a mini-cascade, the net result being for an additional class 158 to be in service on the Far North Line in 2013, principally for strengthening of key Inverness peak services.
David referred to a paper written by Gordon Pettitt (which will be published in the September 2012 Newsletter) whereby Network Rail will form an Alliance with ScotRail which will increase productivity, improve the accountability of locally based staff and establish a management structure that engages with representatives from local communities.
Journey time improvements are not off the agenda, however, and David did note that the plans through to 2019 are to maintain current capabilities of the railway. Closure of stations is not an option.
A system of non-intrusive crossovers is being developed in order to open up sidings at minimal cost, maybe only for temporary use for traffic such as timber. David has recently chaired the first meeting of a new Scotland Freight Board. A new winter line clearance train incorporating steam jets, de-icing and an accommodation coach has been developed.
Charles Kennedy, the local Member of Parliament for Dingwall, addressed the meeting, talking about his campaign to retain the Sleeper services after privatisation in 1994. This is the first time since Beeching that there has been a degree of reassurance about the future of rail services. Mr Kennedy called for the booking systems for the Sleeper to be made easier to use and to ensure availability of Bargain Berths. A motorail service should be developed too.
Frank Roach updated the meeting on his work at Hitrans. On-going work includes a study of intercity services ('Inver-city') at Inverness, a study of overnight sleeper operations (here and in Europe), and a study on upgrading the 170s for inter-city use. A review of regional rail in Europe has shown that comparisons purporting to show rail in Britain as more expensive than in Europe ignore the greater transparency of costs in Britain and the hidden costs in the European accounting methods. Additionally, Network Rail has to spend £1.5 billion annually on servicing debt. A new build of lightweight diesel trains will be needed for non-electrified lines.
On the Far North Line, 'Invernet' growth has been quite remarkable:
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At the close of the meeting David Simpson showed the 150-year anniversary plaque to be affixed to Dingwall station and everyone was encouraged to go and look at the exhibition of historic photographs and maps in the booking hall.