Once again, Conon Bridge dominates Far North Express and I make no apologies for returning to the subject. Fortunately, on this occasion, it's to report that it is up and running.
On 16th April, The Herald ran an editorial headed "Rail strategy has failed to take off," which made the bold statement that Governments should be judged by their actions, not their words. The article was chiefly about the UK and Scottish Governments' targets on the reduction of greenhouse gases. Aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the UK and we have the biggest carbon footprint from flying of any nation. Aviation's emissions are three times those of equivalent rail journeys and in 2009 a report for the Committee on Climate Change identified that modal shift from air to rail on the routes between the Central Belt and London was one of the best ways of reducing emissions. Despite there being a better than hourly service on the East Coast Main Line and an hourly one on the West Coast, Virgin will be launching new air routes from London to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, along with another one from London to Manchester on which the same company runs three trains an hour. As well as this, rail fares are effectively government controlled whereas air fares are not. Another problem, though, is that air travellers are used to trawling the net for good fare deals whereas many rail passengers still turn up at the station and buy their tickets on the day of travel, thus paying much higher fares than they need to. This is despite the existence of a number of very good rail ticketing websites. It is the higher fares that are reported in the media and must surely be putting off many potential rail travellers.
The Scottish Government is concentrating on the A9 and A96 accesses to Inverness - £3 billion for the former is the latest budget price - whilst procrastinating over improvements to the rail infrastructure. There is still nothing for the Far North Line in any government announcements. It's as though railways barely exist north of the Central Belt and not at all beyond the Caledonian Canal, despite the dramatic increase in passenger numbers. Any improvements from which we do benefit continue to be incremental and almost entirely as a result of Network Rail's normal programme of renewals. Nonetheless, we will continue to lobby for improvements to frequencies and journey times over all the routes serving Inverness.
One gripe that is on-going is the continued use of Haymarket class 158s on our services, highlighted by an incident referred to in the article about Conon Bridge. We know the alternative could be cancellation but they aren't diagrammed to the Far North Line so could we please plead again to First ScotRail to try to keep them where they are best suited, namely the Central Belt?
As we approach that time again for our Annual General Meeting and Conference I hope to see as many of you as possible in Thurso in June, whether you travel from near or far At the moment, no one has come forward for the post of editor so that remains a vacancy to be filled. Also, for several years now, we have been holding the Annual General Meeting and Conference on Mondays. The committee has discussed whether we should stick with a Monday in 2014 or whether members would prefer us to go back to Saturdays. Your views would be most appreciated.