Conon Bridge : The Day Dawns at Last!
The omens for Friday, 8th February did not look good. The forecast was for it to be cold, sleety and breezy. In fact, none of those assailed us on the day: it was mild, dry and calm; the sun put in a few appearances, too. Such are the vagaries of the Moray Firth micro-climate. Your convener started his day by presenting himself at Inverness bus station for the number 27 bus, which departed a few minutes late at 06.45. He alighted in Conon Bridge and strolled up the hill to the new railway station. Around seven or eight people were milling around on the platform and this had swelled to double figures by the time the first train - the 06.25 Ardgay to Inverness - hove into view at 07.20. As it stopped, the rear door of the first coach opened and out clambered Frank Roach of HITRANS and our own Bob Barnes-Watts. I can report that local resident, Morag Foster was the first passenger to board a passenger train at Conon Bridge for nearly fifty-three years. Councillor Alister Mackinnon became the first person to purchase a ticket from Conon Bridge although Frank and Bob had already stolen his thunder by buying tickets to the station. Other than the two "real" passengers who stayed on board, the rest of us alighted at Muir of Ord and quickly hot-footed it over the footbridge to join the first northbound service to return whence we had come. As we alighted, Frank and Bob got back on again! We chatted away until the second southbound train came in, when Alister (who had left his car at Muir) and I said a temporary farewell to the rest and boarded it, along with another two "real" passengers. Guess who got off!! I carried on to Inverness for breakfast.
Later, several of us foregathered on the concourse at Inverness to meet those travelling from the south for the official festivities. First ScotRail's Managing Director, Steve Montgomery was already there, having spent the night in the Highland capital (did he not trust his own train to get him there on time?). The 07.10 Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness arrived spot on at 10.26 and, amongst those who decanted from it were David Simpson, Managing Director, Network Rail Scotland and Keith Brown, MSP, the Minister for Transport and Veterans. We all boarded the 10.39 Wick departure, although the ceremony at Conon was not until 11.30, so we could have waited for the 11.00 Kyle train, which some people did. At Conon Bridge, I met the people again with whom I had travelled on the first trains earlier.
As the appointed hour approached, we moved away from the platform which, by then, was beginning to look more like the Northern Line than the Far North Line, to the forecourt where a public address system had been set up. Well over a hundred people heard Steve Montgomery open the proceedings by welcoming everyone to what he described as "a landmark day". He then handed over to David Simpson who reminded us all that the station had taken only three months to build. It was on time and on budget. He also paid tribute to all those who had played their part in ensuring its reopening - local councillors, residents, HITRANS and, yes, the Friends of the Far North Line. Finally, it was Keith Brown's turn. He said: "Improving access to rail services is an important factor in encouraging people to use the train and I am delighted to be here today to launch a brand new station for the people of Conon Bridge. Instead of travelling to Dingwall, locals can now access trains into Inverness and beyond right here on their doorstep. This will be particularly beneficial during the major upgrade to Kessock Bridge in coming months and I hope people will take advantage of this as an alternative to driving into Inverness during the works." The dignitaries then moved across for the cutting of the ribbon.
Around fifty people - officials, representatives of the local communities of Conon Bridge and Maryburgh, and several of the nearby residents who had put up with the noise and mess of the building works - then proceeded to the Conon Bridge Hotel for lunch. Those of us who had travelled by train returned to Inverness on the 12.59 departure then to go our separate ways.
Thanks must go to those at First ScotRail (FSR) who organised the proceedings, along with everyone else who helped to make the day a success. If I have one quibble, it is that one of the speakers - who shall remain anonymous - blamed the "Beeching cuts" for the station's original demise when it actually pre-dated the good Doctor but this did not detract from what was a most enjoyable day. It will make a fitting contribution to the communities of Conon Bridge and Maryburgh.
So, how have things been going since the opening day? A couple of unfortunate incidents marred the initial operation. On the second day, one of our committee members met a couple who were travelling to Thurso in the hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, they had a Haymarket class 158 which they found cramped and which had filthy seats. The lady said that she dared not put her head back on the headrest. This was passed on to FSR. On 15th February, the Inverness Courier carried a report that a well-known local sports coach, who had bought a season ticket from Conon Bridge to his workplace at Aviemore, was denied boarding with his bicycle on the first Monday because the first train from Conon was formed by a Haymarket unit with only two cycle spaces instead of the Inverness units' four and both were taken. We understand that he requested his money back from FSR, who it is reported, demanded a £10 administration fee! It would be nice to think that the matter was resolved with the gentleman concerned remaining a customer of the new station but the Courier did not report the final outcome.
Notwithstanding these hiccoughs, some 3,700 passengers have used Conon Bridge station in its first eight weeks. The first week of roadworks on Kessock Bridge was a school holiday so it was difficult to judge what the effect was. Since then, though, the delays were generally less than forecast but there have been occasions when a minor incident has led to hold-ups of up to 90 minutes. The trains have been busy. One train into Inverness in the morning peak and one out in the evening have been strengthened using rolling stock released by the electrification of the Paisley Canal line. The second unit has been held as a standby in case of overcrowding. Naturally, we would love to see much of this traffic retained when the works are over in June and for even more passengers to use rail when the second half of the bridge work is done from February to June next year. Hence we have proposed service enhancements reported elsewhere in this FNE.