I cannot help but start with the subject that is a theme running through this newsletter from front cover to back: that of the much-delayed opening of Conon Bridge station next February (Drochaid Sguideil in Gaelic). I can't claim it as my work as it was something that I inherited when I was first elected as your convener on 27th July, 2009 in Helmsdale. All credit, therefore, must go to those who have doggedly pushed and pushed for the station to reopen nearly fifty-three years after it and many others met their demise. To fellow committee members, my predecessors, local councillors, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Frank Roach, now of HITRANS but then of the Highland Rail Partnership, I say thank you. If I have forgotten anyone, please accept my apologies: credit is due to you equally. By the time of the next newsletter, we should be able to report that the official opening ceremony went well and that passengers are using the station in sufficient numbers to justify its reopening. We should remember that it is the road works on Kessock Bridge that have prompted the station's re-emergence but the key to its success, or otherwise, will come when the works are complete. So, to the people of Conon Bridge and Maryburgh, I say: you have your station, now use it. And as you will see elsewhere in this edition of Far North Express, Conon Bridge is not the only station which may be reopening within the next few years.
Now I'm afraid I must go back to my usual fare: the lack of serious investment in the Far North Line itself. Although we are fortunate enough to be the proud recipients of an additional class 158 diesel multiple unit released by the electrification of the Paisley Canal line, and we have seen some minor infrastructure improvements with track relaying, any promise of an upgrade to the line itself seems not to be on the radar of our lords and masters in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The upgrade of level crossings, which Mike Lunan writes about in this FNE, may eventually improve journey times but, at the moment, it is not intended to increase rail speeds over them. As you will know, we have proposed an hourly train service between Inverness and Tain. In order for this to work properly and to give intermediate stations the regular service that they deserve, we need to see journey times reduced to around 55 minutes or 57 if calling at Fearn. Whilst we still have low-speed loops and speed-restricted level crossings, achieving this sort of journey time is impossible. Let us not forget that it would not only improve the lot for those passengers using the southernmost 44 miles of the line but for those travelling further north who would also have their journey times reduced. In England and Wales, we have seen that other lines which were once basic railways have had their signalling improved: the Central Wales between Llanelli and Craven Arms; the Cambrian west of Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli; the East Suffolk line between Ipswich and Lowestoft. Elsewhere, there are upgrades to lines which may have redundant equipment which is not life-expired. For example, the line between Swindon and Kemble is to be doubled and there are 40 mph points at either end. Where are they going? Could they find their way to Easter Ross? One disappointment we have with the current operation is the number of Haymarket class 158s which are seen working north of Inverness. "Our" 158s were refurbished a few years ago, with FoFNL input, to make them more suitable for FNL work: cycle stowage, more luggage space, seats fitting windows, etc., so it is galling to see that they are being used elsewhere in the country and we have less suitable rolling stock in use on our line.
On access to Inverness, we welcome the first stage of the Highland Main Line improvements but, as Hamish Baillie writes, there is a long way to go until we get to the full scheme which the First Minister promised in 2008. And, on the Aberdeen line, we have been waiting nearly three years for Transport Scotland to respond to Network Rail's Engineering Study.
Can we please remind those who hold the purse strings that there are places north of the Central Belt and also not to forget that the people who live there pay taxes and have a vote?