Report Of FoFNL Conference : Monday 3rd June, 2013
The Convener, John Brandon, opened the meeting at the Royal British Legion in Thurso and welcomed members and guests to the 2013 Friends of the Far North Line Conference. Our President, John Thurso, MP, was in London and was unable to address the Conference, for which he sent his apologies. This was only the third time in the history of FoFNL that the President had been unable to address the AGM.
In a short address, John Melling, Vice-President, congratulated the committee on their role in the development of passenger traffic over the Ross-shire section of the line into Inverness. Farther north, other skills would be needed. At one point, ten years ago, there had been seven freight flows - oil to Lairg, and pipes, sheet steel, consumables and, for a short time, building supplies to Caithness, with refrigerators and timber coming south. All over the world the long distance rural railway only survives on freight - passengers, where conveyed, are 'icing on the cake'. He said the Far North Line (FNL) now has a ten-year window of opportunity, thanks to the civil nuclear industry, to go out and attract freight. He hoped the Society could engage Caithnessians and those committed to regional development. The two guest speakers were introduced by the Convener. Tom Curry from Direct Rail Services (DRS) and John Maxwell of Transport Scotland (TS) were welcomed to the FoFNL Conference.
Tom Curry is the DRS Business Development Manager. DRS currently operates freight services across the country and, on the FNL, nuclear services between Georgemas Junction and Sellafield, Cumbria. As well as operating nuclear services, DRS also provides intermodal traffic, locomotives for passenger operations, resource hire, infrastructure provision and consultancy. Mr Curry's background in freight dates back to when English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) operated freight services on the FNL - deliveries for Norfrost and Safeway to Georgemas Junction; timber trains from Kinbrace. DRS started operations from Georgemas in December, 2012, moving nuclear flasks from there to Sellafield. The former platform 2 at Georgemas Junction has been removed and replaced with a secure loading area. DRS are in discussion with Dounreay to use this freight service to provide supplies to the Caithness facility. With operations at Georgemas Junction, DRS is working with Transport Scotland on road safety initiatives, including road junction improvements near Georgemas. Potential future services include oil and gas products to Caithness and supporting ferry services to the islands by moving freight from the Central Belt to Georgemas. Additional freight paths on the FNL are, in part, dependent on route and line speed improvements.
John Maxwell, Rail Policy Manager at TS then addressed the Conference. There are 1,714 miles or 2,759 km of railways in Scotland and this is 11% of the National Rail network. In Scotland, 25% of the railway is electrified and there are 357 stations. TS has delivered a series of improvements to the Scottish rail network in recent years, including the new Stirling to Alloa route, the new railway between Airdrie and Bathgate, increased capacity on the Paisley corridor, line speed improvements on the Highland Main Line, introduction of new class 380 rolling stock and the opening of Conon Bridge station on the FNL. Mr Maxwell set out the position of the new ScotRail franchise. Sleeper services will be provided by a new, separate franchise from that of passenger operations within the rest of Scotland. The franchises will be re-let in 2015, with the Sleeper one being for a 15-year period; £100m of investment will be provided to improve the rolling stock. (See Franchise News below.) Other than the new franchises, improvements across Scotland from 2014 include the EGIP project (electrification, remodelling and resignalling of the Edinburgh to Glasgow route via Falkirk High and other associated routes, along with new rolling stock), line speed and journey time and frequency improvements both on the Highland Main Line and between Inverness and Aberdeen. Despite reports to the contrary, EGIP has not been cancelled. £10m has been allocated for level crossing enhancements and £30m for a freight investment fund. In addition to Paisley Canal, electrification will be extended to Whifflet with further enhancements to East Kilbride.