A Happy New Year to all. This could be an encouraging year for the Far North Line. Perhaps when things have become so bad the timing of the arrival of Abellio couldn't have been better. No one will expect instant transformation but it would be surprising if Abellio didn't make the Far North Line a priority. There could be no better time in the franchise cycle for the new franchisee to really show what they can do (except perhaps the run-up to the next round of bidding!), they will of course need the co-operation of Network Rail and the Scottish Government (Transport Scotland).
The irony of trains running through the newly reopened Conon Bridge station (and Beauly, reopened some years ago) without stopping, in order to keep to the timetable and suggesting that intending travellers take a taxi is almost beyond belief. It is not surprising that MSP Rhoda Grant, who has been campaigning for improvements, was quoted in the Press & Journal on 18th December: "The service is not fit for purpose, the regular delays and cancellations make it too unreliable for many potential business users to rely on travel along the line, and tourists are more likely to use the road as a faster route north." It is clear that good service must be restored quickly to win back passengers.
Having enjoyed the process of editing the newsletter in October I have agreed to continue as editor and so have removed "acting" from my page two listing. I have made some small changes as you will see, including trying to maintain larger font sizes than those in the October issue. I would very much appreciate any comments you may have on any aspect of the layout. Complimentary comments are very nice but it is useful to hear of any problems or suggestions which I can use to improve the production. The newsletter has always had an enjoyable mix of items about the current situation on the line, opinions and general interest and I would love to receive more articles for possible inclusion.
I have been struck by the amazing breadth of knowledge of Far North Line matters that your committee has and the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. Living in Glasgow and having a full-time job prevents me from attending many meetings but I was lucky enough to be invited to a session of Transform Scotland in Edinburgh at which there was a presentation by Rail Freight Group's Scottish representative David Spaven. This gave me an inspiring insight into the real discussions which are going on all the time behind the scenes, involving many specialist organisations and pressure groups. I found it reassuring that there are real experts feeding ideas and opinions into the system to help poiticians who, almost by definition, are rarely experts themselves.
Transform Scotland was heavily involved in the franchise consultation and bidding process. Paul Tetlaw from TS welcomes the new franchise holder but makes the point that "The new franchise promises to deliver significant improvements in many of the areas that we highlighted and we have good reason to be pleased with the outcome. Indeed we have written to the Minster and senior civil servants at Transport Scotland expressing these views. However the franchise alone cannot deliver in the key areas of integration and infrastructure upgrades and we now look to government at all levels to bring forward schemes to ensure that we have a railway that integrates well with other modes and offers a real alternative to the car."