On Monday 2nd March 2015 HITRANS (The Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership) hosted a summit meeting in Dingwall to discuss punctuality on the Far North Line. This is a digest of the proceedings.
Chair: Iain MacDonald, broadcaster
James Stockan, Orkney Councillor, Chair of HITRANS
Frank Roach HITRANS
John Kerr, First ScotRail Head Timetable Compliance and Resilience
Audrey Laidlaw, Network Rail, Business Improvement Manager
Anne-Marie Harmon, Network Rail, Lead Strategic Planner
Iain Wilson, First ScotRail Head of Public Affairs & Stakeholder Management
Michelle McRae, FSR Inverness
Derek Mackintosh, FSR Depot Manager Inverness
Alastair Matheson, Transport Scotland Services Timetable Planning Manager
Frank Roach opened the meeting by listing the considerable improvements which have been made since 1996 including the 1998 forming of the Highland Rail Partnership and the Friends groups, the initiation of Dingwall commuter services and Invernet, reopening of Beauly and Conon Bridge stations, provision of some extra services and all-year Sunday working. He also mentioned the major slowdown to services in 2005 which resulted in 22 mins being added to the Wick-Inverness journey time.
John Kerr then spoke for First ScotRail stating that they knew the timetable hadn't been working in 2014 so a "resilient" timetable was introduced in December 2014 including average 3 min journey time increases and the skipping of the Fearn and Alness stops by the 16:00 ex-Wick. He said that the opening of Conon Bridge was the straw that broke the camel's back. The Public Performance Measure (PPM) dropped to 76% when Conon Bridge was opened, having been at 90% after the massive slow-down of 2005, prior to which it had slid down to 65%. The PPM has risen from 58% to 79% in the first 10 weeks of the new timetable.
Anne-Marie Harmon (Network Rail) spoke in general terms about improvement opportunities which have been identified. There is a total of 23 which will be acted upon, 7 within the next 18 months, 10 during CP5 (i.e.by 2019) and 8 for completion after 2019. All improvements are subject to a business case being made.
Audrey Laidlaw (Network Rail) outlined the strategic work being undertaken at present:
1 The Scotland Route Strategy starting 2019/23 with horizon as far as 2043.
Consultation draft by end of 2015, final publication July 2016. This then informs the Initial Industry Plan September 2016.
2 Seeking funding in the Scottish Government's High Level Output Statement (HLOS) for control period CP6 to be delivered between 2019 and 2024.
There followed a Question & Answer session in which detailed explanations were sought by Mike Lunan (FoFNL Convener) and other FoFNL members concerning the greatly extended travel times from 2005 onwards. There were also specific questions about the timing of certain trains and their ability to allow passengers to make connections for onward journeys. Concerns were raised about the effect station-skipping and general unreliability might be having on passenger numbers. Rhoda Grant MSP said she had had many complaints from rail users.There was some discussion about signalling with the question of replacing RETB on the busier Inverness-Dingwall section of the line with colour light signalling and conventional points to speed things up raised by Richard Ardern of FoFNL. John Kerr from ScotRail said that this was his first choice but implied it has been knocked back. Audrey Laidlaw said the business case needed to be robust. Frank Roach said this was costed at £10m seven years ago, but should cost less, now that fibre optic had been laid for the TPWS system.
Jean Urquhart MSP asked what is envisaged for 28 years' time in 2043?
Mike Lunan suggested significant investment of a magnitude comparable with the new Borders Railway in more doubling, more dynamic and more static loops, better signalling and better track to ensure the Inverness to Wick rail journey takes no more than 3 hours.
A further meeting was held with ScotRail and Network Rail officials in Thurso on 11 March. This was attended by Richard Ardern and Bob Turner of FoFNL.
There was much concern about the unreliability of the passenger services during the 2nd half of 2014. With the lack of information displays at stations, locals had resorted to phoning up the local taxi firm as the most reliable way to find out what alternative transport was being provided.
The number of locals and visitors using the train has declined. The barriers at Inverness were criticised for causing congestion "like a cattle station". An earlier Inverness arrival would be useful particularly for Councillors going to 10am meetings.
Concern was also raised about the lack of potential freight paths, not least for timber movements. Timber movements of a different unplanned kind blocking the tracks after bad weather were also discussed.
The Invitation to Tender for the franchise had stipulated that journey times on all rural lines were to be reduced but ScotRail responded that this was a complex matrix over the whole of the rural sector and did not mean that every rural line would benefit. Any increase in the number of trains on a long single track line was more likely to lead to journey time increases as there were more trains to pass on the way.
Work is ongoing to increase the entry speed at Georgemas Junction and to fund level crossing improvements, but we were advised it was extra difficult to make the business case for improvements on a line with the characteristics of the FNL.
The meeting was useful in making the views of users at the north end of the line personally known to SR and NR officials.