On 16th February 2015 Richard Ardern of FoFNL sent the following letter to Mark Carne CEO of Network Rail:
Dear Mr Carne,
FoFNL is the rail user group for the lines converging on Inverness.
At our 2008 AGM, one of your predecessors said "We must find and exploit real opportunities to reduce journey times"
Iain Coucher was talking about the Far North Line to Wick and Thurso which, over the years, had suffered from road journey times being significantly shortened due to the new A9 bridges, and then a sudden 22 minute rail journey time extension in May 2005.
Since then, we have had more minutes added on to the timetable including the emergency measures in December 2014. It is now being reported that the state of the track has declined so much as to cause serious concern. This is a new, and worrying, development.
When you spoke at the SCDI dinner in Aberdeen last month you were reported as saying that "priority will be given to enhancements which benefit the largest number of people." Moir Lochhead said exactly the same when First Group took over the ScotRail franchise 10 years ago.
Such understandably worthy sentiments have disadvantaged the north of Scotland for many years now. We are also part of the integrated network that is Scotland's railway and we need to be attractive to both passengers (including visitors) and freight. We cannot be pushed aside for ever when it comes to enhancements or, as now seems to be the case, regular maintenance.
The past eight months have seen serious endemic delays on the FNL, some due to ScotRail shortcomings and some down to Network Rail. Passenger confidence has been badly eroded such that encouragingly increased passenger use every year has suddenly changed into decline. We hope that this will be only a temporary blip, and that the current working party will recommend robust solutions and have these accepted and funded by Network Rail during CP5. We trust that further substantial work will also be done in CP6.
With CP6 in mind, we submitted the two enclosed high level papers to Network Rail in Glasgow during the autumn. They were written by our member Mike Lunan, the last Convener of the Rail Passengers Committee for Scotland. We deliberately set out not to be too prescriptive in the hope that NR would accept the long overdue need for serious improvements and would come and talk to us about the detail. We hope you will find time to read them and we would welcome feedback from you and from Glasgow.
Richard Ardern (Committee Member)
On the same day there was a report in The Times entitled "Boris raps Network Rail for failing to boost Stansted line" to which Mr Carne responded with a letter to the paper:
Further to your report "Boris raps Network Rail for failing to boost Stansted line" (Feb 16), there is already significant railway investment planned in the Lea Valley, supporting up to 19,000 new homes. The consultation on Stansted four-tracking will lead to an updated business case, which will be presented in the summer. It remains to be seen how this will stand up in the face of the competing demands for rail investment elsewhere, but our commitment is to get the most out of the funds made available to us, to invest wisely and direct it to where it will give the most benefit.
Mark Carne, Chief Executive, Network Rail.
This letter appeared in the Inverness Courier on 27th March. We are reproducing it here to show how at least one traveller is feeling at the moment about ScotRail's Highland and Far North services. At a time when in general railway development is being promoted, and is accepted as something we aspire to having, it shows that in parts of the country the reality on the ground can be felt very differently by the people who actually use the trains. Abellio is in the comfortable position of being able to fix the problems without anyone being able to ask them why they let it get so bad in the first place. This is of course a temporary effect, often known as the "Honeymoon Period".
FoFNL members and many others reading this will know that the rolling stock in question is far from being "pre-war", having been built between 1989 and 1992, and is likely to remain in service until 2030. However, the comment shows how it seems to an ordinary traveller.
Current rail service is appalling
I had the misfortune to travel on the 13:56 from Edinburgh Waverley to Inverness. The train comprised two obviously ancient carriages with at least 450 unlucky passengers on board.
There was no room to stack luggage, not enough seating, elderly ladies sitting on suitcases and some standing.
The air was disgustingly fetid and far too hot. Everyone was crushed together and shortly after we set off one of only two toilets broke down. The conductor and staff were aware of the general discomfort and were genuinely apologetic about this throughout our three-and-a-half-hour tortuous journey.
This was not the first time. The north line from Inverness to Wick is far worse: four-and-a-half-hours of hell. These carriages must be pre-war, the constant banging, lurching and sreeching and uncertain heating make it very unpleasant, the windows are often filthy in spite of the awesome scenery. Once again the staff are excellent.
These journeys are totally unacceptable between two major tourist destinations, Edinburgh and Orkney. What visitors think must be unprintable. To me it is outrageous that ScotRail has got away with this abysmal service for so long.
Farm stock in transit are far better treated. Let us hope the new company will update rolling stock by spending more of the massive subsidies to give long-suffering passengers a half decent service.