As can be seen elsewhere in this issue, FoFNL has been talking to retired railwaymen with long experience in very senior positions. Clearly, the governance and operating environments have changed markedly on the railways in recent years.
Without breaking any confidences, FoFNL can distil some of the past wisdom in more general terms and build on this to apply it to the present situation. What follows is our constructive assessment of how some of the tried and tested methods of the past might have a relevance today as the new franchisees and Network Rail ponder developments and evolution in the modern mix of governance and operation.
At this early stage in the new franchises, and particularly of the proposed Deep Alliance (Abellio ScotRail and Network Rail), we seek to do no more than offer a few thoughts from observers which might serve to catalyse other thoughts in the current organisations. This of course we do in the hope of enriching the emerging new models towards the end game, which we all seek, of a railway excelling in being fit for purpose in the coming years for the carriage of both passengers and freight.
The current promises for better journeys for tourists are timely, but it must also be remembered that all the main lines in the Highlands are part of the strategic transport links of Scotland and are not just local services. These links are particularly important for business travellers and for freight. The Far North Line, for example, is used all year round to access Inverness, in particular, for employment, education and health services.
Against that background it has to be said that the Highlands are a difficult operating environment. It is over 100 miles from Perth and Aberdeen to Inverness, another 80 on to Kyle and the extreme of 160 on to Wick. Rescue locomotives or trains for breakdowns are a long distance away when something goes wrong. Weather conditions challenge the lengthy miles of single track railway (often with very long sections between passing loops) with snow, floods and windblown trees all adding occasional ingredients to the difficulty. Much is better than it was: with modern radio systems, the vulnerability of routes equipped only with telegraph wires strung from poles has been overcome, and multiple-unit trains can keep going if one motor fails.
Nevertheless, when things do go wrong the consequences come with added severity on such routes. Planning resilience means that motive power must be extra robust and well maintained, while track and telecommunications technicians have to be strategically located to reach trouble spots as quickly as possible and need to be provided with the tools to do the job. If this means a locomotive and crew to haul in the required materials and men, then extra provision for this may have to be made beyond what might be acceptable in more populated parts of the country. In particular, resources need to be available to assist stranded passengers, in this situation where the alternative transport and other facilities are not available just beyond the railway fence. Again, the railway radio system is a great aid, but it can reasonably be asked whether a railway controller based in Glasgow or Edinburgh can have adequate local knowledge to manage that human aspect of a difficult situation, involving as it might bus services or sustenance?
While writing this I have learned from BBC Radio Scotland (never noted for a sure grasp of geography or timetables) that there is a lorry off the road at Rhiconich "in Lairg". Lairg must be a big city if it extends over 40 miles to Rhiconich!! We have had plenty of promises from ScotRail in Glasgow that the replacement bus will be "sent round from Altnabreac to Forsinard" and similar unlikely events. Geographical precision is important in such cases. Is it perhaps also important in terms of the location of railway management and decision-making themselves?The franchise years have brought much centralisation both in the train operating companies and in Network Rail. Budget and operational control has been transferred south, even to England, leaving the north of Scotland to make the best of it. During and since the Commonwealth Games the Far North Line has suffered greatly.
The idea of the Deep Alliance between Abellio and Network Rail presents an opportunity to project its logic to the situation we have been describing in our part of the network. The idea must surely be to combine the resources of the railway family in the north of Scotland to run a better service. Long and isolated single track lines need to have track and trains organised together, with a local management team in day-to-day charge, with a realistic budget and resources, including sufficient rolling stock of all kinds.
The new sleeper franchise has created a clear focus for its specialised product, and of course it is to be welcomed that Serco has chosen to set up a management team based in Inverness. This leads to recollections of the Area Management of BR days, whereby the local team of commercial, operations and engineering managers were specifically intended to work jointly to the same end. Not only did it bring knowledge and commitment to the local train service, it recognised opportunities to develop traffic and the product, which it duly did develop. Moreover, these managers were learning the trade of running a business, coping with risk, and thus fitting themselves for a career running a national concern.
Is it far-fetched to wonder if this approach to the product and developing business sense might spin off from the Serco policy? What possibilities might there be for innovation if the local on-train catering staff from Abellio and East Coast were empowered to work with Serco staff to create a centre of catering excellence at Inverness or Dingwall, truly tailored to the Highland market? What risks would there really be? And what potential might it unlock in terms of service, enterprise and talent? Let us not forget that back in BR days the catering on the Edinburgh - Glasgow trains derived from a belief of the staff from the Aberdeen services that there would be a market if they were to take their trolleys, during their lie-over time, on a return trip on the Edinburgh - Glasgow line. And they did so, on their own initiative. Having tested the market, they could present the evidence to success to a grateful senior management, who had had other, higher preoccupations.
Where might such supportive, collegial working lead? Perhaps we could also aim for a revamped Inverness station, featuring Highland catering and hospitality, the Highland Tourist Information Office, and exceptionally knowledgeable and friendly staff. Might there be here the desirable centre for combined control of the combined railway operations, with informed staff, attuned to the needs of local travellers and offering a true Highland welcome and farewell to all our visitors?
On the Network Rail future planning front, it would be good to see an effective Alliance speeding up the proposed greatly improved infrastructure provision for the operating efficiency of northern lines. Double track capacity is so urgently required on all three routes to and from the Inverness hub, even some on the Far North Line!
But these strategic, long-term, 'big ticket' aspirations have rightly to be dealt with at a national level, with corners being fought on a larger stage. This is the milieu where the new Alliance and Transport Scotland can shine, especially if stakeholders and empowered local management can supply from their own alliance the solidly based ideas and facts from experience.