Each of the three franchises has announced plans for the introduction of new rolling stock. In the nature of things nowadays (EU regulations not least) it takes a few years from issuing a tender for new trains to putting passengers in them, so we must be patient. While we're waiting, here's what is in store.
1 VTEC. New trains have been ordered from Japan and the first two sets are already in the UK undergoing testing. Trains will enter service in 2018 (introduced gradually as they are delivered) and will cover most services out of Kings Cross. Some sets will be "bi-mode" and will operate drawing power from the overhead line as far as Edinburgh, switching to diesel power thereafter. New trains will operate to Aberdeen and Inverness once the full timetable is introduced in December 2020, and may operate before then.
2 Sleeper. New trains have been ordered from Spain and should enter service in 2018. They will be a great improvement on what we have now, offering everything from cheap-and-cheerful seated accommodation to cabins with en suite toilet and shower. There will continue to be a Lounge Car supplying a range of catering.
3 Abellio. Once the Edinburgh/Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) is completed by the end of 2016 new electric multiple units (EMUs) will replace the 170s now operating the route through Falkirk High. This will allow 170s to be deployed elsewhere, but it seems that they will not be retained in Scotland but returned to their owner (Porterbrook) for leasing. The rest of the Inter-City network in Scotland (ie. Edinburgh and Glasgow to Aberdeen and Inverness, as well as Aberdeen to Inverness) will be served by rebuilt Class 43 sets. This is where it gets interesting.
Network Rail is electrifying the Great Western route from Paddington to Bristol and South Wales - routes now operated by Class 43s. When these were introduced in 1975 they were called High Speed Trains and flew along at 125mph. As a Reading resident I commuted into London on these trains and recall being excited by their speed and comfort. I was in my 30s then. Fast forward a decade or four. These are the trains which, after they are displaced from the Great Western by electrification in 2018 (maybe), will be much improved and which will dash between Scotland's cities. And I, then nearer 80 than 70, will get excited all over again (maybe). To be fair the ride in, and view out of, a Mk3 carriage is better than anything else on Britain's railway. I have no doubt that the end result will be a great improvement on the 170s and 158s which provide the service now. But it will still be a train over 40 years old.
And on the FNL? The much-vaunted "tourist train". This turns out to be pretty much - OK, smartened up a bit - the 158 layout we have up here (when they're not trundling round the Fife Circle) as 158701 - 158725. As usual the tail of the donkey is overlooked. Any train-spotter wanting to be certain of copping an Inverness 158 should head for the Borders where we are "lending" them. Could we not have some of the redundant 170s?
Inevitably with new franchises this FNE has concerned itself with the immediate passenger experience with train operators. However we should not be blind to the fact that delivering a better experience (more reliable, faster journeys) for passengers on the FNL requires NR to do things.
Control Period 5 (CP5) - the 5-year period which started on 1 April 2014 - sets out the enhancements Scottish Ministers wish to see carried out by NR. Readers will be aware that CP5 has gone badly wrong south of the Border - so much so that Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin "paused" much of the electrification work this summer. We believe that there is no such problem in Scotland - EGIP will continue pretty much on time and budget. This demonstrates the wisdom of devolving NR's Scottish responsibilities to Holyrood. So CP5 is OK up here.
But CP5 is silent on enhancements on the FNL. So were CP1, CP2, CP3 and CP4. The detailed planning for CP6 (April 2019, remember) starts this autumn. NR will consult (we hope that the undertaking to include FoFNL as a consultee has not been forgotten) and put together a long list of things they think possible and sensible. Eventually this will be honed and presented as a set of recommendations to Transport Scotland some time in 2016. Scottish Ministers (TS in practice) will select from the long list of those things which they wish to see NR provide - the High Level Output Specification (HLOS) - in summer 2017. This will be accompanied by a Statement of Funds Available (SOFA). Now you or I in our everyday lives can work out that our shopping list and the contents of our purse ought to bear some kind of relationship. The railway does it differently. What used to be the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR), now called the Office of Rail and Road (ORR: at least they've saved on notepaper), will pore over the HLOSes (England & Wales have one too) and the SOFAs and will, some time in 2018, tell everyone what will happen in CP6. This makes merry work for dozens of people.
And where does FoFNL come in? Pretty early if we're to have any influence. Experience has shown that a carefully thought-out plan will often be heeded if it's presented at the opportune moment. We have worked up what we believe to be a convincing case for redoubling a stretch of line between Clachnaharry and Clunes - there are details elsewhere in FNE - and we shall seek to get that onto NR's long list. If we fail to do this then there's no opportunity again until 2020, so it's vital that we engage professionally with NR this autumn. Readers will know that we suggested various ideas to NR (see FNE63 p6 and FNE64 p6) and now is the time to narrow our recommendations to One Big Thing. Bring on the Lentran Loop!