There's a lot going on on Scotland's railway as I write (in the first week of the year), but much of it is buses. That's not entirely fair, of course, as Network Rail's (NR) orange army is out there mending the bridges that the extreme rainfall has carried away. However the sheer scale of the disruption (both in location and time) requires a long hard look at the strategy of coping with the climate changes so clearly taking place. The Scottish Government has said that the whole issue of flooding must move up the agenda - the rail industry must play its part in the debate about What To Do once the mopping (and shoring) up is complete.
It's Consultation Time out there. The Department "for" Transport has sought three reviews about various aspects of NR and the wider matter of regulation. We await the final outcomes - will NR be reprivatised? will ORR be swept away as was the Strategic Rail Authority? indeed, will NR be wholly wrapped in the welcoming bosom of the State? The nation holds its breath.
Well, it doesn't, actually. The nation - when its members are being passengers - couldn't care less who owns the various bits of the railway or how they are stitched together. So long as the trains do what the timetable says, they're pretty contented. Getting a seat is nice too (not a problem up here, unless you are the third bike seeking a space). Abellio, after an uninspiring start, are getting their act in gear and seem responsive to suggestions about how things might be improved. The performance statistics on the FNL are poor - we know that, Abellio acknowledges that - and there are beginning to be signs of improvement. FoFNL is watching.
In franchises operating south of the Border there is a requirement that CaSL figures are below a certain level. These measure Ca(ncellations) and S(eriously) L(ate) running. Transport Scotland makes no such demands on Abellio (why not?). In consequence all the FNL services which omit Thurso, or Conon Bridge and Beauly, fail to register on the radar as CaSL. In England a train is Ca(ncelled) for this purpose if it omits even one timetabled station. Does the SQUIRE monitoring regime look at this? If not, should it?
With another hat on, the present writer remarked at a meeting in Elgin in September 2003 that "the railways [were] bleeding to death". Happily the bleeding stopped, and a long period of recovery - and fresh growth - occurred. There's been more bleeding lately; the patient is in A&E while the floods are dealt with; the family, gathered round the bed, are anxiously seeking signs of improvement. The nation holds its breath.
Abellio's commitments for Scotland's railway are considerable, and in many cases visionary (if sexing up a 40-year-old train can be called that): once we can travel inter-city in a decent carriage things will be a lot better. But what is needed in 2016 is delivery. New trains will whizz about in the Central Belt, but up here there will be no change. All that can be delivered on the FNL is the timetable - all day, every day ... please.