Having listened to various talks in 2015 given by people right at the top of managing the railway and, as FoFNL editor, reading the daily emails between committee members about problems on the line, I'm very struck by the mismatch between what is said and what actually happens.
Taking a step back, and looking at the FNL in the context of Scotland, my first thought is that in a wealthy, highly organised country, the current situation on the FNL is just - surprising. As a rail industry outsider I find it hard to see why the FNL seems to be permanently crippled for the lack of spending on track capacity which is required in order to run a proper service. Perhaps the cause is an over-reliance on things like benefit/cost analysis during decision making. The fact is that if it is agreed in a country that good infrastructure is essential, even in under-populated areas, and that certain roads and railways should exist for the general benefit of the country, it is perverse to then apply BCR calculations to individual needs such as the redoubling at Lentran or the provision of dynamic loops or proper signalling. Once a railway or road is deemed necessary all essential work should automatically be done. The definition of "essential" has to be about making the asset work properly, not trying to calculate how many people will benefit, and by how much, for each detail. It is common sense, not formulas, that is needed.
The present situation, where the stop at Conon Bridge is sometimes omitted to make up lost time, is pretty ironic when that station was itself only reopened less than three years ago to meet demand.
Clearly those in charge of running the railway would love to get on and make it all work. Phil Verster, MD of the ScotRail/Network Rail Alliance, made it very clear at the HITRANS conference in December that it is the political will at all levels that is necessary to make things happen.
It was good to hear about ScotRail's new £16 Club 50 return fare between Scottish stations, particularly that online and advance booking is not required as tickets can be purchased in the usual ways. When the offer was announced it oddly excluded return tickets with a destination of Lockerbie although travellers could book returns from that station. This has since been remedied, although it is disappointing that travel to/from Carlisle and Berwick is not included as it was in First ScotRail's Club 55.
Having heard ScotRail managers being quizzed last year about the decision not to have an equivalent to the £19 return that Club 55 offered, and being given a hard time in many quarters, whilst explaining that the advantages of Club 50 far outweighed those of their predecessor, it is hard not to think that Abellio ScotRail has been forced to reconsider. If that is the case, they could score quite a few points, I feel, by admitting that, thereby showing that they really do listen to passengers!
A very enjoyable editorial duty is to be able to respond to requests for help in terms of publicity. The Highland Historic Buildings Trust project to renovate Viewhill House so it can be restored to its imposing presence near Inverness Castle is described elsewhere in this issue .
It is hoped that FoFNL will have a part to play in the small museum which is to be included. I can't help thinking that Joseph Mitchell the Scottish civil engineer, whose house it was, would be pleased about that. I do wonder though, what he would have made of the present state of his Far North Line.