What a pickle! The "Really Useful" all year scenic railway which is the Far North Line is still in the doldrums and still, unfortunately, haemorrhaging passengers. Bad publicity grows wings and perceptions will take a while to turn round. After much soul searching and/or for pragmatic reasons, passengers (even our own members) may be using other means of transport. This is also happening south from Inverness as Club 55 is no longer available and advance fares have all been eagerly snapped up. The class 158s have been experiencing radiator problems across the whole fleet, and other failures even on the refurbished units have led to stock shortages. The on-time train arrivals percentage for Wick was 28.5% in the July period, yet Kyle did much better at 54.9%.
Patronage is generated by a mixture of convenience, reliability and affordability. The fares structure north of Inverness is generally user friendly. Convenience is more mixed. Infrastructure shortcomings prevent trains such as a desirable 4pm northwards or an 8am Inverness-Dingwall commuter from being run. It is absolutely vital that the extra loops between Inverness and Muir of Ord, north of Dingwall and at Kinbrace are chosen by Government for funding and installation early in Control Period 6 (2019-2024).
These will make a big difference to reliability also. We have argued for some time that controlling the line from Glasgow has many shortcomings and that it would be helpful if a "Control" were re-established in the Highlands. The present situation suggests that a strengthened, locally-based, and very senior, management team is now essential to develop bold strategies to win back passengers, win new business and to care for all, whether regular commuters, hospital patients, tourists or whatever. The friendly conductors and trolley attendants do a great job with the passengers, but the right trains and the right infrastructure need to be in place to make it all work more smoothly.
The hoped for silver lining is that the current crisis will accelerate the improvements necessary to improve the speed, capacity and resilience of the line such that passenger numbers resume their annual growth figures of recent years. Even better would be to see a much improved timetable made possible which produces a step change in passenger numbers, and new infrastructure at Kinbrace and elsewhere to facilitate freight growth in timber and groceries etc.
It would be really good if there could be such a spectacular and sustained renaissance that a new edition of David Spaven's forthcoming book on the line is needed within five years. That is the challenge for the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and the ScotRail Alliance!