Fergus Ewing's announcement on 16 December marks, surely, a turning point in the campaign to get the Lentran Loop constructed. A decision to do so in CP6 (the five years starting in April 2019) has still several hurdles to be successfully overcome, but at least we are at the starting tape with our spikes on. He has instructed Transport Scotland to convene a Review Team to look at the Far North Line in detail and come up with a suite of actions to improve things. In the immediate - CP5 - term this will look at timetabling and minor infrastructure tweaks which can be delivered "using existing funds". I interpret this to mean things like improving line speeds at level crossings (and elsewhere, in loops perhaps) - there is, after all, a dedicated fund for LX work in CP5. Further ahead will come more substantial infrastructure enhancements like the Lentran Loop. FoFNL will be well briefed in any discussion of this by the excellent detailed running statistics being collected each week by Malcolm Wood, illustrating the disastrous effect on the rest of the day's timetable by late-running of the first train from Caithness. Given that Network Rail has identified the usefulness of some degree of double-tracking "between Inverness and Dingwall" the idea that this should be somewhere in the general area of Lentran looks a likely solution. NR's Route Strategy has this pencilled in (not too strong an expression, I hope) for "CP6 or CP7" and Fergus said in his speech that he wanted to see "major changes and improvements in CP6".
While there is still much work to be done this does seem a good time to pause and reflect on what FoFNL has achieved. Thanks to the letters written by Members to MSPs, to the letters written by MSPs to Ministers, to the many articles banging the same old drum, to the doggedness of your Committee keeping this issue at the centre of everything we do we are, as I suggest, at the starting line. Or, to change the metaphor, we are at the negotiating table, along with ScotRail, Network Rail and HITRANS.
I offer my sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to add their individual voice to the general clamour, in particular our two MSP Vice-Presidents who have nibbled the ears of Ministers. We're well on the way, but just in case there might be slippage...
...THE LENTRAN LOOP MUST BE BUILT.