2016 has been a memorable year and, in terms of politics and world affairs, one we may wish to forget as soon as we can. For FoFNL however it has been a good year (not in terms of the performance of the Far North Line which has been stubbornly disastrous all year).
Autumn 2016 was a particularly fruitful period for FoFNL's long-running campaign to achieve serious improvement to the Far North Line infrastructure.
On 21 September David Spaven's book Highland Survivor (see review) was published. With a very effective press release much of the media picked up on some of David's conclusions about the future of the line, prompting assurances from ScotRail that, far from considering closure, much money is being spent on maintenance and some improvements. Whilst these were very welcome they fell far short of what is required to put the railway into the position to provide the service needed and to develop the line towards its full potential. Future signs are promising though.
Members of FoFNL, as well as other regular readers are well aware of the dire need for at least two extra passing places to break up the impractically long single-track sections on the line.
Extensive press coverage of Highland Survivor in Scotland included not only the newspapers in the north of the country but also, rather gratifyingly, in The Herald on 26 September, both an article and the editorial. This may be the first time the FNL has been featured in Herald View, which opened with
The railway line between Inverness and Caithness was one of the lucky ones in the 1960s when it escaped the infamous Beeching cuts. But more than 50 years after being spared the axe, could it be suffering a worse fate: slow death by neglect?
and concluded with
ScotRail says it is investing in the line, but Scotland's transport network continues to suffer from a culture in which obligations are met (often over deadline and budget) but rarely exceeded. Why not extend the Borders Railway? Why not do the same for Edinburgh's trams? And why not invest in Scotland's Far North Line to create a more efficient, modern and exciting service? Passenger numbers on the line are dropping - but it can be turned around.
Coverage continued into October when BBC Scotland featured an interview with David Spaven about his book and the state of the FNL.
The second major event for us in the autumn was the publication on 16 October of a report by rail consultant Tony Glazebrook. The story of how this came about is quite unusual: back in the 60s Tony and I were teenage violinists playing together in various amateur and youth orchestras in North London then Tony went into the railways and I became a professional musician, which Tony could easily have done if he'd wanted to. We lost touch completely and it was only after Tony had emailed the RSNO, having attended one of our concerts, feeling sure that there was only one viola player called Ian Budd that we managed to meet up. It turned out that he had been living in Glasgow for over 20 years already!
Naturally we compared notes - he was very keen to find out what he'd missed by not becoming a professional musician, and I was as keen the other way round. Unsurprisingly I told him of my involvement with FoFNL and began to give him the newsletter to read each time it was published. The more he read, the more he wanted to see for himself with his rail consultant's hat on. Last summer he offered his professional services to FoFNL on a voluntary basis - something we could not have afforded to commission.
Tony explained that his modus operandi would be to ride the whole route in the cab and to have discussions with as many of the people doing the job of running the Far North Line and others directly involved in various capacities as possible. Permission had to be sought from the ScotRail/Network Rail Alliance and was readily given, along with full co-operation.
Tony had preliminary meetings with Mike Lunan (our Convener), Frank Roach of HITRANS and John Yellowlees, Community Liaison Manager, ScotRail. In the course of his time on the railway he had discussions with Alex Campbell (Mobile Ops Manager, Network Rail), Derek Glasgow (Fleet Manager, Inverness), Stephen Muirhead (Route Asset Manager [Signalling], ScotRail), Michelle Mullen (Route Asset manager [Track], ScotRail), Gerry Scott (Area Manager [North], ScotRail) and driver during his cab-ride, Ronnie Payne.
Tony concluded his report as follows:
"An intensely positive attitude, unparalleled commitment and boundless patience were very evident qualities in everyone that I was fortunate to meet. The FNL exists because of them."
Tony's report, which I urge you to read, is available online.
The report covers every aspect of the operation of the FNL in great detail, listing problems and suggesting remedies. It provides FoFNL and the politicians who oversee the provision of rail transport, with the information needed to work for improvements. Phil Verster, Managing Director, ScotRail Alliance, responded immediately to the report and asked his teams to action specific issues that arose.
In the report's summary Tony Glazebrook lists the problems and recommends solutions. Among many other issues, he identifies a key cause of the chronic paralysis that affects the FNL in addressing problems:
Management: There is no clarity on who has the authority to make things actually happen. Indeed, despite the frequent discussions on everything that already is known to cause the never-ending FNL problems, there is very little to show for it. If anything, performance is declining still further. There is a lot of good work and analysis ongoing but no apparent focus to bring the system under control, let alone to improve it. This needs urgent attention.
Recommendation: For clarity to be brought to the identity of the action leader at least at local level and for that role to be afforded the necessary authority.
ScotRail has already made a start on this by giving Derek Glasgow overall responsibility for the running of the Far North Line.
Among other memorable quotes are these:
Timetable: It is disadvantageous to FNL economics that end-to-end journey times in the current timetable are some 30 minutes longer than in around 2000! The train from Inverness to Thurso takes between 3¾ and 4 hours, and to Wick between 4¼ and 4½ hours. Even with 11 stops, the X99 bus service takes only 3 hours from Inverness to Thurso or Wick, whilst driving the same route takes only 2½ hours to Thurso or 2¼ to Wick.
Recommendation: For a single individual to be charged with the task of leading the drive for route improvements that aims, at the very least, within the next 5 years to restore end-to-end FNL journey times to their level in the year 2000.
The reason for the apparently high costs for railway infrastructure changes and investment is worthy of examination and justification, especially in areas where the 'fare box' revenue cannot cover those costs. It is unclear how the costs are built up and only a critical examination of such would enable a reasonable balance to be achieved between cost and available resource.
Recommendation: For NR to choose a sample project from each of the Signalling and Track disciplines and provide a breakdown showing how the apparently high costs are derived.
An indication of the success of recent campaigning and publicity is Fergus Ewing's announcement on 16 December of the setting up of a "Review Team" comprising Abellio ScotRail, Network Rail, HITRANS and FoFNL with immediate and longer term outputs to improve performance now and plan ahead for major changes. Fergus Ewing is the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity in the Scottish Government. In the latter part of 2016 railways have been in the news more than usual. Often the discourse has descended into political point-scoring, which sensible observers will ignore, but in most ways greater publicity helps to fuel awareness and eventual action by politicians and industry decision-makers.