Report of four meetings attended on 15 and 16 December 2016
1 With Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister of Transport. (Also there, Bob Barnes-Watts of FoFNL and Rose Tweedale of Transport Scotland [TS].) We gave the Minister a copy of a document entitled The Lentran Loop (see p9) which he welcomed. He agreed to write officially to The Highland Council and to HITRANS pressing them to look seriously at the case, including a STAG appraisal - this was "the best way forward". He accepted that making a business case is beyond the competence of FoFNL. He assured us that he had "a sympathetic ear", and was pleased that FoFNL had cross-party support from MSPs.
2 With Bill Reeve, Head of Rail at TS. He explained a great deal of what was going on in the e-ticketing area. He told us that FoFNL "punched above [our] weight" and acknowledged the strength of our cross-party support among our VPs. My idea of bolting on an order for new DMUs to the order placed by Northern Rail would apparently be illegal, so I shall stop banging that particular drum. However he was "not against" more new DMUs "in due course". This is a big step forward from the prevailing view in the industry that no-one would manufacture new diesel kit at an affordable price. (We should not read any degree of "soon" into this, however - the 158s will be our stock on the FNL for a decade or more.) He asked us about freight possibilities, but apart from the timber traffic it is hard to see where any southbound load will emerge. He noted that, whereas summer passenger numbers rose significantly on the Kyle line and the Oban/For William/Mallaig services, this did not happen on the FNL. Why not? I suggested tapping into the Scrabster cruise ships with a nice steam train to Wick and back, with a bus to John o'Groats. (I will talk to Scrabster to see whether this might fly, or whether it is just pie in the sky.)
3 Frank Roach's second Points North conference. This had a truly excellent line-up of speakers - chosen by Frank to explain specific aspects of FNL performance. First was Alex Sharkey, the top NR man in our area. He gave a very instructive presentation about what NR plans to do in the balance of CP5 (up to March 2019) - most of which will be wholly invisible to passengers of course. All the more reason for our knowing about it. Derek Glasgow referred to Tony Glazebrook's consultancy report and spoke about the 158 refurbishment programme, which will be complete in July 2017. Once the EGIP EMUs are up and running the plan is that the Inverness fleet of 158s will never travel south of Inverness (except towards Aberdeen/Montrose). Ian Whiteley went into detail about the RETB improvements (which seem to me, on the basis of two journeys, to allow late-running to be recovered more quickly: 9 minutes late at Tain becoming on-time at Inverness). Phil Verster said that HLOS will focus on outcomes, and reduced end-to-end timings on the FNL ought to be part of this. There was a team working on speeds within loops. Simon Constable (the safety and LX king) told us of increased line-speeds at 4 LXs, but said that speed might have to be reduced at 2 others because of increased road traffic. He outlined planned changes at Delny and in Dingwall (see p10). This was the most useful two hours I have spent at a railway conference in the 17-odd years I have been attending them.
4 The Rail Stakeholder Conference. Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing MSP was the main speaker. He announced that he was setting up a "Review Team" (not, he said, a Task Force) to consider the FNL. It would have immediate and longer term outputs. In the short term how to improve performance, in the longer term seeking major changes and improvements. He noted that NR's Route Strategy had some double tracking between Inverness and Dingwall suggested for CP6 or CP7 and said that "capital investment, more medium and long term, should be in CP6". He announced that the Review Team would comprise Abellio, NR, HITRANS - and FoFNL. Frazer Henderson (Head of Rail Policy at TS) outlined the TS Consultation on the HLOS process (about which the Dingwall seminar, reported on another page , had been involved). Several points were clarified. We then heard about progress on the Aberdeen-Inverness and HML enhancements. We were told that the May 2017 timetable for the FNL/Kyle lines would "stabilize" and set performance "to acceptable levels". Difficult word acceptable: it certainly won't see a return to 2000 timings, some 30 minutes faster than they are now. This is a murky area, and exploring it for solutions will doubtless be a major part of the "immediate" task of the Review Team. One of the twinkles in Frank's eyes - a depot at Elgin - seems to be on stream for December 2018. The first ex-GWR HST will arrive for driver training in 2017, and the first refurbished set will be delivered in "spring 2018". On being pressed about delays in releasing the sets following the electrification fiasco on the GWR the reply was "we have a contract". It will be interesting to see whether the contract is delivered according to the letter, or if DfT and TS come to an agreement. If there is to be a delay there must be compensation - £1 million a day seems sufficiently punishing to focus minds. Peter Strachan showed us pictures, taken only the day before, of his new Sleeper trains being built in Spain (see front page). The interior fitment is not just a step up from the existing kit (itself nicer, and better cared-for, than it used to be), but a whole flight of stairs better. It will be interesting to see the use made of the double bed. (Perhaps I might rephrase that). To round off the day we saw plans for the upgrade of Inverness Station.