As every schoolboy knows, to make a soufflé five things are needed: eggs, flour, butter, milk and a recipe - a set of instructions. Each ingredient is essential, but without the instructions there will be no soufflé. The railway is much the same. It has four essential ingredients: infrastructure, rolling stock, people to run it, and money to pay for it all. Without all four of these the set of instructions - in this case, the timetable - is meaningless.
Readers will be aware of FoFNL's views about the infrastructure. As a bare minimum some double track in the Lentran area must be provided; we will soon know whether Scottish Ministers agree with us. We have been less noisy about our views on rolling stock and people. Not any more. On Easter Monday there was severe inconvenience to passengers when the 17:13 from Kyle - the last train of the day - was cancelled "due to a fault on the train". This was made worse by an announcement on-line 40 minutes after departure time that no alternative transport could be arranged. Despite Class 158s being re-imagined as ScotRail's "tourist train" FoFNL does not believe that they are reliable enough for our services. Long-distance trains are being cancelled too often for reasons of rolling stock failure.
The following day the 18:28 from Inverness to Wick - the last train of the day - was cancelled as a crew member called off "at the last moment". The cancellation was announced on-line at 11:51, so in fact there was still over 6½ hours before it was due to leave. This is a good example of the "people" problem. There will always be times when a crew member, or one of a crew member's family, is suddenly ill. The problem is that nowadays there are no spare staff able to take over in such circumstances. We have not written a detailed paper about HR matters, but having a few extra staff members wouldn't seem altogether silly, and could well cost less over a year than taxi-ing passengers about the north of Scotland.
So eggs, flour and butter are not of the quality they should be (or in the case of staff, quantity). There isn't much the recipe - the timetable - can do in these circumstances. The fourth - money - is at least a known quantity, and isn't in any case something we are capable of influencing.
The secret of a soufflé is, of course, hot air. But with an Election in the offing there will be no shortage of that.