It was an opportunity to listen to speakers from ScotRail, Network Rail, Serco, Transport Scotland, AECOM, Systra, Mott Macdonald and two Community Rail Partnerships.
Much ground was covered, Alex Hynes (MD, Abellio ScotRail/Network Rail Alliance) noting a much improved performance on the FNL with a 7% increase in passenger journeys and the best ever Class 158 reliability figures. Money is being invested in the line with an improved signalling system and work enabling removal or reduction of some speed restrictions. AH commented that he finds the franchise review process with Transport Scotland is completely different from that with the DfT in England and Wales. Here ScotRail is working in partnership with TS to promote continuing development for the benefit of all Scotland.
Both Alex Hynes and Bill Reeve (Rail Director, Transport Scotland) are looking forward to the transformation to travel on the Highland Main Line that will come with the refurbished HSTs. BR said that in rail terms there had never been a more exciting time for the Highlands with expansion, improved quality and reduced journey times.
James Jackson of Systra gave a detailed talk about the proposed sleeper service from Thurso to the Central Belt which would enable passengers from Caithness and Orkney to travel overnight to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Thought is being given to carrying parcels and other small freight, taking advantage of the premium charged by companies, such as Amazon, for deliveries to parts of the north of Scotland. It is thought that the sleeper's economics might be similar to other British sleeper services.
There was a piece of bad news about the Inverness Station Improvements on which work will begin later this year. The intention is to pedestrianise Station Square but this is being thwarted by the Royal Highland Hotel which has invoked the terms of a 125-year lease to retain its eight parking spaces, which it deems essential for its business. So far, talks to resolve this have been unsuccessful.
Other speakers covered matters such as cycle statistics, the proposal for a stretch of the Kyle line to be shared with road traffic to avoid the £80m cost of replacing a section of road prone to rock falls, and the plans and aspirations of the two Community Rail Partnerships in the Highlands.