Firstly I would like to talk about the loss of two of our members.
John Melling, one of our founder members, and our second chairman from 1997-2003, died peacefully in May. I only met him once but I know that he was a pivotal figure in the early days of FoFNL.
Our other great loss was one of our committee members, Bob Barnes-Watts, who died last August after a difficult illness. I think everyone here will be aware of the enormous contribution he made and of his amazing knowledge of all public transport matters. He has left an unfillable gap.
This has been quite a tough year for the Far North Line. Most noticeable to passengers has been the very variable performance of the timetable - in the last twelve months the PPM figure has struggled to reach an average of 80%, sometimes dropping into the low forties. ScotRail's problems over the year are well-known and mostly not of their own making. The late delivery of new trains in the Central Belt and, more relevant to our line, the extremely late delivery of the refurbished HSTs has wrecked ScotRail's driver training schedule causing massive disruption to our services.
However, one part of this sad story is quite definitely Abellio's fault: it seems that the franchise bid may have been based on compulsory Rest Day Working, in order to keep staff numbers down. This decision has since been overturned and drivers and conductors are now being recruited to remove this reliance. Unfortunately driving a train requires far greater training than is obvious to a non-railway person and takes a long time. Things are improving, but slowly.
The other causes of the bad timekeeping are several, including problems with the Class 158 trains on occasion. Needless to say, the excessively long single-track sections cause massive repercussions in the event of any lateness.
The other issue which makes passengers very unhappy is the all-too-frequent lack of catering, which on a journey of over four hours is unforgivable. We struggle to understand why it seems so difficult to maintain the required number of staff for the service. Sometimes we are told that there is a staff shortage because someone has moved on - whatever happened to having to give notice of leaving? We believe some staff are provided by an agency which would explain this. If that's the case, it's clearly not a suitable way to provide such a vital service. [We have since learned that agency staff are not used]
Now onto more cheerful matters. You will remember the report done by Tony Glazebrook on all aspects of the Far North Line in 2016. This led directly to the establishment of the Far North Line Review Team which met six times as a group, the final meeting being on the 1st February this year.
The result of its deliberations is that an enormous amount of work has been carried out by both ScotRail and Network Rail, with important input from HITRANS. Every aspect of the line has been studied and many initiatives have been taken, or are currently being worked on. These range from small but important items, such as designing a passenger-operated request stop system, enabling a waiting passenger to notify an approaching train of their intention to board, to the major item on our shopping list, the famous Lentran Loop. Also, I'm pleased to report that Customer Information Screens have been installed at all stations except Dunrobin Castle - coming soon!
The FoFNL committee's main problem at the moment is more psychological than practical. Although planned work is still funded in five-year Control Periods - we're now in CP6 - the list of work to be done is no longer prepared and announced before the start of each Control Period, we now have a 'pipeline' process and projects are worked up, agreed and continuously fed into the workstream. For us this means that we have no certainty at all about what is to be done for the FNL in the next five years, even though we have very good vibes. This means that we've had our fingers crossed for so long that it will be hard to straighten them out! We are very much hoping that some of the mist will be cleared at our conference today, we'll have to wait and see.
There are two other possibilities I'd like to mention. The first is one that has been on the cards for quite some time, courtesy of Frank Roach at HITRANS - the Caithness Sleeper - or "Midnight Train to Georgemas" (thank you Gladys Knight and the Pips). The project is now in need of political support, so if any of you have any connections to local, or indeed national, politicians, this is something to bring to their attention as a very worthwhile addition to FNL services.
The other possibility is the running of a trial to assess the desirability of a Thurso-Wick Shuttle. There is considerable interest from ScotRail, local residents and, I believe, Transport Scotland. The idea would be to use one of the battery trains that are being produced from ex-TfL Underground stock. I went to a demo of this train at Bo'ness in October and was extremely impressed. The train itself would be very cheap to run, especially if it were possible to use power generated in the Pentland Firth which can be stored and transferred when needed, taking only a few minutes to fully charge the train for a fifty mile round trip.
All in all these are exciting times for the Far North Line, it's just a shame that it seems to take such a long time to achieve improvements - rather like manoeuvring an oil tanker - we'll get there!