At the beginning of July, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the thirty winners of the 2021 First of a Kind (FOAK) competition, run by Innovate UK for the DfT. They will share a £9m prize fund.
Two of the successful companies are Scottish: Lenz Labs and Whereverly Ltd.
Lenz Labs is a new company formed by a group of five post-graduates brought together by the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition. In their words the Hyperloop concept "alerted us to the potential impact our technology could have in solving problems that have remained stagnant in existing industries for decades". This led to the design of the Traction Hub, the project which gained them the FOAK award. "The Traction Hub is a novel, retrofitted braking technology that delivers a 9% increase in applied braking force and 30% decrease in stopping distances. With the Traction Hub, drivers can have confidence in an all-weather braking system that operates in tandem with precision sensors to deliver insights on the behaviour of the wheel-rail interface."
Whereverly has a mission it describes as "Making journeys memorable. Embrace local culture through music, song and stories, whilst discovering the greatest experiences and hidden gems." Currently all its products are road-based but the winning entry was a mobile phone/tablet app aimed at travellers on the Highland Main Line. The app has a mix of music, songs and stories from local artists and musicians.
Network Rail is currently transitioning to a new project governance system - Projects Accelerated in a Controlled Environment (PACE) - which is intended to replace Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) with more streamlined processes to enable current and future projects to deliver passenger benefits more quickly with greater value for taxpayers.
ScotRail has embarked on an extensive public consultation about its plans for a suitable timetable for May 2022 as travel patterns begin to establish themselves after the pandemic. Stakeholders, including FoFNL, were invited to participate in a pre-public session to give the operator a chance to explain the rationale behind the changes. Sunday services are outwith the consultation.
Kyle Line services will be unaffected and the Far North is planned to lose only the late night Friday/Saturday train*. Four trains per day is regarded by ScotRail as the minimum required for 'lifeline' routes.
Some services will be decelerated on the HML and Inverness-Aberdeen routes and Inverness to Central Belt trains will be rerouted through Stirling. This will become the interchange point, rather than Perth. [See Richard Ardern's article]
Now that the draft timetables are available to the public on the ScotRail website it is clear that much detailed work still needs to be done on connections at Inverness, especially for passengers transferring to the FNL.
The ScotRail view on this is pragmatic. Firstly other operators, such as LNER are also working on new timetables so there is a limit on the value of doing detailed work before such interfaces are known. Secondly, the input from stakeholders and members of the public will influence the detail in any case.
FoFNL can't overstate the importance of good connections; traveller's needs don't conveniently fit operational routes and the Transport Scotland viewpoint of regarding travel to be in 'corridors', which aren't always confined to services, is crucial in timetable design.
Media coverage of this exercise has been predictably disappointing. With few exceptions a dramatic headline is preferred to an analytical article.
A ScotRail official issued this plea:
"Please ask your members to bring some intellectual challenge to the debate!"
FoFNL will provide an official response but in the meantime we have already pointed out these northbound problems:
08:23 ex ABD arr INV 10:41 - INV-WCK dep 10:41 [previous service 07:18 ex ABD, arr INV 09:37 (65 min earlier start, 64 min wait at INV).]
11:55 ex ABD arr INV 14:11 - INV-WCK dep 14:00 [previous service 10:10 ex ABD, arr INV 12:26 (105 mins earlier start, 94 mins wait at INV).]
10:33 ex EDB arr INV 14:15 - INV-WCK dep 14:00 [previous service 09:35 ex EDB, arr INV 13:26 (58 mins earlier start, 34 mins wait at INV.)]
*ScotRail is especially interested to hear views about the withdrawal of the FSO late-night services.
This is not a news item!! However, ScotRail officials are keen that we should not lose sight of the aspiration to change the FNL Sunday service to two trains per day when this becomes possible. Post-pandemic the emphasis is shifting towards leisure travel.
With passengers returning to rail, now that Covid restrictions have been reduced, it is worth mentioning the Highland Railcard again.
This entitles residents in specific postcode areas to save 50% on fares on the selected routes - the Far North Line, The Kyle Line and the West Highland - and for up to two children to travel for a flat rate of £2. The £15 cost of the card will soon be recouped, especially for families.
The ScotRail website has full details.