scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Annual General Meeting 2003

15th November, Beauly

Chairman, John Melling welcomed everyone to the new format of AGM and invited Richard Ardern to say a few words in appreciation of the service that Frank Spaven had provided to the Friends. After focusing on several facets of Frank's life he reminded the meeting that Frank's knowledge extended overseas too and that several of us had enjoyed his last lecture "Climbing to Summits" illustrated from his travels in Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Greece and Africa. Richard continued, "Now he has climbed his last summit and it is time for him to put down the fireman's shovel, and be transported through the corridor tender to ride "on the cushions" in the eternal train. We will all miss his friendship and wise counsel." A minute's silence was observed.

After the initial business of the AGM had been conducted and an apology received from the retiring President Robert MacLennan, who was unwell, the meeting elected John Thurso MP as the new President. John Melling then presented his report as retiring Chairman. He said, "This has been a year of consolidation with our expectations for freight traffic being exceeded. It is still important that traders in Wick embrace the railway to take advantage of the upsurge in freight interest on the line. On one day this week there were four return freight workings. This year the Far North Line is taking 19.5 million tonne miles off the roads per annum. The route now generates seven commercial traffic flows to/from Lairg, Kinbrace, Georgemas and Thurso. These are building materials, oil, perishables, pipes, refrigerators, steel and timber." 1000 loaded rail wagons are dispatched each year from Caithness to Doncaster alone. 58 loaded wagons traverse the route in an average week i.e. 3000 per year. This puts the Far North Line in a very different league from most of Britain's branch railways. It also demonstrates that the present route meets the need of commerce in Caithness and Sutherland and it requires that government ensure that the route be maintained to a high standard. He stressed the cases for an all year round late Friday passenger service to the north and the opening of a station in the Conon/Maryburgh area.

There has never been a greater need for robust presentation of the case for investment and good management on our railways and this week the Friends submitted their response to the Scottish Parliament Local Government & Transport Committee's investigation into the SRA. Of particular concern was the suggestion that lines north of Inverness might receive a lower maintenance regime. With the heavy freight now being carried it is important that the line is maintained as at present. The Friends expressed their appreciation of Network Rail's efforts to replace so quickly the bridge at Shore Street, Inverness damaged by a road vehicle carrying a digger earlier this autumn. John Melling expressed disappointment at the lack of progress with the introduction of the Invernet project due to the withdrawal of funds by the SRA. Richard Ardern who had recently replaced him as the representative within the Highland Rail Partnership continues to attend Rail Passenger Council meetings. Keith Tyler continues to represent the Friends within Highland Rail Heritage.

The Friends had circulated all candidates in the May elections with a copy of the April newsletter and much work behind the scenes had produced the policy document "Train Service Aims for 2004" which was sent to the four bidders for the Scottish franchise. Only ScotRail took up our offer of meeting with them and a fruitful meeting took place in Perth.

He thanked the office bearers and committee members for their efforts and reported that they had met at various locations up and down the line and that 'networking' between them by electronic communication had significantly increased their effectiveness. This was especially the case when Highland Councillors were lobbied prior to the full Planning Committee meeting to discuss the Planning Application for the rail development at Highland Deephaven. Membership is standing at the 170 mark and efforts to increase the membership must be made by putting the application form that is included into each issue of the newsletter to good use. He thanked the Editor for his efforts in attracting a wide range of material and photographs into our publicity flagship.

Elections to the committee resulted in Richard Ardern becoming Chairman unopposed, with the following also being returned unopposed; John Duncan, Secretary; Ron Stevenson, Treasurer; Angus Stewart, Membership Secretary. There were four nominations for the 2 remaining committee positions and in order of the votes cast were Stewart Campbell, Roger Piercy, Reverend Alistair Roy and John Moore.

Before taking the chair, Richard Ardern presented John Melling with book tokens to show the Friends' appreciation for the 6 years of leadership and guidance provided by him.

Richard reported that he had travelled this week, with 130 other passengers, on the very successful morning commuter train service from Tain to Inverness and remarked "It just shows what the railways can do with good marketing and an attractive fares structure." He expressed the hope that the Scottish (Executive) Transport Minister would soon plug the funding gap for the Invernet project. This had arisen by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) temporarily withdrawing funds nationwide from rail projects. An early answer was essential to catch the 12 month lead time to the January 2005 introduction of the new services. Invernet is an imaginative project to provide a two hourly frequency of services between Inverness and Tain and a new morning commuter train from Kingussie to Inverness.

Even in its present form the Tain commuter service is helping to alleviate Inverness's growing problems with road congestion on the A9 and the Kessock Bridge and with car parking by providing an alternative for commuters, students and shoppers. The success of the service from the north should send out strong signals to the SRA of the need to implement the long proposed improvements to the line from Inverness to Aberdeen via Nairn as the A96 is similarly congested especially on the Inverness approaches.

He continued, "Much of the credit for these new service ideas in the Highlands is due to the partnership approach adopted and the work of the Highland Rail Development Manager, Frank Roach." FoFNL is now looking to ScotRail to try and improve the comfort and reliability of the rolling stock they inherited. With time running out before lunch he ascertained that there were no pressing questions to be tackled that couldn't wait until the afternoon's general discussion and closed the business part of the meeting.

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Peter Cotton, Managing Director of ScotRail, Richard expressed disappointment that the canvassing of commuters on Monday and Wednesday mornings of the week of the AGM had not resulted in extra members of the public attending this part of the meeting, but welcomed those present.

Peter Cotton summarised the situation inherited by ScotRail and the improvements that had been achieved during the time of the franchise. He was unfortunately constrained from being able to talk about ScotRail's bid for the next franchise but went on to talk about improvements that might be achieved in the remaining time of the current franchise. He said that reliability problems on the rolling stock will be resolved with the recruitment of 8 new fitters in the Inverness depot which has now been given the responsibility for maintaining the Class 158 fleet of 20 trains for the north of Scotland lines. He expressed satisfaction at the route maintenance service Network Rail was providing in what were, for them, rapidly changing times. He commended the practical approach adopted by the Highland Rail Partnership in developing the Invernet project which is unique among proposals for new train services in that it would not require new infrastructure only an additional set of carriages and a total of four drivers and conductors.

The meeting concluded with a detailed up to the minute presentation from Frank Roach covering such items as the upgrading of level crossings, the re-timing of certain trains, the introduction of a January 2nd service, and the hoped for improvement in the storage of cycles at stations. Freight developments being explored include an experiment with curtain sided swap bodies to speed up the loading of containers at Georgemas.

Other topics discussed included creating extra space for cycles on trains, and the longer term possibility of building of a direct line to the north through Dornoch.

Financial Statement - year ended 31st March 2003

  2002 2003
  £ £
Computer - -
Current Account 4080 4337
Less Taxation 43 43
Balance at beginning of year 2788 4037
Fixed Rate Bond   5000
Surplus/(Deficit) 1249 5257
Subscriptions 1209 792
Donations 644 398
Interest 52 73
Miscellaneous - 48
Sales of videos 331 48
Legacy - 5000
  2236 6359
Highland Rail Partnership 100 200
Administration 176 83
Meeting Expenses 108 73
Newsletter 390 394
Membership Subscriptions 58 23
Video stock purchase 110 -
Miscellaneous 35 79
Contribution of Iron Road Book - 250
  977 1102
  1259 5257
Less: Tax Charge 10 -
Surplus/(Deficit) 1249 5257