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

Morning Session of the 2005 AGM

Roger Piercy welcomed everyone to the meeting and introduced Mike Lunan who until recently had been Convener of the Rail Passengers Committee for Scotland (RPC Scotland) and invited him to share with us his experience of this organisation.

The RPC Scotland was abolished by the Transport Act 2005. Given Scotland's different approach to the Railway Industry it was a mistake to abolish the RPC but the hope is that something better will be set up, in the meantime a vacuum exists.

The new Passenger Representative Body for the UK consists of 12 people appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, with one representative each for London, Wales and Scotland. Scotland's appointee is James King a former member of the RPC Scotland. Mike felt that with its structure it was unlikely to respond well to problems raised outwith London and other commuter areas. A Passenger Transport body is supposed to be in place by 1 May 2006 but as yet there has been no sign of any consultation about this body nor has there been any sign of the recruitment of a Chairman. (Later, a consultation was launched in late December.)

Mike gave examples of how inadequately formed Users' Committees can lead to problems and praised FoFNL as one of the few successful Rail User Groups in Scotland. He said there was an over-emphasis on further reducing risk in what is already a very safe transport mode, and this was having a deleterious effect on service delivery, as witnessed by the very slow timings on FNL. He cited the speed limits that existed at level crossings and the nonsense that arises where money is spent on improving the safety of the crossing and yet there is no benefit to the rail traveller. The motorist should be made responsible for his actions and not the train driver. Mike confirmed that he shared the views of the Friends that the class 158 Sprinters were not fit for purpose. He approves of the design of the class 170 Turbostar especially those with extra vestibule doors that eliminate the common complaint about cold draughts intruding on the passenger cabin. He said that the Friends should be asking whether 170s can travel on the Far North line and if not, why not, and where were the pinch points and what would be the cost of eliminating them.

On the subject of the Infrastructure of the Line he acknowledged the difficulties of the detours that the Line had to take but felt that some worthwhile improvements could be made at a cost of a few million pounds. However there were some major projects such as the Dornoch Link and he felt that there was a case for building the direct link but that it was not being articulated properly. He recognised that it was a divisive issue within the Friends but even if we all united in our support for its building it wouldn't make any difference in influencing the powers that be because we would still only be a single voice.

Mike referred to the Corus report and said that the way forward was to persuade the Scottish Executive to commission a full examination of the costs and benefits (including social benefits) of developing a Dornoch Link. Corus would wish to tender for this work alongside other consultancies, building on their preliminary study. It was essential for the Friends to put the ball firmly in the court of the Scottish Executive. Then the Friends can get on with what they do best and that is to work for the benefit of the whole line.

During the question and answer session members agreed with Mike on the unsuitability of the 158s citing various examples of just how poor the trains can be. There was general discussion about the journey times and how bad they are in comparison with 10 years ago. Mike expressed the view that we would never get back to those journey times while safety was considered to be fundamental to the running of the railway and anything that had a hint of danger would be prohibited, such as entering passing loops 'too quickly', travelling along platforms at the 'wrong' speed, and the threat of dismissal of the driver should his black box indicate a misdemeanour; a rather different story when compared to lorry drivers and their tachographs. Mr. Moore expressed delight at hearing such positive comments about making progress with the Dornoch Link.

Roger thanked Mike for his interesting and provocative talk.

Roger then invited Frank Roach to give his, now customary, update on what was happening on the Far North Line.

Frank reminded the meeting that the Scottish Executive was now totally responsible for funding the rail network with Network Rail as well as the ScotRail franchise with the Office of Rail Regulation responsible for ensuring an economic and efficient railway. Consultants, Arup, are undertaking the Scotland Planning Assessment which looks at the long term requirements throughout Scotland and he would encourage the Friends to take part in any consultation opportunities they are offered. Network Rail have embarked on a Scottish Route Utilisation Strategy which looks at a ten year horizon, and includes the Inverness - Aberdeen line. HIE, HITRANS and HRP are co-funding more studies into capacity constraints and demand across the H&I area, which will result in the drawing up of a hit-list of affordable projects such as Forscot at Invergordon. Frank was delighted that after 4 long years the Invernet project was at last going live on December 12th. Modifications to the original plans for Invernet were starting the morning commuter train from Lairg, and some trains terminating at Ardgay and Invergordon. Frank told us of recent station improvements involving Shelters and CCTV at Tain (installed) and Brora (planned).

Frank told of the transfer of Turbostars from Hull Trains that can offer a Buffet service. Invernet versions 2 and 3 are already being worked on which may bring about improvements to services to Elgin, Kyle and on Sundays. The best news of all was his announcement that as from December 2006 there will be a fourth train ex Wick at 08xx that will connect with the first inbound Orkney ferry at Thurso, allowing passengers to connect with the 1245 south from Inverness thereby arriving in London, by train, the same day. The rolling stock will return to Wick as a 4 car unit in the evening.

The freight scene is not very good but there are signs that there will be improvements with the recent advert for drivers to be based in Inverness placed by rail freight company DRS. Russells who have taken over Norfrost are a major user of rail in the south so the hope is that this will bring about an increase of freight traffic on the Far North Line.

On the subject of infrastructure a section of track was replaced at the County March. Frank has investigated the difference in TPWS fitment on the Cambrian line where the allowed speeds through loops and along platforms are higher. A pre-feasibility study for the re-opening of Conon Station has been completed and attention is being focussed on any problems of timing that might be introduced. The question of introducing skip stopping must be considered.