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

Cab Ride

As Members will know, FoFNL has been making quite a lot of noise about the end-to-end journey time on the line recently. So that I could see the track-related restrictions for myself First ScotRail kindly invited me to have a ride in the cab of a 158 from Inverness to Thurso. This took place on 22 February - a very misty morning south of Tain, but a bright sunny day thereafter. As procedure, I was accompanied by ScotRail Driver Manager John MacLeod who was able to brief me on operational issues and points of interest. Thanks to ScotRail, GNER and Virgin I've had a few cab-rides before, and I knew what to expect.

The overall impression is that there is so much more to see out front - hardly original, but I was reminded of the rush for the front seats in the first DMUs (101s?) when they were introduced on the Fife route in the 1960s. No Fife Circle then: the trains went either to Kirkcaldy and Dundee, or to Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath. The novelty was that the front four seats gave a clear view (interrupted only by the driver's body) of the road ahead. Since this included several tunnels (including the kinky one at Kinghorn) and the Forth Bridge there was often unseemly competition for the best seats. Nowadays, of course, HSE wouldn't allow passengers to sit so close to flying glass risks, but in the swinging 60s no such nannyism was prevalent.

There are a great many speed restrictions along the line, with some being obvious and understandable, and others odd and even perverse. An example of the former is the 10 mph limit crossing over the swing bridge at Clachnaharry. Given that the bridge is in constant use it's hard to see how a usefully higher limit could be introduced without a complete replacement of the bridge - hardly a good use of scarce resources. However, there are lots of less understandable limits. In some places there are different limits for DMUs and loco-hauled services (mainly freight, but some rail tours). At one location these were 'simplified' into a single limit - naturally it was the lower one, so DMU passenger services now have a lower speed limit that they had before.

Regular readers will know that I believe that we no longer have merely a belt-and-braces approach to safety (which could be argued as itself being too stringent), but we now have belt-and-braces-and -holding-nanny's-hand approach. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the unthinking installation of TPWS. I don't quibble with Lord Cullen's recommendation that TPWS be fitted, but I do question some of the locations (termini, for instance, where some trains now have to accelerate after passing the sensor in order to reach the right part of the platform). In our many passing loops TPWS sensors were installed for a speed across the switches of 15 mph. This despite the fact that locos used regularly to cross the same switches at 25 mph or more in the bad old days. As a result, any speed over 15 mph results in an automatic application of the brakes (that's what TPWS is for), an automatic record of this in onboard computer, and an automatic punishment for the driver. An unthought-of consequence of TPWS on a long lightly-used line where there are no red signals to go through anyway. Unthinking is surely the right word to use.

Mike Lunan
Read Part 2