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

Facing Points

Confession is said to be good for the soul - I for one can only hope so, as these days one values any crumbs that come to hand! Spare me if you will a few moments of your time. . . Waywardly, I have fallen into a damaging habit of putting things off until the last moment. This may be simply an aversion to irreversible commitment, or veils conceit in creating needless obstacles to be resolved only in the nick of time; either way, a pernicious failing which shames me and is unkind to colleagues. I become an impediment, part of the problem rather than a solution.

Looking around me at public life, however, it seems I am a good deal more 'with it' than any of us should respectably desire. How many government bodies, quangos and large concerns, faced with a difficult decision, avoid prompt and decisive action by resorting to just the same procrastinate strategy? Their first, and often only, reaction is to appoint consultants, form one or more committees and launch a public enquiry, thus effectively postponing any risk of positive commitment for, with practised skill, at least one or two years - and, if exercising habitual flair, until after the next election. Notice the time it has taken to achieve Invernet, and the snails-pace progress towards reopening the first section of the Waverley route.

Never actually intended, you understand, it just so works out by happenstance! Lively public participation is an essential feature of democracy - but one recalls Sir Humphrey Appleby's view that you should never launch any enquiry until one had already decided what its outcome would be. On the railways we have seen some immaculate exponents, first the manipulative commissar Stephen Byers, and more recently the elegantly nimble teflon Alastair Darling. Who could ever detect what either of them was really thinking? Or how firm a grasp either of them had on the practical realities of railway operations?

Witnessing a steady stream of lengthy freight overnight trains bringing materials in preparation for track relaying north of Forsinard in November is underlining (excuse the pun) the sheer volume of such essentials as ballast required, and also the problems imposed by a single track railway and long stretches with no feasible alternative access.

Noting recently a length of fencing that had been renewed, with the number of posts required for a relatively short run, set me thinking how easily one tends to take the so-called 'permanent way' for granted, and those astonishing machines for aligning, checking the cant and monitoring transition curves, and tamping and packing, plus keeping all the numerous bridges, culverts and retaining walls in serviceable repair, along with that peculiarly British statutory requirement to fence it all off - miles and miles and miles of it. No wonder civil engineering is a massively costly enterprise.

One feather in our Far North cap. With our infrequent service levels, and much of the traffic relatively light, as compared with densely utilised high speed routes south of Edinburgh, it seems our steel rails enjoy a longer life than almost anywhere else in the Kingdom.

Coming back to where I started, it is mischievously tempting to detect First ScotRail not being above playing a little game or two. First, for a variety of reasons, some altogether out with their control, they add 20 minutes to Far North Line end-to-end journey times (the one wholly within their sphere being that too many people are boarding and alighting at request stops; do they want additional custom or do they really prefer to turn it away?!) They will judiciously prune this excess by degrees; improved unit maintenance and attention to radio signalling will yield better performance and bring reliable punctuality within reach once more (at present patchy, but improving; a few years ago exemplary), and if a few onerous speed restrictions can be eased, Network Rail and the safety mafia permitting, and presumably if people like me get on and off in a sparkling trice rather than lumbering luggage mode, they can lay claim with disarming modesty to year on year improvements.

Keith Tyler, Committee Member representing East Sutherland