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

AGM 2007 Speakers

The 2007 Friends of the Far North Line AGM was held in Thurso at the Pentland Hotel on Saturday 14 July. This was the first FoFNL AGM to be held in Caithness. Arriving in Thurso, a number of members travelled on the newly refurbished class 158 train - FoFNL was actively involved in specifying a number of the onboard enhancements particularly more luggage and bicycle space.

FoFNL's President and local MP, John Thurso, gave an opening address recalling his memories of travelling on the Far North line when he was a boy. "The train was comfortable and convenient and was central to our lives," he said. Then the Causewaymire [now the main A9 road between Thurso and Latheron] was a single-track road and it would take most people about four hours to drive to Inverness. The railway now has to compete with a much-improved road and better air connections. Mr Thurso was confident its fortunes could be improved and strengthened, though it would require "strategic thinking" over a longer timescale than the four to five years that governments tended to focus on.

Mr Thurso said such an approach would require all the interested agencies working together "to take us forward". He added: "We could then return to the days when the rail network played a central part in our lives."

Mike Lunan, FoFNL Covener, introduced First ScotRail Managing Director, Mary Dickson.

"You will not grow the railway if you do not encourage more passengers to travel by train and if you do not improve the journey times," said Ms Dickson, who also recognised that better links were required between Caithness and the Central Belt, particularly in providing an hourly Inverness to Perth service. Investment was being made on the Far North line - refurbishing the class 158 fleet of trains and the first train was now in service.

These trains were often criticised by passengers for their lack of legroom, poor toilets and their inadequate space for luggage and bicycles. Ms Dickson explained that 20 class 158 trains will be completely refurbished and will be more comfortable, have better seating, and incorporate more room for luggage and bikes.

Train delay minutes have been reduced by 40% on the Far North Line last year and Ms Dickson said other improvements are expected to include the introduction of a fourth northbound train from Inverness to Wick from December 2008.

New ticket vending machines and waiting shelters have been installed at some stations, car-parking facilities have been improved, and the Customer Information Screen at Inverness station will be replaced. Ms Dickson also explained that measures such as through-ticketing (particularly with ferry connections; Stromness now enjoying such a through ticket to mainland rail destinations) and e-mail bookings are being looked at.

Interestingly, ScotRail provides over 2000 services a day which is the equivalent of going round the world three times a day in rail miles!

Questions from the floor included a request for introduction of a "triangular ticket" to allow travel between Inverness - Glasgow - Edinburgh and return to Inverness and to improve Sleeper services so that cities such as Birmingham and Leeds can be directly served from Inverness.

Richard Lungmuss, Network Rail's Maintenance Director confirmed that Network Rail would pay 50% of the cost to fit Controlled Emission Tanks onto the class 158 trains.

Network Rail is responsible for some 2460 miles of track in Scotland and owns 345 stations and employs 1700 staff. 95% of the trains running in Scotland are operated by First ScotRail. The relationship between Network Rail and First ScotRail is a strong, 'no blame' relationship with regular communication between parties.

Mr Lungmuss said there had been improvements in safety and fewer accidents involving Network Rail employees, and outlined some of the difficulties faced by Network Rail after the floods in October last year showing the audience some dramatic pictures of the damaged railway infrastructure. He also explained that as well as carrying out maintenance his staff are involved in fencing work, vegetation clearance and graffiti removal.

Some of the major schemes in Scotland that Network Rail require to be delivered include:

Frank Roach gave his annual presentation on the work of Highland Rail Partnership.

Gavin Sinclair