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

Headcode : January, 2014

As we move into 2014 and the start of a new Control Period for Network Rail, neither NR itself nor Transport Scotland is giving us much good news for rail travellers north of the Great Glen over the next five years. This is very disappointing considering the increase in railway usage during the previous five. As you will see from our coverage of the new ScotRail franchise and of Net-work Rail's Enhancements Delivery Plan, despite representations to both HITRANS and Transport Scotland, the railway industry is planning a "steady state" railway in the north for the foreseeable future. Let us not forget that the Westminster Department for Transport let the Northern Rail franchise on the same basis some years ago and was very much mistaken. So much so that there was severe overcrowding, some of which is still happening. There, money is now being spent on the "Northern Hub" and there are proposals to increase the size of Leeds City station yet again. And that's before the HS2 platforms are built on the south side of the existing station and it becomes even busier.

On day-to-day operations, the Far North Line is still suffering from far too many perturbations. It is not uncommon for trains to miss out Thurso - the fourth busiest station on the line - to pick up time, often more than once a day and on more than one day a week. As Richard Ardern writes on page 18, if the first train from Wick into Inverness is running more than about 10 minutes late, the constraints of the single-line railway cause it to lose its path and arrive at its destination around an hour late with huge implications for passengers who have onward connections: anyone travelling on the Highland Main Line (HML) will depart at 12.53 instead of 10.45 and for stations to Aberdeen, 12.46 instead of 10.57. And it only needs a minor perturbation on either of those lines for passengers travelling in the opposite direction to miss their connections too. This is quite unacceptable. We regularly find Haymarket class 158s substituting for Inverness ones. The former don't have the amount of luggage and, especially, cycle storage space we need and we have heard reports of cyclists being denied boarding, even on the last train of the day. On several occasions recently, one or both of the morning trains from Wick to Inverness has been cancelled or started from Helmsdale. Bus substitution is most unsatisfactory given the difficult nature of serving the intermediate stations. We appreciate that, at times, the choice is between the "wrong" rolling stock or none at all, but it is quite galling when Inverness units are retained in the Central Belt and Haymarket ones sent north. We have made representations to First ScotRail and, it has to be said, these are normally responded to with some degree of sympathy. Nonetheless, it's still annoying. Now we've seen odd minutes added here and there on HML trains and a "temporary" extension to many journey times on the Far North Line, introduced in October for just a short time, but carried over into the new timetable in December owing to a sighting problem at a level crossing near Muir of Ord.

On a more positive note, at last we have some kind of timescale for the upgrading of the routes into Inverness from the south and the east, but it's entirely dependent upon the release of funds by the Holyrood Government. We are quoted a reduction in journey times of around ten minutes which does not quite meet the promise of two and three-quarter hours to and from Glasgow and Edinburgh but it is a step in the right direction.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and prosperous new year.

John Brandon.