FoFNL Conference Report
The Convener, John Brandon, opened the conference at the Conon Bridge Hotel and welcomed Members and guests to the 2014 Friends of the Far North Line Conference.
Our President, John Thurso MP was away and was unable to address the Conference, for which he sent his apologies.
In a short address, John Melling, Vice President, congratulated the committee on their role and for all the behind the scenes work. John Melling thanked both the Convener and Secretary John Brandon and Gavin Sinclair for their work over the years. John Melling stressed that it is important that the new Committee be formed of people from different backgrounds and with a wide range of skills and not just from the railway.
John Melling reminded the Membership of the origins of FoFNL and how it was formed 20 years ago in 1994 and it is good news to see new members joining the society.
John Melling talked about a visit he made to India and his experiences of travelling by rail. India has a population of some 1.2billion people. The railway network is extensive, although the rolling stock is of poor quality. Not unlike the Far North Line whilst passenger trains lose money it is freight traffic that is the real lifeline of the railway.
Zoe Hands, who is the Head of Safety, Health and Environment at Network Rail Scotland, addressed the conference. Ms Hands joined Network Rail from the aviation industry. She started by acknowledging that journey times of the Far North Line have been going in the wrong direction, partly to do with speed restrictions at level crossings.
It is recognised by the railway industry that automatic open crossings (AOCL) are a higher risk than level crossings with barriers. Temporary Speed Restrictions imposed after 2009 have been subject to relaxation following a review by Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation. Adding barriers at level crossings AOCL+B does not eliminate the risk at a rail/road interface. Another way to remove this risk is to close level crossings but this requires engagement with local communities. There has, however, been misuse of crossings in some parts of the Highlands.
Level crossing risk has been reduced by 25% since 2009 and must be reduced by a further 25% in the next 5 years. £3m has been allocated to achieve this.
Ms Hands also reported that improvements will be made to the RETB signalling, to be completed in 2015. The signalling system will be enhanced allowing for faster token exchange with the Far North Line divided in two (possibly at Invergordon) removing the delay whilst trains wait to avoid simultaneous token exchange.
John Yellowlees, External Relations Manager at ScotRail then spoke, telling the conference some facts about the First ScotRail franchise. ScotRail operates 95% of services in Scotland, operating over 2,800km of railway track, 25% of which is electrified. ScotRail employs over 4,900 staff. Mr Yellowlees reminded the meeting on the improvements on the Far North Line, which include:
- 1998 - introduction of a morning commuter service between Dingwall and Inverness
- 1999 - 125th Anniversary celebrations
- 2000 - introduction of class 158 rolling stock and reduced journey times
- 2001 - commuter service commences from Tain
- 2001 - all year Sunday services introduced
- 2002 - Beauly station opens 2005 - additional trains between Lairg, Dingwall and Inverness
- 2006 - introduction of a fourth train from Wick to Inverness
- 2008 - additional commuter services and four trains per day to and from both Wick and Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness - and
- 2008 - rolling stock refurbished with lower density seating, seats aligned with windows and more luggage and cycle space.
Frank Roach, from HITRANS, updated the conference on his work, starting with the success of the re-opening of Conon Bridge station. Improvement work is also planned to take place at Inverness station to improve the station entrances and the station facade on Academy Street. Away from the Far North Line, it is hoped that Dalcross station will open although not all trains between Inverness and Aberdeen will call here. On the West Highland Line, the train service to Oban has doubled to six trains per day.