My first thought as I write this is that we don't seem to have progressed much in the last three years. We're still waiting for completion of all the improvements agreed by the Far North Line Review Team in 2019, but things are happening, many of them are in place and others are part of the way through deployment. We are also expecting good news very soon about the major item, the new passing loop near Inverness. We had always referred to it as the Lentran Loop, but it has been decided to place it much nearer the southern end of the line, and it will now be known as the Delmore Loop, a name requested by FoFNL to reflect its geographical location.
The pandemic slowed development work down quite dramatically, and had other effects on the railway too, not least in bringing to a halt the recruitment and training of drivers to remove the need for rest day working - something we're all too aware of right now with our services temporarily cut by more than 50% when drivers became unwilling to work on those days during pay negotiations.
The Far North Line did run a full service right through the pandemic, but like all railways carried few passengers. Services on the line have continued to be plagued by train faults. A major cause of these is, rather surprisingly, problems with the newly refurbished Inter7City HST units. Stock availability has often reached low levels, with many trains out of action. The HSTs are having many problems, some to do with the different kind of service they are providing compared with their past lives, e.g. more stopping and starting on inclines in bad weather, resulting in wheelflats. Drivers are having to learn from experience how to handle the trains in these conditions. Whenever one of them fails, alternative stock has to be found from somewhere, and this means that our units have sometimes been forced to miss routine maintenance appointments. Given their age, it's hardly surprising that the 158s develop faults between examinations, causing sudden withdrawal from service.
Good news on the freight front: A very pleasing development is the decision, after a successful trial in 2020, to provide a timber loading area next to Altnabreac Station. The trial used the familiar pipe wagons, but dedicated timber wagons are being procured and a regular service is expected to begin quite soon. Initially it will run for six months, but the signs are good that it will continue. It is excellent to see the line being used for freight and we're hoping to see significantly more of this in the future. I attended a freight conference at Mossend in November and the atmosphere there was extremely optimistic with rail being ready to fill gaps left by the struggling road haulage industry. The railfreight industry has some innovative plans targeting expanding markets such as parcels traffic.
In January Transport Scotland published the Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 Draft Report, which was followed by a kind of feedback questionnaire for stakeholders and individuals. As you will have seen in Far North Express, the long-awaited report did not fill us with joy as it contained very little in the way of definite plans, or even intentions in its 190 pages. It is mostly concerned with assembling statistics and matching general transport aspirations with government policy bullet points. FoFNL had to respond, and we used the questionnaire supplied but also had to attach a covering document since it was not possible to match our views with the way the questions were framed. Many of the questions were reminiscent of those commercial competitions which you win by guessing the correct order of a product's attributes. In fact it was often the case that two or three items in a list seemed equally important and the rest equally unimportant, or sometimes actually wrong. This is something which cannot be conveyed by order of preference, and in fact when aggregated may lead to a completely incorrect assessment of opinions.
Most recently, members of the FoFNL Committee carried out the onerous, but necessary FNL Station Survey. This is done every five years or so, and covers all aspects of all the stations on the line from the point of view of passengers and prospective passengers. The findings are passed on to ScotRail and Network Rail who have responded well in the past - they're just as keen for things to be right as we are!
In the latest edition of FNE we listed our current aims. These include another passing loop somewhere at the northern end of the line, as well as consideration of providing an all-day shuttle service between Thurso and Wick. We'd also like to see a better arrangement near Georgemas Junction with the addition of a chord to allow trains to travel directly to and from Thurso without reversing. If a new station were to be built at Halkirk it would be possible for alternate trains to terminate at one of the two termini, the passengers for the other being picked up by the shuttle train.
A major issue of concern for us, which is reflected in the station survey, is the lack of an integrated transport system where switching modes is easy and journey planning assisted by full information and through ticketing. A passenger alighting from a train at most Far North Line stations will not be able to find out whether, where or when there are buses to complete their journey. This is largely the result of a history in the UK of allowing unregulated bus services to operate completely independently of the rail system. If we are going to achieve modal shift this is an area that the government needs to focus on. I think much can be learned from countries, such as Switzerland, which don't seem to find it a problem.
In general terms I remain optimistic about the future, as long as the politicians are able to overcome their fear of the electorate and get down to implementing the Scottish Government's policy of modal shift away from road transport. Its stated aim of a 20% reduction in car use will roughly double the number of passengers on Scottish railways. There is a very short time remaining to build in the extra capacity needed, so we need construction, not reports. However, the current economic conditions are worrying, so we need to make the case for rail even more strongly and keep it at the forefront of politicians' minds.
This report was given at our 2022 AGM