On Friday 17 June we managed to have our AGM & Conference live for the first time since 2019's event in Brora.
Having chosen Dingwall for our 2020 event, in recognition of Kate Forbes' agreement to address the conference in her home town, we faced a difficulty in that the Ross County Football Stadium which was the original venue had not reopened to events after Covid.
Research uncovered the fact that the National Hotel in Dingwall, which is very near the station, was under new ownership. The hotel had been in decline for some years so it was very good news that a small team of young owners had taken it on. They have only been in charge since March this year and have already transformed the restaurant and bar, and are now working on the rest of the hotel.
Not everything went according to plan however. Scottish train drivers had begun an unofficial withdrawal of overtime and rest-day working in May which had led to a drastically reduced service on the Far North Line. With fewer than half of the services operating it was inevitable that many attendees, including our speakers, would be unable to arrive by train. The Network Rail speaker became stranded at Invergordon and had to arrive by taxi and the Modern Railways Editor had to get a bus from Inverness.
We were however very pleased with the attendance, which was a lot higher than in Brora in 2019, in spite of the travel difficulties.
The day began with our AGM. The office holders submitted reports and the usual voting activity took place. We were sad to note that David Spaven did not stand for re-election to the Executive Committee. David's extensive knowledge will not be lost to us though, as he has rashly agreed to be contacted for info when needed! We are glad to welcome a new committee member, Richard Mansfield of Inverness, who has recently retired from the British Transport Police. Richard brings a wide experience in railway matters from a different angle, much of it to do with safety. We're looking forward to his input in future. The meeting voted to increase our annual subscription which had been static for a number of years.
The conference began with a welcome speech by our President, Jamie Stone MP. A keen supporter of rail travel, he emphasised the value of FoFNL and the importance of rail provision in the Highlands.
He was followed by Matt Powell, Head of Sponsorship at Network Rail. Matt was indeed the bringer of good news as he was able to announce confirmation that detailed planning work for the new passing loop near Inverness has begun, with it being brought into use in 2024. The loop will be known as the Delmore Loop, a title reflecting its location just west of Clachnaharry. For many years FoFNL has been campaigning for a "Lentran Loop" but when an operational needs investigation was carried out it was decided that the loop would be more useful much nearer Inverness. The loop will help to reduce the build-up of delays caused by any late running on the busy section of route shared with the Kyle Line. This, along with the change from train-operated to radio controlled motorised points, is a vital step in improving the reliability of the railway.
Matt also presented a video which gave us a detailed look at the new 'Request to Stop' equipment that is being brought into use on the line. The operational advantages are clear, and the system pioneered here at the suggestion of Frank Roach of HITRANS will probably be replicated elsewhere.
Our second speaker was Kate Forbes MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (the Scottish equivalent of Chancellor of the Exchequer). Kate is the constituency MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch which includes Dingwall where she was born.
Kate gave a very enthusiastic view of rail, especially in the Highlands, and it was obvious that she and we are mostly on the same page about what needs to be done. We do differ on the specific question of priorities between road and rail, especially on the question of dualling the A9 and A96. This was a chance for us to make the point that the essential capacity issues on the parallel railway routes should be addressed before spending money on fully dualling the roads.
During lunch we discovered that David Simpson, ScotRail Service Delivery Director, who was the only speaker travelling by train, had had to turn back due to a family health emergency (which thankfully turned out to be a false alarm). Fortunately we had his slide presentation on our laptop and he emailed some notes from the train to be read out whilst showing the slides. This worked up to a point, but did not adequately convey David's enthusiasm for the future of the railway in public ownership. His view is that long term planning now becomes much easier without the fixed term franchise system, and the opportunity to incorporate expertise from staff throughout the organisation will improve the quality of rail provision in Scotland.
Our final guest speaker was Phil Sherratt, Editor of Modern Railways magazine. He gave a view from 'down south' of Scotland's Railway, which made us feel glad to be here, not there! There isn't even a rolling programme of electrification from the DfT, which is extraordinary considering the urgent need to remove diesel traction. Phil's enthusiasm for rail in general and Scottish rail in particular was infectious and a reminder of why Modern Railways is such a good read. Phil gave his trip excellent coverage in the editorial of the August issue of MR in which he mentioned that he was reprimanded by a couple of attendees for being too positive!
The conference ended as always with Frank Roach bringing us up to date on various issues affecting the line.
Some of us then headed straight up to Helmsdale (unfortunately by car as there was no suitable train) to enjoy the two-day event organised by Mike Willmot to mark the 150th+1 anniversary of the opening of the Duke of Sutherland's Railway in 1871. The pandemic had comprehensively wrecked all the original celebration plans which would have seen our 2021 AGM & Conference being held in Timespan in Helmsdale, followed by Mike's event in the same place, however we were committed to Dingwall, as originally planned for 2020.