FoFNL was delighted to welcome Phil Sherratt, editor, Modern Railways, to speak at our AGM & Conference in June. He very kindly covered his experience in the editorial of the August edition.
So it was for me as I headed to the Friends of the Far North Line's annual conference in Dingwall in mid-June, where I was one of the speakers. Fresh from hearing Transport Secretary Grant Shapps deliver a speech at Hornsey depot urging RMT union members not to take strike action, I hopped down to King's Cross to join LNER's Highland Chieftain Azuma for the full trip to Inverness.
There is always something special about these epic journeys - the Chieftain weighs in at 581 miles and around eight hours and is the longest through day train from London. It is always a popular train, and the volume of people with heavy luggage queueing up to board on platform 8 at King's Cross was testament to that.
This is a journey which simply gets better as you head north - the majestic sight of the cathedral and castle at Durham, the Angel of the North, crossing the Tyne into Newcastle and then the run along the coast through Northumberland and into Scotland.
A good number of people alighted at Edinburgh, where there was a significant churn of passengers, highlighting that the Chieftain is well-used as part of the regular service pattern on both sides of the Scottish capital. But a very significant number of people were making cross-Edinburgh journeys. One Twitter correspondent suggested the current penchant for cutting back one-off workings (such as GWR's Great Malvern to Brighton service or SWR's services to Bristol) might extend to the Chieftain. To me this would seem undesirable from a commercial perspective but also politically unacceptable; hotels in Inverness are reportedly accustomed to guests checking out in time for the 07:55 departure of the King's Cross service.
The journey north from Edinburgh to Inverness isn't the fastest, but it does allow ample time to appreciate the splendid scenery of the Highland Main Line while enjoying the excellent hospitality provided by the LNER crew.
A prominent topic at the conference the next day was the Scottish Government's commitment to dual the A9 road while the adjacent railway still languishes with long sections of single track. For the Scottish Government, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy Kate Forbes, who is the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, told the conference she supports the A9 project as much for improving safety as improving reliability, and said the Scottish Government would like to do both, although the current financial circumstances are clearly challenging.
It is somewhat unfortunate that ScotRail's dispute with ASLEF which caused cuts to the timetable meant there was no suitable train from Inverness for me on the morning of the conference. So I joined other attendees boarding the 10:00 bus to Dingwall - although the disappointment was eased by the enjoyment of the spectacular crossing of the Beauly Firth over Kessock bridge. Of course, industrial relations difficulties are not an issue exclusive to Scotland right now.
FoFNL is a very active and supportive user group, and it was fascinating to hear both about the group's ambitions and about Network Rail's plans for the line. The group is assisted greatly by the support of the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), whose Partnership Officer Frank Roach is a fantastic advocate for public transport improvements in the region, with many imaginative and ambitious schemes on the go - much more on that in our Scottish issue later this year.
In my presentation covering my own perspective on Scotland's railway, I highlighted the fact there seems to be a far more focused vision than south of the border, although a couple of attendees did reprimand me for being too positive! But as I retraced my steps on the busy Chieftain the next day, I reflected on the shared ambition and collective will for improvement - there is a lot of work to do, but there is cause for optimism too.