We are in the middle of a very difficult time for railways. Between the financial strictures imposed on governments by the pandemic and the inflationary pressures caused partly by the rise in fuel prices as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the one hand, and the dismal extended period of industrial action on the other, it is difficult to look ahead with optimism.
At a time when all efforts should be on building up the railway network as quickly as possible in readiness for the essential modal shift to rail which is in government plans, a shortage of capital funding is the last thing that's needed. Scotland's exceptionally enlightened approach to rail development is in danger of being stymied by the country's lack of ability to borrow to cover the capital spending needed to achieve its climate-related targets.
And then at the same time the public's willingness to go along with transferring many of its journeys to rail is being severely tested with the railways being seen as unreliable, not only because of industrial action but, in the Highlands at least, because the unsatisfactory infrastructure often leads to unrecoverable delays as trains wait at the rare passing loops.
The urgency of electrification to meet decarbonisation targets must not be allowed to postpone the necessary addition of extra capacity. It would be ironic if by 2035 all passenger trains are electrically powered in some form but still have to sit around waiting for a train to pass in the opposite direction. The lack of passing loops is a severe problem, not only on the Far North Line, but on our neighbouring routes to Aberdeen and Perth. The additional freight envisaged in STPR2 will make this much worse. None of this is new and was well known in previous decades - right back to the Highland Railway in some cases. The new imperative to transfer traffic to rail makes solving the problem even more urgent.
Worryingly, railway development is often very, very slow. The good news that Inverness Airport Station is about to open is tempered by the knowledge that it has taken 25 years of struggle to achieve this rather obvious outcome.
The results of the Transport Focus survey mentioned in this issue are not in the least surprising. Most passengers put a premium on trains running to time and yet in the Highlands this is currently quite difficult to achieve. The few available passing loops are used to design the best timetables possible which is fine if everything runs on time. However, there's no redundancy, presumably because investment decisions are taken based on making a 'business case' - 'spare' passing loops will not achieve high scores. The same goes for rolling stock and to some extent staffing.
If we are to achieve modal shift of passengers we have to present a fully working railway, the operation of which doesn't fall apart when one train is delayed, or a member of staff is taken ill.
The other main cause of disruption is of course the weather. Network Rail is busy removing the huge number of trees which are too near the track but this won't help when the problem is snow, or even rain. In the past it was always the trains which managed to get through. Perhaps the choice of light multiple units on remote lines was not ideal - a heavy locomotive could tackle significant snowdrifts.
This year's AGM & Conference will take place on Friday 23 June in Helmsdale. The meeting will be held in Timespan. The AGM will begin at 10:30 and the public conference will follow at 11:15. This year's main speaker will be Chris Gibb who has just completed his tenure as Chief Executive of ScotRail Holdings, the arm's length body responsible to the Scottish Government for the running of Scotland's trains.
We are looking forward to our visit to Timespan which was the venue for last year's celebration of the opening of the Duke of Sutherland's Railway and is a wonderfully interesting place.