Our 2023 AGM & Conference was held in Timespan in Helmsdale on 23 June. As always this was a great opportunity to meet members and catch up.
The AGM covered the usual business matters but also marked the end of Mike Lunan's 18 years as a committee member, many as Convener. Mike's contribution has been very significant and we wanted to show our appreciation by making a presentation. A book seemed most appropriate - but not a railway book - we thought he would have lots of those already. Knowing Mike's extensive interest in music, and especially his enjoyment of Wagner operas, we found a book about the great composer and his rather controversial politics. This should take Mike's mind off worrying about the FNL, at least for a while!
The conference opened with an encouraging welcome from our President, Jamie Stone MP. He reminded us what a beautiful route the Far North Line is and how important it is that we continue speaking up for it and keeping it in the forefront of people's minds.
Our conference is always an opportunity to hear about the many aspects of the railway. We were again fortunate to have excellent speakers, and for those who missed the conference their slides are on our website where they will remain for a few months.
Our opening speaker was Chris Gibb, who was the first CEO of the newly-formed Scottish Rail Holdings. He had left this role by the time of the conference, having been frustrated by ministerial over-reach - his talk was not about this though, instead he guided us through his remarkable career on the railways. It was a pleasure at the lunch break to hear him chatting with FoFNL Committee member Iain MacDonald about their shared experiences as signalmen!
Our next speaker was James McCaffery of Stadler, the Swiss train manufacturing company which is now at the forefront of rolling stock development. FoFNL has expressed admiration for the Stadler Class 755 trains on Greater Anglia as being an example of the kind of train we would like to see on the Far North Line. James' presentation showed us the flexibility of Stadler's train designs where, in order to respond to the differing needs when replacing diesel traction, combinations of battery, hydrogen and OLE are designed in to the basic layout of the trains. This also means that the stock can be modified as needs change.
Martin Bignell, our final speaker, is the Scottish and Northern Representative of the Rail Freight Group. Martin gave us an insight into future trends in freight and provoked some interesting discussion. The Far North Line could benefit from more flexible freight possibilities than the long container trains which are so common in the densely-populated parts of the country. Mixed passenger and freight was mentioned - this being something which was familiar on the line in the past.
The conference usually ends with an update on the work of HITRANS. However this year saw the absence of Frank Roach (FoFNL's founder) who had been called south to attend Modern Railways magazine Innovation Awards where his Request-to-Stop project was a candidate.
Frank asked me to read out his report from these bullet points:
The final item we covered was the announcement of the designation of a new Community Rail Partnership for the Caithness and Sutherland part of the Far North Line, which was made at Holyrood on 24 May.
Mike Willmot, the FoFNL member responsible for the restoration of Helmsdale Station, is the FNLCRP secretary. He spoke briefly, outlining the aims of the new organisation, and Ian Budd followed by welcoming the formation of the group and explaining the difference between FoFNL and the FNLCRP. The two groups will liaise about common issues but the CRP emphasis is on promoting the use of the line and its many attractions, whereas FoFNL's emphasis is on independent campaigning to government and the operators for better services and facilities.
It was most enjoyable to hold the event in Helmsdale but unfortunately not as many as we'd hoped ventured so far north (or south!). Our timings could not fit well with the railway timetable, so quite a few attendees had to leave before the end of the conference. We will try and choose future venues with this in mind.
When settling down to write this report the first thing I did was to read through the Convener's Report given at last year's AGM. This was a somewhat depressing experience and reflects the glacial progress of most, if not all, railway projects.
The extra ingredient facing us now is the financial fallout from Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine. This means that every suggestion and enquiry is met with the same response - money.
In transport matters the Scottish Government is in turmoil because of the passionate demands being made, even by members of the governing party, to dual the remaining sections of the A9 between Perth and Inverness immediately.
If some of the politicians and the media are to be believed it is now probably too dangerous to venture onto the single-carriageway sections of the A9, or presumably any other single-carriageway road. Thus eye-watering sums are potentially being spent on the A9 and the A96 whilst the Highland railways generally languish with less infrastructure than they had in the 19th Century. Back then the railway companies were well aware of the need to invest in more double track, but as privately-owned entities they simply couldn't raise the money to do the necessary work and had to make do with passing loops - many of which have since been removed. Now, in enlightened times, when it is understood that railways are a community service, not a profit-making business venture, the fight for funding has moved to having to persuade politicians to allocate funds sensibly.
Much money does need to be spent on roads, such as the A9, where there is dangerous traffic conflict at junctions. Grade-separation, and/or left-in-left-out arrangements, would remove many of the current danger points. This would of course be far cheaper than full dualling.
To meet its decarbonisation commitment the government will need to pay for the electrification of around 120 single-track kms per year for the next 12 years, it's hard to see how this can be afforded unless the Scottish Government follows its Welsh counterparts and completely changes the rules applied to roads spending.
I reported last year that the Delmore Loop was likely to proceed soon. A year later and nothing has really changed - the latest news is that Transport Scotland is waiting for Network Rail to finalise the design, and propose costings for the work. This is expected to be completed during the summer. It is rather worrying that the cost of building the loop now seems to be counted as part of the proposed enhancement to the service pattern laid out in the FNL Review Team Report. Transport Scotland will then decide whether the project is affordable. If the whole package is seen as too expensive the loop may be sacrificed. The intention is there, but...money.
At least in the last few months there have been major upgrades to the RETB system which will allow for the installation of the loop as well as strengthening the radio performance.
On the other subjects mentioned there has been little or no change at all:
The Inter7City service is no longer diagrammed to be HST only, since the units are too expensive to run and prone to faults. This still has a knock-on effect on the upkeep of the ageing Class 158s that the Far North Line relies upon.
The timber loading facility at Altnabreac is no further forward since there are no suitable wagons available.
There has been one notable achievement, which is good news for Far North Line passengers wishing to fly from Inverness Airport. The new station near the airport opened in February and of particular importance to the railway, the necessary track and signalling was put in place as part of the works to allow West Fraser to install a siding which would be used for timber entering the factory and product leaving it. This would give an added incentive for timber wagons to be found.
We are pressing for an extra Sunday service on the Far North Line. Currently there is just one train each way to and from Thurso and Wick, and because it is the same train it does a return journey leaving Wick around Midday and Inverness around 6 p.m. There would obviously be a cost implication, but if enough extra travel resulted that could be minimised.
As well as concentrating on the bigger issues we perhaps need to do more to help the day-to-day experiences of passengers. There's room for substantial improvement of things such as reliable and accurate local information being available at every station. We flagged up many problems in our 2022 Station Survey and over a year later most of these are still outstanding.
We are working with the Scottish Association for Public Transport on a joint submission to Transport Scotland's Head of New Fleet Procurement & Delivery in which we'll give our passenger-orientated view of the quality of train needed on the rural/scenic routes in Scotland.
FoFNL is also currently working with Network Rail, ScotRail and the marketing faculty of Strathclyde University to arrange for a post-grad student to gather information from people who live within reach of the Far North Line, but don't currently use it, to ascertain their reasons and establish the kind of changes needed. FoFNL is contributing a significant sum to the cost of this and ScotRail is offering a travel pass to the student for their fact-finding travels on the FNL. There may well also be money available from other funding bodies.
As always, the year has been busy with attending conferences, meeting with ScotRail, Network Rail and Transport Scotland people and attending meetings with other organisations. We have also been responding to requests for comment in the press and writing letters to newspapers and magazines.
I hope that next year's Convener's Report will contain more positive news, and a shorter waiting list of things still to be done.