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Caithness News Bulletins November 2004

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At its AGM in Beauly recently, members of the rail users' group, Friends of the Far North Line, heard a call for a "sea change" to be made in railway investments on the Highland lines.

Chairman, Richard Ardern, reviewed the past year in which his committee had published a comprehensive policy document detailing ways to improve the passenger and freight services on the Far North and its feeder lines through Inverness. These would include the reintroduction of a fourth daytime train between Wick and Inverness in both directions providing connections through Thurso to the retimed Orkney ferry, and the construction of the Georgemas Curve to save the five minutes "wasted" while the train reverses at Georgemas Junction.

He said that fitting this train, or any extra trains, in to the system of single track lines north of Perth and east of Aberdeen was a logistical nightmare because their capacity was nearing the maximum due to the current buoyancy of passenger and freight demand. It had proved impossible for example to find paths on the Inverness to Aberdeen line for football specials while Inverness Caledonian Thistle are playing their "home" games in Aberdeen.

That line had been cut back to the minimum required to operate the services of the Sixties and the radio signalling on the Far North Line had been planned to cope with the traffic of the Eighties. Little provision had been made for the upturn in traffic which has since happened such that future growth is now being seriously constrained at a time when the railway is playing an increasingly bigger role in ameliorating environmental problems such as those caused by road congestion in Inverness.

He called for a rolling programme to construct extra passing loops and strategic stretches of double track to allow an expansion of the numbers of passenger and freight trains that the three lines in to Inverness can cope with. He also called for a longer term vision in the way the benefits brought by such schemes are assessed. The present accounting systems of discounted cash flow, cost benefit and STAG appraisals require huge benefits to accrue in too short a timescale. The present study to expand transport infrastructure between Inverness and Nairn to meet the huge developments proposed for that corridor in the local plan would likely be stillborn unless it is realised that the infrastructure has to go in first.

Apart from redoubling the Perth line over Druimuachdar and reinstating some loops to cope with the increased North Sea oil related traffic in the Seventies, the Highland lines have had no track and few signalling capacity improvements. The present Scottish Executive has begun to greatly increase investment in public transport provision and this is much to be welcomed. It is a fact, rather than sour grapes, to say that this is happening on a much greater scale in central Scotland and Mr Ardern made a call for A Highland Counties Rail Track Scheme to be established to advance substantial track and signalling enhancements on Highland railway lines. The former Crofter Counties Roads Programme had done so much to improve the economy of the Highlands and Islands by doubling strategic roads and it was now time to do something to reduce the stranglehold the legacy of single track lines was having on the railways' potential role in environmentally friendly passenger and freight transport.

The Chairman stated that the group was looking forward to seeing the outcome of a study carried out to ascertain the feasibility of the Dornoch link between Tain and Golspie. It is hoped that this will provide facts on the line of route to be followed and the likely cost to be involved. This would then allow the Friends of the Far North Line to ascertain if it was a credible scheme likely to gain active funding support from the Executive to take the proposal for a direct line across the Dornoch Firth further.

The meeting was then addressed by Ron MacAulay, Route Director, Scotland for Network Rail. He outlined the changes that had taken place since the inception of Network Rail 2 years ago and what their plans were for maintenance and renewals of track and other infrastructure in Scotland. He acknowledged the problems being experienced by those responsible for the operation of the Far North Line and explained that specification of any major track enhancements in the North should soon be the remit of the Scottish Executive rather than being decided in London.

The meeting concluded with Frank Roach giving a summary of his work as Highland Rail Development Officer over the past 12 months and outlining some initiatives which were being worked on for the future such as cycle storage at stations. His “Invernet” initiative to serve Kingussie and Tain has sadly been delayed by the Franchise changeover and is now likely to start in December 2005.

Cairdean Na Loine Tuath

President: John Thurso MP
Vice President: vacant
Chairman: Richard Ardern; Treasurer: Ron Stevenson; Secretary: Vacant.
Address for correspondence: FoFNL, 26a Southside Road, Inverness IV2 3BG

The campaign group for rail north of Inverness, lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight customers.

Policy Aims for Future Rail Services.

The policy aims which follow are all achievable within a reasonably short time scale, but come at a cost. This may be a capital or a running cost, or both. How acceptable such costs will be to Government and to taxpayers will depend on various factors, not least the ability of the Government and the railway industry to get costs back under control and to show that railway services do give value for money.

On the other hand, we can argue that on Highland lines, some of these costs have been reduced to such a level that the dependability of services, and hence passenger confidence, have been compromised. That is not the way to run the railway or indeed any service to the public.

It is important not to look at railway services too narrowly in terms of their costs. It is important to consider also the benefits railway services provide to the local economy in both economic and social terms. The recent Steer, Davies, Gleave report on the value of rail to the Highlands has elucidated some of these issues.

The policy document below is not an uncosted immediate wish list. It merely states our position on many of the improvements which could be made to the Far North Line and connecting train services through Inverness if there is the will to do so.

We are highly encouraged that the Scottish Executive have provided funding for the Invernet scheme. We hope that their expected new powers over track and signalling infrastructure will enable delivery of improvements such as the Georgemas curve and the Orton loop to enable speedier and more frequent services on the lines concerned. We would urge them now to turn their attention to more suitable trains to provide greater passenger comfort and much more space for luggage (including back packs) and cycles. To this end, we would like to see a really good new design of rural train for the Far North Line (among others) and a new HST 125 comfort equivalent train for the inter city routes from Inverness to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Rail travel is finding an increasing market. It has a bright future, particularly if the right investment decisions are made and all players focus on providing the passenger with an enjoyable travel environment and experience.

We would like to see that the railway service providers (Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail and the franchise holders) achieve the following in respect of:

1. Passenger Services.
i. Maintain the three weekday Caithness/Inverness daily return journeys together with the existing Sunday services.
ii. Introduce an additional late Friday evening service from Inverness to Caithness.
iii. Implement the rail/ferry connections through Thurso to and from Orkney to reflect the increased pattern of ferry services.
iv. Secure the introduction, in conjunction with iii) above, of a dedicated connecting bus service between Thurso station and Scrabster harbour.
v. Maintain the commuter service from Tain to Inverness.
vi. Implement the Invernet proposals between Inverness and Tain at the outset of the franchise.
vii. Secure the introduction of connecting bus services from the seaboard villages to Fearn station, likewise the Dornoch to Tain bus service to reflect the increased rail service frequency under Invernet.
viii. Restore a fourth return service between Wick and Inverness at an optimum travel time for the leisure market with good connections to and from the Edinburgh/Glasgow trains.
ix. Enhance the connections at Inverness with the introduction of an hourly service through Moray to Aberdeen.
x. Enhance services south of Inverness by the introduction of sub 3-hour express services to Edinburgh and Glasgow with an hourly frequency.
xi. Continue and improve catering services on all Inverness/Wick services.
xii. Continue to provide the sleeper service between Inverness and London and reinstate the Saturday night service.

2. Passenger Rolling Stock
Our clear overall preference would be for a new build of rolling stock suitable for and appropriate to long distance rural scenic routes throughout the UK. The Far North Line therefore requires new trains with the following characteristics, in that they will have:
i. Sufficient power, good gearing, and adhesion appropriate for use on steep gradients and tight curves.
ii. Enough weight to be effective in all adverse weather conditions.
iii. Appropriate tourist viewing and luggage facilities on all routes radiating from Inverness.
iv. The capability of being maintained in Inverness.
v. Comfortable seating sympathetically designed, adequately spaced with sufficient leg-room and with proper seat/window alignment for panoramic viewing both forward and rearward.
vi. Draught free passenger cabins.
vii. Sets with at least three carriages.
viii. Storage space for 6 bicycles per train set.
ix. Access to and egress from the sets for wheelchairs, and likewise catering trolleys.
x. Sufficient luggage space to accommodate rucksacks and other bulky items of baggage.
xi. Provision of at least two efficient and reliable lavatories per train of a design that makes them easily cleaned and maintained. In particular, attention should be paid to regular emptying.
xii. Devised and enforced for them a proper and efficient system for maintaining and cleaning the units.
xiii. Provided for them efficient, reliable and compatible radio signal transmitting/receiving equipment.

3. Stations
i. Open a new station at Conon/Maryburgh.
ii. Re-open the station at Evanton.
iii. Re-open the station at Halkirk in conjunction with the construction of the Georgemas curve.
iv. Maintain or enhance the staffing levels at Thurso, Wick and Dingwall, and consider staffing Tain for Invernet services.
v. Expand the car-parking facilities at Dingwall, Invergordon, Fearn and Tain stations.
vi. Provide cycle lockers and Sheffield racks at Invernet stations.
vii. Provide waiting facilities, which are wind and watertight, well lit and where possible, heated.
viii. Ensure that adequate lavatory facilities are available for passengers using all services.
ix. Provide telephone contact with a controller in Inverness (not Dunfermline) for use at times of late running.
x. Provide disabled access at stations.
xi. Encourage local residents and other interested parties in supporting the upkeep of local stations.

4. Infrastructure Improvements.
i. Construct a curve at Georgemas taking trains between Thurso and the south to avoid trains having to reverse.
ii. Continue to improve and upgrade level crossings.
iii. Provide robust signalling (with provision for traffic growth) throughout the route.
iv. Maintain and improve the track for both present and foreseeable passenger and freight services to the Trans European Network standards (TENS)
v. Investigate in conjunction with the Scottish Executive and local authorities the socio-economic benefits and cost effectiveness of constructing a Dornoch Link.

5. Fares and Marketing.
i. The fare structure must give due weighting to the average per capita income within the catchment area of the far north line.
ii. Maintain the Highland Railcard’s fifty percent concession for local residents.
iii. Introduce, in conjunction with Invernet, day return fares from Tain south through to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen.
iv. Target marketing in advance of the introduction of a new service or facility e.g. Invernet.
v. Focus marketing at communities and users along the line, and FOFNL would be willing to assist with this as we have done in the past.
vi. Agree with Highland Council a system for charging senior citizen rail fares such that there is parity between rail and bus fare charging.

6. Freight policy.
a) Infrastructure.
i. Retain all relevant land against future rail freight needs /expansion.
ii. Undertake objective engineering audits of potentially reusable structures and disused sidings to identify the lowest practical costs of repair based on local knowledge, contractors and potential future users.
iii. Encourage the planning authority to promote rail transport use of railway lands in the Local Plans.
iv. Encourage the establishment of a freight hub in the Invergordon area; support the use of Georgemas, Thurso, Lairg and Highland Deephaven as freight handling centres.
v. Ensure that timetables and capacity are developed such that there is efficient running of both passenger and freight services.

b). Services to be provided.
i. Maintain the existing flows of freight such as perishables, building materials, timber, white goods, and fuel oils and develop where possible.
ii. Extend the scope of freight traffic by the introduction of parcel traffic carried on passenger services, the movement of whisky, scrap steel, household rubbish, agricultural supplies, liquid natural gas and container transhipment.
iii. Consider developing the concept of Freight Multiple Units (FMU) to facilitate the delivery and collection of palletised goods to rural platforms, especially if the MFU is equipped with loading/unloading equipment.

7. Postscript.
We firmly believe that the Far North Line has a future and is deserving of investment. The Highlands and Islands Enterprise network and the Highland Council have, under the Scottish Executive, responsibilities for the social, economic and environmental health of the far north communities and in this the line plays its part. In strategic terms it is important to have rail access to this area for the full range of businesses in Caithness and the proposed container hub based on Scapa Flow and for any future national strategic needs.

Policy approved 11 May 2004.