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25 Years of the Friends of the Far North Line: Glasgow meeting of 28 January 2020

Ian Buddd

Ian Budd.

© John Yellowlees 2020

Ian Budd told us about his unexpected route to rail campaigning which has left him still finding his way around the railway community.

A 1960s childhood in NW London had included a visit to Haddenham Signalbox where he was allowed to pull a lever and the exhilaration of living alongside the Great Central/Great Western Joint Line, water from whose troughs went everywhere.

Graduating to the Ian Allan series of guides, he lost the will to spot as there were just so many engines to collect, and took up playing the viola in secondary school, though on acquiring an All Line Timetable he dreamed of a day when there might be direct trains between Marylebone and Birmingham - which of course has come to pass!

After playing with a violinist who had been at school with Elton John, he got into music college where he met his wife and lived near Clapham Jn, which lived up to its reputation as a trainspotters' mecca - though going one day to a rehearsal in Guildford, he boarded by mistake a nonstop train to Southampton!

A stint with the BBC Welsh Orchestra in 1975 took him to Barry Island, where hundreds of steam locomotives bought for scrap awaited instead rescue by enthusiasts and there was still industrial steam in the Valleys. Then the following year a family holiday at Tain brought about his first encounter with the Far North Line, including a trespass that he afterwards regretted on the Oykell Viaduct.

He was delighted to join the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow because it has become the only one that favours rail travel over moving its members around by coach. This was the era of ill-heated Mk1 coaches where passengers were asked to close the doors in order to keep the station warm, and he became a member of both the Scottish Railway Preservation Society and the Strathspey Railway. Eventually he made his first journey the length of the Far North Line, and years later on admiring the railway pictures on the wall of an Inverness guesthouse was asked by the landlord if he would like to join the Friends.

In the 1990s Ian learned how to make websites, and on noticing that FoFNL were lacking one offered to put that right. Then convenor Richard Ardern went to all his concerts, and asked if he would be prepared to fill the vacant post of Newsletter Editor so he found himself on the committee, and when in 2017 Mike Lunan stood down from his second stint as convenor, Ian found that there was no-one else available to stand in succession.

Ian found that the Friends enjoy great relations with Transport Scotland who rate them as a critical friend, and with both ScotRail and Network Rail whose senior managers are willing to engage in a candid exchange of views which shows how much people in both organisations really care about delivering the best possible service despite the constant criticism in the media.

Production of a booklet to commemorate the 25th anniversary has provided an opportunity to take stock of the Friends' development and the history of its various endeavours. Individual members of the committee had brought diverse skills ranging from Iain MacDonald's fifty years as a signalman through Richard Ardern's perspectives as a geographer and librarian to Mike Lunan's as an actuary and former Rail Passenger Committee for Scotland convener, David Spaven's as an author and campaigner and Malcolm Wood's focus on timekeeping. Bob Barnes-Watts had pressed opportunities for integration until his early demise, and he was sadly missed. London-based but Caithness-reared Gavin Sinclair brought train-planning expertise to a Line that planners sometimes see as a testbed for their theories.

In the aftermath of the Dornoch debacle when Scottish ministers' exclusion of rail from the new road crossing had called the Line's entire future into question, Frank Roach had urged creation of a support group which resulted in a meeting in Frank's Rogart Station home. The inaugural AGM in 1994 was followed in the next year by its first conference, under the presidency of Caithness and Sutherland MP Robert Maclennan.

A crossing of the Dornoch Firth would have saved half an hour, and the budget was only £4M short, but there was local opposition and the tide had turned against rail's inclusion : today despite internal schism which at one time threatened their existence, the Friends' stance is to regret that the Dornoch crossing was not built but to recognise that the Line will continue without it. However the railway passed its greatest test in 1989 when a surge of water washed away the viaduct across the River Ness and Scottish Region GM John Ellis who happened to be in Inverness made the series of phonecalls that enabled him to announce the following day the British Railways Board's commitment to building a replacement.

There then commenced years of steady progress, beginning with a Dingwall commuter service announced at the Friends 1997 AGM. In 2001 Sunday trains went all-year, and in 2002 Beauly opened as Britain's smallest station with a derogation for open-door working, getting its own local service with 2005's introduction of Invernet, a train shuttling to and fro throughout the day. In 2006 there would be a fourth southbound train matched two years later by such an improvement northbound, and in 2007 there commenced a refurbishment of the Class 158 fleet which had replaced 156s in 2000, with better seat spacing and more space for luggage and bicycles. 2013 saw the reopening of Conon Bridge, again with a short platform.

A reminder that not everything can be onwards and upwards came with the Friends hope from that time that new trains would in due course be forthcoming, which in 2020 still is nowhere in sight. Much worse had been the blow in 2005, when the slowed line-speeds into loops as a result of Train Protection and Warning System installation resulted in deceleration of schedules that more than wiped any benefit from the 90mph capability of the 158s.

The Friends have also been able to pursue smaller matters, such as an inadvertent threat in 2018 to connections at Inverness which they were able to get largely reversed. The public and the personal came together in 2017 for Ian when he became reacquainted with a childhood friend Tony Glazebrook who unlike him had made railways his career and music-making his hobby and was able to commission Tony's Aliona consultancy to undertake on an expenses-only basis a review of Far North performance.

By interviewing key players on the front line, Tony was able to reveal that while all of the Friends' original expectations had been fulfilled, a state of paralysis now existed with all sides frustrated at the interlocking difficulties of getting to the next level. Looking at all aspects ranging from vegetation management and level-crossing operation through operation of the radio signalling to fleet issues such as sanding of the track, Tony came up with an agenda of issues that rapidly led cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing to commission a Line Review which has accepted the case for a timetable recast and seen the much-canvassed merits of restoring a passing loop at Lentran between Inverness and Beauly.

Now the Line Review has completed its report, and a similar approach has been adopted in the West Highlands. Inspired by its call to question internal processes such as STAG appraisals, the Friends are looking forward to implementation of the timetable recommendations, which foresee a three-tier service : hourly locals to Tain, twice-daily limited-stop end-to-end trains and also local trains at the northern end of the line in recognition that there is significant travel between the Sutherland villages and Caithness. The call from HITRANS for a Sleeper or HST overnight service between Thurso and the Central Belt proved in the eyes of Transport Scotland to be both unaffordable and operationally risky and the Class 153 cycle-carriers are all spoken for in the West Highlands, but discussion continues about a battery-train demonstration between Thurso and Wick. there are hopes for timber bound for the woodchip plant at Dalcross and for the return of supermarket traffic not seen since the demise of Safeway which would make up for the recent loss of oil traffic.

Looking further ahead, the Friends would like to see a Georgemas Chord for direct running to Thurso and an extension over the short distance to the Port of Scrabster. Beyond their patch, they hope for a rethink on the A9 and A96 corridors where it cannot be right in this era of a Climate Emergency that newly-dualled roads should continue to be paralleled by single-track railways. And they will go on seeking greater understanding of the industry's structure since it is not acceptable for a lazy press to continue getting wrong for example the respective responsibilities of Network Rail and train operators. Being less celebrated than the West Highland and Kyle Lines, the Far North has greater unexplored tourist potential, with an ever-changing landscape and views of Firths, sea-shores and the Flow Country which are particularly worthy of this Year of Coasts and Water, and it may be that the success of North Coast 500 should point the way towards a public transport equivalent since rail goes to places that the private car cannot reach.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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