Not taking the strain
After last week's horrific rail tragedy in London, disgruntled passengers will think twice before they describe their train experiences as a 'nightmare journey' or 'hell on wheels' - but if the Highland Line was busier and there had been signal problems, the consequences of an accident to one of its often overcrowded trains could have been similarly disastrous.
The Standard - more reminiscent of Third than Second - Class accommodation was packed with an increasingly seething mass of humanity when my fellow passengers and I set out on out journey on last Saturday's 10.35 am service from Inverness to Edinburgh.
Practically every unreserved seat was taken and the limited luggage space capable of taking anything larger than a briefcase or a shoulder bag was full to overflowing. The restricted overhead racks were almost empty and because the majority of the seats were arranged in airline configurations, bags could not be slid between back-to-back seats.
Ideal for commuter journeys, the Sprinter is totally inadequate for busy InterCity routes, especially at holiday periods and Saturday saw the start of the schools' mid-term break. Despite the old InterCity slogan, this train couldn't take the strain.
The train was 10 minutes late leaving Aviemore and it transpired that a wheelchair passenger had boarded but couldn't be accommodated in the reserved space because angry fellow travellers refused to move their baggage because there was nowhere else to put it.
Because of obstructions, the catering staff couldn't get their trolley into the front half of the train and passengers seeking refreshments had to scramble over unstable piles of suitcases and rucksacks. "The man who decided to use Sprinters for InterCity travel should be shot," one declared. "No," the remarkably even-tempered attendant replied. "He should be made to ride on this service!"
If it's possible for a train to bulge at the seams, this one was popping its rivets when it pulled into Perth and thankful travellers who had reached their destination, or were changing to the Glasgow service, spilled out onto the platform - to be replaced by Perth passengers, of course.
Nowadays, most passengers pre-book and ScotRail must therefore be aware of how busy a service is likely to be before it departs - yet additional accommodation was not provided on the standard four carriage train. In this instance, if ScotRail was not putting profit before its passengers' comfort and safety, it was certainly guilty of not giving these matters due attention.
If there had been an emergency, I shudder to think of the consequences which the ensuing panic and blocked aisles and exits would have had, especially in the event of a fire.
The odds of an accident may be much less than in the Greater London area, but if he wants people to leave their cars at home, Transport Secretary John Prescott should order his rail regulator to investigate passenger and luggage management on all train services, not just because leaves, the wrong kind of snow, mechanical failure or human error could have enormous consequences - but because train journeys are not an ordeal to be endured. Fare paying passengers deserve to be treated like human beings.
Flying's no joy - but it seems to me that the rail companies could do more than adopt seating configurations from the airlines.
Rosemary Long's investigation of public transport in the north was accurate and enjoyable. But she seems to have arrived at the Inverness Travel Centre on a good day. Can I suggest in future she does as I do? I buy my tickets south from the Dingwall station ticket office. I always find an efficient and friendly service and timetables on open display!