Have you heard of Transport Focus and where would you expect to find it? No? At the Motorway Services perhaps?
Same question. Passenger Focus? At the airport perhaps?
The Rail Passengers Committee for Scotland? No? Perhaps that is because it was dissolved eleven years ago, but at least you would know who it was meant to represent.
This it did by holding at least three public meetings per year at different venues all round Scotland and holding the rail industry to account over its treatment of passengers. It did it very well too but, sadly, its last meeting was in Dingwall in May 2005.
We haven't had a meeting like that since, until the HITRANS-organised Points North conference also in Dingwall in March 2015. A whole ten years without effective public scrutiny of rail services at our local Highland level.
The RPCS with its Convener, four office staff and 15 representative members from throughout Scotland did some very good work such as station surveys of Dundee and Kirkcaldy and its excellent 2001/2 publication An alternative strategy for Scottish Inter-City Rail Services with its suggestions for express and stopping trains on the Highland Main Line.
Sadly the Scottish Government has not stepped in and created even a streamlined replacement body. Consumer protection and representation are seen as a low priority by both governments, and more and more money-saving mergers are being made. In the case of rail, Passenger Focus was established with offices in London and Manchester only and with one board member and a manager for Scotland. Since then it has been asked to take on buses and highways in England and consequently changed its name to Transport Focus (TF). Its Scottish manager is now required to work in England and Wales for part of the week. His is a virtually impossible task.
When the RPC structure was dismantled by Alastair Darling, The Times editorial on 12 February 2005 said "Customer Disservice: scrapping rail watchdogs is an insult to passengers. It will deprive passengers of a level of regional representation they have enjoyed since 1947 and its cost to democracy, broadly defined, is little short of scandalous. Network Rail intends spending £22 billion before 2009. The RPC 'reform' will save at most £3 million. It is a false economy".
The Scotsman heading on 14 April was "London group replaces Scots' rail watchdog" This, "at the same time as control of the rail network is being transferred north of the Border". In February 2006 the Editor of Railstaff newspaper was saying "the winding up of the regional RPCs is a major scandal. Railway companies want to know their market. The RPCs were valuable indeed".
Where are we now, some ten years on? We have a national body being periodically asked to extend its reach into other diverse areas of the boiling cauldron known as "Transport" and to do it without commensurate funding increases. It would be an ideal subject for a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
Some things it does, "it does [them] very well".
TF continues with the twice-yearly Rail Passenger Survey of passengers' views. You may have had a form for this handed to you at the ticket barrier or on a train. The survey is a snapshot of one journey on one day, but nonetheless statistically valid (though see panel below) and the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) use it as a benchmark for progress.
TF holds a Board Meeting in Scotland once every two years and publishes much of its research on its website. You can keep up to date through its monthly bulletins and via the Chief Executive's blog. It regularly comments on passengers' attitudes to fares and TOCs' success in coping with disruption. Compensation and repayment schemes is another live issue, but I don't think TF is consulted so much on new train design these days. That is disappointing. We passengers have to sit in these trains for the next forty years!
Perhaps the issue which is potentially of most importance to all passengers is TF's role in resolving complaints between passengers and TOCs. Even though we find TF a bit remote, we wouldn't wish to be without that!
Anthony Smith, the Chief Executive, is speaking at our annual conference in Tain on 17 June. It will be a good opportunity for us to learn more about TF and its work and relevance to us, and for him to get to know us and gain an up-to-date picture of our line and its prospects and problems. The question of whether we should again have a more devolved representative body will no doubt be asked!
Two journeys on consecutive days
I remember sitting next to a couple from the West Midlands on the Kyle train on the day that Conon Bridge station was opened. They were full of praise for the spruced up train and gave the railway a glowing report on the Rail Passenger Survey form which they had just been given. I met them the next day on the Wick train en route for two nights in Caithness. They were really angry. It was an unrefurbished Haymarket unit and the dust and dirt on the seats was so bad, the lady was loathe to sit down and would certainly not rest her head on the headrest. She said that she wished she had that form back again so that she could say what she thought of this railway journey.