They are more obsessive than trainspotters, on the hunt for litter the size of a credit card and information posters just few degrees squint.
These are the undercover government rail inspectors, combing ScotRail’s network of trains and stations for the slightest fault in an effort to drive up standards.
The mystery shoppers regards themselves as passengers’ champions, at the sharp end of a system unique to Scotland for its toughness.
When you read about ScotRail being hit with fines stretching to hundreds of thousands of pounds, it is Transport Scotland’s Service Quality Incentive Regime (Squire) that is responsible.
The scale of the penalties may suggest the train operator is failing, but it is also because the bar has been deliberately set high. Not hitting targets – as high as 99 per cent for aspects such as ticket offices being open – incurs penalties, exceeding them earns bonuses. The fines are also earmarked for funding improvements.
To see the regime at first hand, I shadowed Squire inspector Kenny Gray on the Glasgow Central to Paisley Canal line last week. He is part of a team of seven checking all 353 ScotRail-run stations and 200 of its trains every four weeks.
There were 13 categories for our train to pass, from the ticket examiner not wearing a name badge to the wi-fi not working. The train turned out to be pretty clean, with far fewer than the maximum permissible ten credit-card size pieces of litter per carriage. Even the toilet couldn’t be faulted.
None of the posters were out of kilter – 5 degrees off being straight is classed as a fail – but one advert was damaged. Elsewhere, Kenny’s trained eye spotted a side rip in a seat which I would have missed.
Arriving at Paisley Canal, dog poo on the side of an access path was marked down, along with faded yellow markings for the visually impaired on the edge of steps, and uneven surfacing.
The latter looked like a long-standing defect, but I’m told it is the responsibility of Network Rail, which leases the station to ScotRail, and is not directly part of the Squire regime.
Network Rail told me it had its own, separate standards and inspected such aspects annually but had no immediate plans to resurface the stairs. That seems to be a gap in the system and a glaring contrast to faults which are the responsibility of ScotRail, such as that ripped seat, being photographed and reported to the train operator a day later – then re-checked after a few days to ensure they have been fixed. Some are even rectified the same day.
It’s not just the staff who inspectors encounter that are checked – Gray tests the station help-point by pressing the buzzer to see if he gets a response within the required 30 seconds. A voice answers in just two.
Persistent failures trigger action plans from Transport Scotland, with ScotRail currently working on ones to reduce litter and improve CCTV systems.
Alan Wardlaw, who runs the Squire scheme, said it had spurred improvements to train and station staffing, while station help-points had become more reliable and user-friendly. He said the standard of waiting shelters and information screens had also got better.
Passengers frustrated by late, overcrowded or cancelled trains – which are governed by separate standards – may take some comfort that ScotRail is also being kept on its toes in myriad other ways by his undercover assessors.