• Sheila’s Transport Story

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    • Sheila’s Transport Story
    • by Sheila Fletcher
      Network Development Officer

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    I often think of myself as a bit of an oddball because I have always been fascinated and excited by public transport. To me, the journey is as important as the destination or purpose of the trip and I have never understood why funders regard transport a means to an end and not an end in itself.

    I was brought up on my parents’ farm in West Lothian. My first transport memory is of being taken on a green bus with a conductor by one of my mother’s students to buy a flask of ice cream. We took a large-mouthed flask with a huge cork stopper bunged in with greaseproof paper to avoid leakages. I was four, and from that day I pestered my parents to take me on trains, ferries or buses whenever the opportunity arose. To this day, my family know that when we go on holiday I will already have mugged up on all the exciting transport opportunities.

    As a child I used the bus to be independent. I travelled to and from school, attended Brownies and Guides and, as a teenager, travelled into Edinburgh by train to shop, to Falkrik to go swimming with my friends and even to get to our Duke of Edinburgh Award overnight trek.

    I have had a variety of jobs over the y ears, but in 1996, when working for the then Highland Regional Council, the two tiers of local government in Scotland were amalgamated. All staff were interviewed for posts in the new Highland Council. A post in the public transport unit was on offer and I virtually begged for the job. I was asked to assure them that I was never travel sick! Who, me?

    The work involved timetables and maps and I was in my element. To my great excitement I was also expected to travel on buses and report back on usage and time-keeping. I would be sent on circuitous routes, often involving various modes- rail, bus, postbus and sometimes ferry. I had lots of adventures when things didn’t go quite as planned, staying in remote locations to catch buses at the crack of dawn or spending the whole day backwards and forwards on one route. Once, the bus driver was taking snuff and I found it a bit disconcerting to see him put a pinch on the back of his hand, snort it up his nose and sneeze as we travelled along single track roads with haripin bends. On that occasion, my cover was blown as I mentioned it to his manager in Inverness and, although the driver continued in the job, he knew who I was and told all the other drivers in Skye.

    Improving rural transport

    I worked in the public transport unit for seven years and was promoted from Administrative Assistant to Rural and Community Transport Office,r when a new Scottish Executive initiative to improve rural transport was introduced. Being a remote and rural area, the council was granted a significant budget to develop services. We worked to establish services to fit communities’ needs. Some of the new services were extremely successful; others a flop.  Once, when an unsuccessful project was withdrawn, someone phoned to ask why. I asked them if they had used it and was told no, but it was comforting to know it was there. This sums up the difficulty of assessing community need against expectation. People will often tell you they need a half-hourly service, seven days a week, when this is completely unsustainable.

    I worked with many communities whose needs could not be met with the fixed-route bus services. Many of the schemes now thought of as exemplars were set up during that time: Badenoch and Strathspey Transport Company, Lochaber Community Car Scheme and Gairloch and South West Ross Community Car Scheme, using funding from the Rural Community Transport Initiative (RCTI). I can’t take the credit for this as it was the people in the communities that did the bulk of the work, but I am very proud to have been involved.

    In 2003, the CTA advertised for someone to gather and present RCTI applications to the Scottish Executive. I have now been with the CTA for 12 years and currently provide support to schemes throughout Scotland, although predominantly in the Western Highlands and Islands where I work from my home office. I have visited virtually every part of Scotland. I have met the most wonderful people over the years who are dedicated to providing services, usually for people who would otherwise be isolated. I still love finding solutions to transport problems and I still get a thrill from travelling on public transport.

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