Alastair Dalton: Abellio giving cause for concern

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SCOTRAIL’S new operator is in danger of a having shaky start to its tenure, writes Alastair Dalton.

Alarm bells are going off in my head about the Scottish taxpayer’s biggest contractor – and it hasn’t even officially started the job yet. Dutch firm Abellio takes control of ScotRail on Wednesday, funded by the Scottish Government to the tune of £2.5 billion over the next decade.

Jeff Hoogesteger, CEO of Abellio. Picture: Greg Macvean

Jeff Hoogesteger, CEO of Abellio. Picture: Greg Macvean

However, in contrast to the seamless transition when Aberdeen-based FirstGroup launched the current franchise in 2004, it’s shaping up to be an inauspicious start.

Current managing director Steve Montgomery – and his predecessor Mary Grant – understood the key importance of ScotRail’s now 5,000 staff to its fortunes. The workforce knew months in advance who would be leading them, were given new uniforms on day one, and drivers received a pay deal on time – the first for ten years.

With days to go before Abellio follows First, it appears to be all looking very different this time round.

The company was awarded the franchise five months ago, but, inexplicably, news of who would be in charge came as late as last week.

In an announcement that seemed odd, Abellio revealed Mr Montgomery would “continue to lead” the management team.

But then, on Wednesday, The Scotsman revealed that he was in fact staying only for little over a month.

Abellio failed to return calls to explain who would lead ScotRail itself from May.

If staff – many proud, life-time railway workers – were not already bemused if not somewhat cheesed off by all this, Abellio seems to have added insult to injury by telling its employees to mutilate their uniforms to remove all First logos and branding – because its own gear won’t be ready till autumn.

Abellio is inheriting a booming business, which has, whether by First and track owner Network Rail’s efforts and/or economic growth, seen passenger numbers increase by one third to nearly 90 million a year.

Ministers have talked about a new “golden age” of rail, and the prospects look rosy, with the opening of the Borders Railway in September expected to attract a further influx.

Abellio has also promised much, although its most tangible improvements are two new fleets of trains which are more than two and a half years away.

I have already warned here of the need to manage expectations in the interim, and maybe the events of the past two weeks will turn out to be just pre-launch glitches.

But in the countdown to the franchise start, Abellio must get its act together to minimise any risk of the ScotRail success story being seriously tarnished.

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