Alastair Dalton: Is running the ScotRail Alliance a poisoned chalice?

Outgoing ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster meeting staff after his appointment in 2015
Outgoing ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster meeting staff after his appointment in 2015
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Delays for ScotRail passengers may now be easing slightly, but there’s a deep malaise on Scotland’s railways.

I’m told staff morale at the ScotRail Alliance with Network Rail is at rock bottom - just as it’s struggling to return punctuality to a minimum acceptable level.

The woeful situation was underlined on Tuesday when ScotRail’s passenger satisfaction rating - though still higher than south of the Border - hit a 14-year low.

However, ScotRail operator Abellio has made a string of gaffes which started even before it took over the franchise nearly two years ago.

Telling staff they’d have to cut up their old uniforms to remove the previous firm’s insignia was farcical. As was the company’s failure to communicate that it was to give time for employees to have a say over the design of new outfits.

Then it was a case of is-he-going-or-not over outgoing managing director Steve Montgomery, who stayed on when Abellio took over, then quit.

That was followed by a series of industrial disputes with the unions, with further discontent caused by an alliance cost-cutting programme as part of bringing ScotRail and Network Rail closer together.

Then train performance slumped, triggering the first improvement plan being ordered by ministers in more than a decade.

That was hard for Abellio to take, with the reputational impact on the Dutch state railways from its offshoot extremely keenly felt.

ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster - who was a Network Rail appointee - may have said that linking poor punctuality to his departure announcement last week was “totally wrong”.

However, I’m told that’s not the full picture, and Abellio, smarting after months of criticism, became impatient for a change of leadership.

It appears that in seeking another opportunity elsewhere - Mr Verster is to lead a new rail project in England - he saw the writing on the wall and jumped before he was pushed.

Abellio were apparently hugely frustrated to be taking all the fire - as ScotRail - for failings that were at least equally the responsibility of new partners Network Rail.

The key point now is where this leaves the alliance, at a critical time for the Scottish rail network.

It is undergoing its biggest ever upgrade, including to three major lines such as the main Edinburgh-Glasgow route, with all the disruption that will entail.

The flagship electrification of that line is already seven months late and there’s at least two more years until all the projects are complete - not to mention getting two new fleets of trains introduced to help tackle overcrowding.

Mr Verster was asked by watchdog Transport Focus in September 2015 why the ScotRail Alliance would work when a prototype in southern England had just failed.

He said some marriages didn’t work, but that didn’t mean the institution was flawed.

The acid test will be how his successor fares.

Alex Hynes has a formidable reputation in running trains in northern England for getting results by fostering good relationships.

When he arrives in Scotland - and the sooner the better, by the state of things - will he be able to broker a more positive and enduring partnership between train and track?

Or will he find that presiding over this marriage proves a poisoned chalice?