Obituary: Alastair McPherson, railway chief
Even has a small boy Alastair McPherson had a fascination for transport and logistics: a drawing of his first bus network still survives, carefully crafted around a fictional town he created, complete with bus stops and interchanges.
He would still have been at primary school when he came up with the plan. Later he would collect timetables wherever he went and insist on taking public transport wherever he was holidaying.
Passionate about all sorts of transport, whether it was buses, coaches, trains, trams or the underground, he loved the fact it was a “live business”. Combine that enthusiasm with his interest in numbers and it was almost inevitable that he would make a career out of getting people from A to B efficiently, punctually and within budget.
Blessed with a brilliantly incisive business brain and an ability to come up with solutions that defied others, he rapidly became a success in the bus sector and, when the controversial privatisation of the railways ensued, he was the man with all the logistical expertise required to become the inaugural managing director of the franchised ScotRail.
Though it was a post that would have filled many with trepidation, he was fit for the challenge and immensely proud to have the opportunity to run Scotland’s railway.
He was, he said, intent on “solving the simultaneous equations” of running the ScotRail business while ever mindful of the “glorious frustrations” that abounded in the realities of railway operation.
Born and brought up in Glasgow, he was the youngest of three children to insurance agent John McPherson and his wife Annie, a sales assistant, and an early interest in transport was fuelled by family outings on buses and trains.
After an education at the city’s Croftfoot Primary and King’s Park Secondary Schools he went to Glasgow University in 1969 to study economics and statistics, graduating with an MA in 1973 before going on to spend a further year gaining an MSc in transport and traffic planning from Birmingham University.
His early career saw him acquire local government experience in Swansea and Glasgow before moving to Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive in 1977, initially as an operations planner.
He soon gained the trust and respect of those around him and by the time he left the organisation had risen to general manager of its coaching and rural services.
He had also amassed valuable experience in strategy and systems, planning the integration of bus and metro services, and in roles as an industrial relations officer negotiating changes in the bus division as well as honing his people management skills as area operations manager running local services for Sunderland.
His most significant achievement at Tyne and Wear was the introduction of the Armstrong Galley Clipper coach service between the north-east of England and London in 1984. As a result, his operational and marketing talents were spotted by private sector coach operators and in 1990 he moved to National Express Group (NEG).
Over the next few years he was the group’s general manager for Caledonian Express and managing director of both Express Travel and Scottish Citylink before becoming National Express Ltd’s commercial director. Then, in 1997, after NEG won the ScotRail franchise during the privatisation of rail services, he was appointed managing director of ScotRail Railways Ltd. Despite the franchise being the last to be let and arguably the most demanding in terms of financial challenges, by 1999 ScotRail had achieved a UK public performance measure record which lasted for more than a decade.
One of his earliest reforms was to abolish BR’s hated £3 bike charge and cycles have been carried free of charge on ScotRail ever since. He also delivered National Express’s commitment to new Class 334 and 170 trains, boosting orders for the latter from nine to 24, created the Club 55 offer which remains a key product today, pioneered a commuter service into Inverness from Tain and introduced the Edinburgh-Glasgow 15-minute-interval timetable.
One of his most successful initiatives was the inclusion of North Lanarkshire’s Croy station in that new timetable. Previously it was only served by local trains, and he established a twice-hourly service each way between the two cities. Croy is now Scotland’s largest rail park-and-ride facility.
In addition, he improved local services from Fife into Edinburgh, opened four new stations at Dalgety Bay, Drumfrochar, Dunfermline Queen Margaret and Howwood, embraced the Edinburgh Crossrail route which would lead to the forthcoming Borders Railway and kept the trains running in the aftermath of the Hatfield fatal rail crash in 2000. His had been a mission that got tougher and tougher – a duty to run services specified in the franchise agreement but with a subsidy that latterly fell year on year – yet he delivered, quietly and thoroughly weighing up the issues, always poring over the figures, pencil in hand.
In 2001 a tumour on his spine cruelly brought his career to an abrupt end although he remained an NEG employee until his death. And in 2003 McPherson, who was a member of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and National Transport Forum for Scotland, won the Outstanding Contribution to Scottish Transport at the Scottish National Transport Awards.
His illness ultimately left him disabled and from 2003 to 2006 he was a member of the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland.
Away from work, his interests included architecture, current affairs, politics, history, football and reading, mainly non-fiction, plus numbers. He would often wake up and declare the day a good day due to the date’s number combinations.
Having met his wife Sara, with whom he found great contentment, while they both worked for National Express, he had been determined to marry on a date with a palindromic number. Although that proved impossible due to a lack of available venues, they married instead on July 24 as it signified 24/7.
He is survived by his wife and their daughter Eilidh, who had made his happiness complete.