Alastair Dalton: The new stand-in ScotRail chief is a sign of confidence

Dominic Booth is a brave man - but clearly intends to lead from the front.

Abellio UK managing director Dominic Booth celebrates the first anniversary of the Borders Railway last September with transport minister Humza Yousaf and then ScotRail managing director Phil Verster. Picture: Greg Macvean

The UK head of ScotRail parent company Abellio yesterday took the hot seat at the train operator, replacing outgoing managing director Phil Verster.

He is only due to fill in for three months until Mr Verster’s successor Alex Hynes arrives from English train operator Northern.

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However, I’m told Mr Booth didn’t have to step into such a high-profile and politically-charged post.

Even though Mr Verster had no official deputy, Mr Booth could have drafted in one of the directors of the ScotRail Alliance with Network Rail to hold the fort instead.

But it is perhaps fitting that since Abellio attached such significance to winning the ScotRail franchise - moving many of its head office functions from London to Glasgow - Mr Booth has decided he should do the job.

He has a long pedigree of running trains over more than 25 years in London, Wales and at some of the biggest operators in the south east of England. That bodes well.

Personality though, may be as critical as operational skill for the state the ScotRail Alliance is in.

I’ve been told by staff that when I said here in January that morale was at rock bottom, it was no exaggeration, and they were glad that it had been aired.

Getting the workforce - many of whom are life-long railwaymen and women who have been at ScotRail for decades - re-energised behind keeping performance improving will be vital.

They have been through a very public mauling since September when politicians seized on disenchantment from passengers, probably as much about their trains being overcrowded as delayed.

Punctuality, which was never at the disastrous or franchise-terminating level portrayed by some MSPs and journalists, has slowly improved, but there is still some way to go.

In taking over when the job has still to be completed, and with ScotRail remaining under the shadow of an improvement plan ordered by ministers, Mr Booth is taking a reputational risk.

However, his decision must be a sign of confidence that he reckons punctuality will soon return to at least minimum acceptable levels.

With the latest figures scheduled to be published in days, I hear further improvements have been made, despite daily updates from my informants of yet more signalling faults, train breakdowns and other problems. We shall see.

But the bigger picture is that ScotRail has still a long way to go to achieve the targets Mr Verster set out to me soon after arriving nearly two years ago.

He said he wanted “on time” punctuality - trains arriving within one minute of schedule - to have improved from 58 to 66 per cent by now. It wasn’t even 55 per cent in the latest figures.

Mr Verster also hoped passengers would become ambassadors for the railways, encouraging more people to take the train.

That may be happening, despite the false media impression of chronic chaos at ScotRail, but I don’t think it will be to the extent he hoped.

Mr Verster, who I’m told decided to jump before he was pushed, has left earlier than expected, to get on with his next job, building a new Oxford-Cambridge rail line.

It is now for Mr Booth to ensure ScotRail gets back on course - taking the staff with him.