Alastair Dalton: ScotRail Alliance needs to work on its relationship

A year ago, there was a political storm over the ScotRail Alliance’s poor performance.

A year ago, there was a political storm over the ScotRail Alliance’s poor performance.

This year, it’s actually got worse, and all is not well within the partnership that says it is building “the best railway Scotland has ever had”.

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The oft-repeated claim is because the network north of the border is on the cusp of a potentially revolutionary transformation, involving two sets of new trains, electrified lines, more frequent services and other improvements.

However, though tantalisingly close, these are mostly still months or more away, and the alliance has the more pressing matter of getting its punctuality back on target.

When the alliance – train operator ScotRail and track owner Network Rail – was first taken to task after timekeeping fell below the acceptable minimum in autumn 2016, a 249-point performance improvement plan was put in place and it has remained in force since.

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This initially seemed to do the trick, but since September, the gains have been reversed and month-by-month punctuality is now worse than a year ago.

Last year ended with performance more than 6 percentage points down on the end of 2016, with 83.4 per cent of trains arriving within five minutes of schedule – the standard measure.

It’s true the separate “moving annual average”, which smooths out seasonal variations, is currently better than it was a year ago, but that’s because of last year’s gains.

The figure has also fallen since September – to 90.4 per cent – nearly half a point short of the target, which keeps rising under ScotRail’s contract with the Scottish Government.

You’d think that with this key measure heading in the wrong direction, and with it thousands of frustrated passengers being delayed and disrupted, the alliance would be working closer than ever to fix the problem.

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Last time round, an official from ScotRail operator Abellio used a conference platform to publicly criticise its Network Rail partners for “continually” disrupting passengers with late-running engineering works, likening their relationship to a troubled marriage.

Now, I’m hearing from within the industry a claim that Network Rail contributed to the fall in performance by cutting back on its use of special trains to remove leaf mulch, which make tracks slippery and cause trains to skid – a significant reason for autumn delays. The claim has been denied by Network Rail.

This may be met with a puzzled shrug from the railwaywomen and men who work on the network, whose loyalties are primarily to each other and their unions rather than the ScotRail or Network Rail name on their high-vis jackets.

But I’m told morale continues to be low – as I’ve written before – following cutbacks such as a voluntary redundancy scheme at ScotRail and resources being stretched, perhaps including in areas that affect performance.

At more senior levels, where changes are being made, there may be more friction. Phil Verster, the last alliance managing director, came from Network Rail, with no separate ScotRail chief.

Alex Hynes, his successor last year, is from another train operator, and has now appointed a chief operating officer, Angus Thom, who was ScotRail’s engineering director. It sounds like a beefing up of the train operator’s side of the partnership.

No one I spoke to could say whether things would be better without the alliance. But these partners will have to keep working together, whatever the state of their relationship.