ScotRail chair Chris Gibb's departure calls into question who runs nationalised operator amid claims of interference by SNP ministers – Alastair Dalton

Chris Gibb is the quintessential railway staffer. He’s been in the industry for nearly 42 years, working his way up from travel clerk to become managing director of former west coast operator Virgin Trains.

Along the way, he enjoyed “the best job of my career” as a train crew supervisor in Glasgow in the 1980s, where some of the drivers he was responsible for had started work in the steam age. Gibb has also amassed a vast range of industry experience since Virgin, including as a director of Network Rail, strategic advisor for Transport for Wales and director of the UK Government body which oversees train operators which have passed into state hands, such as LNER.

Latterly, he has also been chief executive of Scottish Rail Holdings (SRH), the company set up by the Scottish Government to oversee ScotRail, which was nationalised in April. Gibb also chairs the ScotRail board.

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But that will come to an end next Thursday when he steps down unexpectedly soon. It’s not known whether Gibb had originally planned to seek a further contract after his fixed term ends in March, but with “outstanding annual leave” apparently still to take, he’ll be out the door three months early.

Chris Gibb was due to continue at Scottish Rail Holdings until March (Picture: Duncan Phillips/Network Rail)

SRH was established to provide ministers with strategic direction and guidance for ScotRail, and Gibb has also made it clear that oversight and governance of the operator have been his watchwords. He told passenger watchdog Transport Focus’s board meeting in Edinburgh in May that his accountability to the Scottish Parliament for the money ScotRail spends “weighs heavily on my shoulders”.

But ScotRail couldn’t be in safer hands. Gibb’s been there, done that. He knows how the industry works, in both public and private hands. He knows what he’s doing.

Coincidentally, around that time, strong rumours came to my attention that all was not well with Gibb’s relationship with ministers, and there were claims he had threatened to quit over governmental interference in how ScotRail’s budget was spent. He denied it in person, as did Transport Scotland.

But the speculation never went away, and it intensified last month when rail work that would have closed the Edinburgh-Fife line between Christmas and New Year was postponed at late notice by transport minister and Fife MSP Jenny Gilruth. The decision is said to have cost up to £1 million in wasted preparations, and although it was a Network Rail project, it will have had knock on effects on ScotRail.

Transport Scotland has not challenged The Scotsman’s reporting of such claims since they were published on Monday, having stayed silent despite repeated questioning over several weeks about Gibb’s future. Of course, that doesn’t prove anything, but it does give the impression that this is an issue which it would rather not have seen reported. Its decision to announce Gibb’s departure after 4pm last Friday did nothing to take away from that.

However, the key significance here is the future relationship between ministers and publicly owned ScotRail, and how attractive running SRH will now seem to the best people in the industry. The body is supposed to be at “arm’s length” from the Scottish Government, but how much is it really even that far apart? More fundamentally, do we even need it as another tier of administration between Transport Scotland and ScotRail?

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