Scots railway chief unveils improvement plans

Phil Verster, Managing Director of the Network Rail/Abellio Scotrail alliance. Picture: SNS
Phil Verster, Managing Director of the Network Rail/Abellio Scotrail alliance. Picture: SNS
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A CHARM offensive to woo passengers and a significant cut in delays will be at the heart of a major shake-up of Scotland’s railways from today, The Scotsman can reveal.

Improvements from better wi-fi to reduced station congestion are also pledged by Phil Verster, managing director of a new “alliance” between train operator ScotRail and track firm Network Rail.

There is a huge amount of goodwill among passengers

Phil Verster

He predicted that passenger growth would accelerate from 
91 million journeys a year to 139m over the next decade, with “huge potential” for more frequent and faster trains, especially in Edinburgh and 

Mr Verster told The Scotsman: “Customers must be right at the centre of everything we do. They are not always well served by the railway – we have a way to go.”

He also wants to persuade them to become ambassadors for the railways, to encourage more people to take the train.

He said: “It is very challenging to get people who do not typically travel on the railways to travel on them.

“The best approach is to get customers to provide vocal support. There is a huge amount of goodwill among passengers.”

Mr Verster hoped this would help accelerate passenger growth, from a one-third increase over the last decade to a 40 per cent rise in the next ten years. Most of this will be in filling empty off-peak seats.

More seats will be provided by two new fleets of trains from 2017, while the Borders Railway, which opens in September, is also expected to fuel growth.

The railways are one of Scottish ministers’ biggest spends, costing the taxpayer £800m last year. Mr Verster said the alliance will make improvements sought by passengers, such as to wi-fi cover and catering on trains, with fresher, local food.

Rush-hour congestion at stations will be eased at pinch points such as ticket barriers, he claimed.

However, Mr Verster acknowledged that disruption caused by the partial closure of the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line for upgrading work for six weeks from next month would pose an early challenge.

He said: “It is going to be difficult. Where passengers are transferred from a train to a bus, they could reasonably say, ‘Did they put us first?’.”

Overall, train delays will be cut by focusing on “on time” punctuality – services arriving within a minute of time, rather than the traditional measure of within five to ten minutes.

Mr Verster said the target was to increase this figure from 58 to 66 per cent of trains arriving on time within two years.

Poor-performing lines will be targeted, such as cross-city routes through Glasgow, by making across-the-board improvements from cutting track and signalling problems to ensuring trains leave each station on time.

Such disruption has a big knock-on effect elsewhere the network, as more and more trains share the tracks and many services run from Helensburgh as far as Edinburgh.

Mr Verster, who joined the alliance from running the east coast main line for Network Rail, said: “Punctuality is the essence of the product we sell.”

He said future growth was likely to come from speeding up trains and putting on more services rather than reopening more closed lines.

He said: “There is huge potential around Edinburgh and in Aberdeenshire over the next 25 years. The focus will be where there is economic development, and where economic development can benefit Scotland.”

A new alliance board will run ScotRail and Network Rail as “one team”.

However, train drivers’ union Aslef is “highly sceptical” it will work because of potential tensions between Dutch firm Abellio, which operates ScotRail, and publicly owned Network Rail.

But Scottish secretary Kevin Lindsay added: “We welcome trains and tracks being back as one under public ownership.”

David Sidebottom, passenger director at watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers will welcome this increased focus on meeting their needs and improving punctuality.

“We know their top priorities for improvement are value for money, the ability to get a seat and more frequent trains. The key thing this alliance must do is set out what passengers can expect then report back regularly.”