Scotland is different. And is becoming more so, given the continued dominance of the SNP and the emphasis on devolution. The railways are no exception. There is, as Alex Hynes, the managing director of the Scotrail Alliance, a different attitude to the railways in Scotland compared with south of the border.
As he puts it, when he had the same job at Northern Rail, ‘the attitude was very much that the railway is costing x million every year, we should try to make it cost half x million’. In contrast, in Scotland, ‘they say, we are spending x million on supporting the railway, how do we get the best out of that money.’ It is, to put it in purely political terms, the difference between a neoliberal approach, in which everything is costed and nothing valued, compared with a social democratic pattern in which the state is seen as a way of providing good services.
I travelled up north for a day to talk to him and find out exactly how Scotland was faring now that the Abellio franchise had bedded in, two and a half years after the company took over from FirstGroup.
It is perhaps this fundamental difference in ethos that has resulted in Scotland having a different structure for its railways. Hynes, therefore is not just the managing director of the train operator, Scotrail, but also of the local Scotland Network Route. That gives him a unique position in the British rail industry as he is able to lead an integrated management team, making decisions over all aspects of the railway.
And he loves it. ‘I would not have left Northern for another franchise’ he said, ‘but this job is completely different. At board meetings, my commercial and engineering directors sit in the same room as the Network Rail people in charge of the infrastructure and that makes changes much easier to push through’.
He gives a couple of good examples. ‘The Edinburgh Festival is the world’s biggest cultural event and gets bigger every year, so we needed to run extra trains. That would have been far more difficult if I weren’t sitting round the same table as Network Rail’. Another change is the introduction of later trains on a Friday night between Edinburgh and Glasgow: ‘I suggested that because coach services run 24/7 and within a couple of weeks it was implemented, with services starting at 1 am and 1 40 am.’ Because of engineering work, it is unfortunately not possible to do that on a Saturday night.
Hynes has been in the job for just six months after making his reputation on Northern which he ran for three years and sees his role as improving the railway at a time of enormous change. He chose a good time to migrate north of the border and was fortunate in that he was on ‘gardening leave’ between jobs, time which he spent being a mystery shopper around the network.
The new franchise is jam packed with goodies, at a time when Network Rail also has a big investment programme. There is electrification not just of Edinburgh – Glasgow, but also of several other lines, which seems, unlike south of the border, to be progressing with only relatively minor delays. Remarkably, again unlike in England and Wales, Network Rail has underspent its budget and there may be the odd unscheduled enhancement that could be squeezed in before the end of the current Control Period in March 2019.
There is the big station upgrade at Queen Street, where a ghastly 60s office block is being replaced with an airy new glass structure and other improvements, notably the arrival of some 200 new or refurbished carriages. That will bring the total up to 1000, a massive expansion of 25 per cent and will lead to increases in frequency on several lines. Most notably next May Scotrail will introduce an InterCity service – it had to ask permission from the Department for Transport to use the name – between Scotland’s seven cities (Wolmar test: name them, I got to six before being helped)*. Best of all, these will be run using HST sets cascaded from Great Western which otherwise would have been scrapped after the arrival of the new Hitachi sets.
They will be decked out in a rather retro grey livery and Hynes makes no apologies for using trains that are 40 years old: ‘they will be completely refurbished, with many more tables than in the current layout and with seats aligned with windows so that people can enjoy the Scottish scenery’ (I suspect Hynes, who is a Mancunian will take out Scottish citizenship if Nicola Sturgeon ever gets her way). He points out that these remain the fastest diesel trains in the world and are hugely popular with customers. Indeed, I suspect there will be a few pilgrimages to Scotland by rail enthusiasts once the HSTs disappear south of the border.
During his trips on Scotrail before taking up the job, Hynes found there was not a lot of ‘fun’ on the railway and so he has encouraged the installation of pianos at big stations. He says that such small things do more to improve the media image of the railways than lots of information about trains: ‘We have had lots of good coverage through initiatives such as raising money for Motor Neurone Disease or putting station names in Gaelic across the network’.
Media sentiment is important to Hynes and Scotrail. This franchise is different because it is a country’s national railway, which is also why it was much easier to create an alliance between Network Rail and the train operator – though that alliance is more of an operational one, than a financial one like the old South West one which, in fact, was its undoing.
Because of the railways high profile – and high usage with a quarter of a million passengers daily, a number that is bound to rise once all the improvements bed in – it is not all plain sailing. Hynes does have to cope with three masters, as my colleague Nigel Harris once mentioned – Dominic Booth, who heads Abellio, Mark Carne the boss of Network Rail and the Scottish government’s transport minister, the ambitious and high profile Humza Yousaf. While Hynes says he has a good relationship with the unions, he is under pressure to reduce costs and recently announced that it would welcome voluntary redundancies, which immediately led to demands by the union to ‘sack Abellio’. However, spending time with him on the trains, it is clear he has an easy relationship with staff and wants to bring them with him to create ‘the best railway Scotland ever had’, a slogan he dreamt up personally early in his stay at Scotrail. With such a massive increase in rolling stock, the electrification and station upgrades, and with the backing of a government keen to support greener forms of travel, and given his attention to detail, Hynes is confident he can live up to his slogan.
*Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Inverness — and Stirling, the one I forgot
The great Virgin competition
For my trip to Scotland, Virgin kindly gave me tickets for a trip down on the West Coast and a return via the East Coast so I could test their offerings in first class. I wanted to see which is better now that we are so well into the East Coast franchise that all its trains are Virgin red, which confuses me as I expected to be walking into a Pendolino at Edinburgh.
I did not go for the full English on the way down partly through trying to eat more healthily – having fried myself an unhealthy lunch the day before – but mostly to test the chef on whether he could make a good eggs Florentine, poached eggs on a bed of spinach. There’s a lot that could go wrong, especially overcooked yolks, but the chef passed with flying colours. The yolk spat out at me when I plunged my fork in and the spinach was cooked just long enough be soft and tasty. Full marks.
East Coast had something to live up to, but it did. I had the Moroccan lamb on the way up to London and it was really tasty, on a bed of couscous. So it was honours even in terms of food, and the service, too was pretty similar.
I hate to nitpick about staff who definitely earn less and work harder than me, but on both trains, there was something, well, ‘plonky’ about how the food and drinks were presented. The butter and jam for my toast were almost thrown at me and there was a lack of TLC about the service. I blame the management, here. There should be more mystery shopping, better training and an attempt to inculcate a sense of dedication. It was noticeable that the best service on the East Coast was when the railway was run by Directly Operated Railways, on behalf of the government. The staff definitely liked being nationalised.
Nevertheless, spending a long day on the train, researching and then writing this piece was a great experience, with the highlight being overtaking miles of cars and trucks at a standstill on the M6.
One bad point, however, which surely Virgin can learn from. The train to Glasgow was running 15 minutes late at Wigan which means it left the station at the time the next service should have done. The train manager immediately announced that if anyone on the train had tickets for the subsequent one, they would have to pay for a completely new ticket or get off at Preston.
Oh dear, customer service that ain’t. The train was two thirds empty and if someone had the temerity to get on a service passing through at the time their ticket indicated, surely a bit of flexibility should have been the order of the day. I tweeted this out, and Virgin replied, saying that only when trains were substantially delayed would people be allowed use tickets for a different service. This is precisely the sort of thing which used to attract justified criticism of British Rail and it is amazing that a commercial operator, supposedly famed for customer service, acts like that. Flexibility, folks, think flexibility