Interviews

26.10.17

Taking the alliance to the next level

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 17

Five months after taking over the top job at ScotRail Alliance, managing director Alex Hynes speaks to RTM’s Luana Salles about his perceptions of the organisation’s modus operandi and his ambitious plans for the future.

Under the auspices of Alex Hynes, Northern developed from a ‘no-growth expectation’ franchise to one of the fastest-growing in the country, delivering more services, trains and jobs to help manage the dramatic rise in customer demand.

Now, the man once in charge of one of the key transport solutions in the Powerhouse has taken his experience further north still. Since June, he has been leading ScotRail Alliance, a partnership between ScotRail and Network Rail, as the organisation’s managing director, taking over from predecessor Phil Verster.

At first glance, one would have thought Hynes conveniently waited around for the perfect time to take over the job, with ScotRail having recently implemented an ambitious improvement plan that quickly spurred a fantastic performance turnaround after a troubled few months in 2016.

“The seven-and-a-half thousand people across the Alliance worked bloody hard to turn around last year’s performance to great effect,” Hynes told me. “I’ve been really impressed by the speed of the bounceback in terms of punctuality and customer service. And we recently overtook Northern as the UK’s most punctual large TOC, so we’re back at the top of the league table of large operators – which is where we want to be. We’re not complacent, and we’re pushing it.”

But at second glance, the job is still far from over. While the MD does admit that he inherited a stronger base in his move to ScotRail Alliance, he is determined to take the organisation to the next level.

How? “By getting better at involving our people in the running of the business,” he explained. “By becoming even more customer-focused than we already are. By building even stronger relationships with our stakeholders. And of course, one of the things we have to do here is deliver the investment programme really well. We have electrification going on, the introduction of brand-new electric trains, the creation of an intercity network in Scotland – that all has to be really well managed. I want the level of collaboration to go up because I think there’s more untapped opportunity here.”

Track and train

Also new to Hynes is the nature of collaborative working between operator and infrastructure owner – the so-called ‘track and train integration’ – which he acknowledges is an outstanding resource. “The fact that you have all the levers at your disposal is brilliant,” he argued. “Take major events: when we were discussing what to do for the Edinburgh Festival from a capacity and customer service perspective, the infrastructure people were all in the same room.

“Network Rail is on a transformation path to become more customer-focused, and for it to be in an alliance with its biggest customer in Scotland is a great way of enabling that. We have a single communications director, a single head of performance, a single head of control – there’s lots of great stuff going on.”

While there is still “more gas in the tank” in terms of collaboration opportunities and ensuring the wider public develop higher awareness levels of what the Alliance entails, Hynes admitted that he has been “very fortunate to inherit a railway which is in rude health” – one whose safety, customer and punctuality performance has all been commendable.

“Chris Grayling was speaking at a conference in September and he said that track and train working together as one team was the future,” he added. “And I tweeted saying it’s not the future – it’s the present here in Scotland. Our door is open.”

Travelling better, faster and greener

With a widespread transformation programme currently taking place across the country, it is safe to say there is never a boring day in Hynes’ calendar. By 2020, for example, 90% of ScotRail’s fleet will be either brand new or refurbished, with the remaining 10% already too modern to be refreshed. Part of this will include a new 70-train, state-of-the-art Class 385 fleet from Hitachi, set to run across Scotland’s electrified Central Belt.

The Alliance is in the process of switching on electricity between Edinburgh and Glasgow and hopes that a number of Class 385s will be on track from December.

But Hynes stressed that a “dose of realism” is needed: until his organisation runs them on that specific infrastructure, it can’t predict what issues engineers might encounter. In order to keep customer satisfaction and service punctuality high, the MD has warned that he will not be “rushing in” a new fleet without absolute certainty that it will work smoothly.

“We have trains on test in Scotland and they’re performing as we expect, but they’re on other electrified routes, not Edinburgh–Glasgow,” he said. “Between now and the end of the year, we’ll be testing them, building them, doing their fault-free miles, and we’ll introduce them as soon as it’s sensible to do so.”

Alongside Class 385s will be the refurbished Class 43 HSTs, or what Hynes nicknamed ‘pocket rockets’ – the first of which was welcomed to Scotland in September. The new stock will take the country’s network from a three-car diesel railway to a four- or five-car HST railway.

“Thoroughly refurbished inside and out, they’re going to transform the service that we provide on the so-called Seven Cities network,” Hynes said. “And the introduction of brand-new HSTs means we can throw up other trains to cascade around existing routes. Our fleet size will go from about 800 vehicles to 1,000 – a 25% increase – and that means every bit of the network can benefit from strengthening.”

The HSTs, which can travel at 125mph, will be limited to the 100mph speed ceiling in Scotland for the time being. But Hynes revealed that he will be in talks with the rolling stock team and track engineers to consider whether there is an opportunity to implement incremental line speed improvements, thus fully exploiting the fleet’s potential.

From stations to smartcards

Work is also progressing at Glasgow Queen Street station, which has undergone extensive rebuild during both large blockades and overnight possessions. Once ready, it will look like “a superb gateway for Glasgow,” filled with electric trains, HSTs, longer platforms, a new retail development and a modern, airy concourse.

“As ever in Britain, we’re redeveloping the station whilst keeping it in use, and we’ve started to very cleverly build a new station while keeping the existing one operational,” observed Hynes. This was also replicated across the rest of the country: “We had a few big blockades on Edinburgh–Glasgow where it made sense to do so, but a lot of work is happening overnight, and then we’re handing back the railway into service every single day.

“On some nights, at the height of the Edinburgh–Glasgow Improvement Programme (read more on p41), there were up to 400 people working on that railway every night while we were asleep. It’s remarkable that we haven’t had more possession overruns. We have given the engineers more access where we think it strikes the right balance between customers and getting the project done.”

As well as further improvement works taking place elsewhere – like the Edinburgh Waverley revamp (read more on p43) and across stations such as Cumbernauld, Haymarket, Linlithgow, Polmont, Falkirk High and Croy – the Alliance has also been developing ambitious smart ticketing plans. While critical to its business transformation, smart ticketing is currently only used by about 5% of customers – a statistic Hynes wants to see skyrocket to a whopping 60%.

“We need to work hard to make sure that it’s so easy and brilliant to use that we can hit those channel shift targets. That’s a big area of focus for us,” he explained. “We have an open system, we don’t have a zonal fare system, and we have other TOCs coming in and out of Scotland sporadically on the same routes, so it’s a bit more complicated here. But it will be worth doing.”

The future is bright

Although the Scottish Government is still fighting back against the Treasury’s cash allocation for CP6, which it argues departs from the originally agreed funding formula, the next control period is now just around the corner – and coming fast.

When asked what his priorities will be for the five-year stretch, the Alliance boss put it quite simply: “We want Network Rail’s plans for CP6 to be the best plans we’ve ever had, and to make sure we learn the lessons of the past and don’t end up in a situation where we have three reviews commissioned in one year.

“We want a rolling programme of electrification, a stable renewal and enhancement workload, and we’re talking to Transport Scotland about how we make sure we get a smooth exit from CP5 and a smooth entry into CP6.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.scotrail.co.uk

Scottish Rail Focus

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