Scotland’s new rail champion

Alex Hynes is an ambitious man. Sitting in his office on a rainy Glasgow day, the new ScotRail Alliance Managing Director explains that is why he left the MD’s role at Northern to take on this new position. 

Hynes has replaced Phil Verster, who has moved to work on the East West Rail project. Hynes himself has left an operator that was about to benefit from brand new trains and an increase in electrified routes, but one where there were still challenges. 

Industrial action blights Northern at the moment, in a row over Driver Only Operation. Electrification has been cancelled on the Windermere branch, and doubts remain over wiring the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. Officially it has not been cancelled, but Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling said in an interview with the Financial Times on July 21 that it was unlikely the project would happen. 

In various speeches at various conferences, Hynes would explain the four major changes that would happen on Northern in 44 months, yet you wonder if - in the background - there was concern over delivery of the major upgrades planned.

From south of the border, Scotland may seem like the perfect railway opportunity. Borders Railway has involved the reversal of a Beeching closure and the reopening of a 30½-mile section of railway. Electrification is ongoing, and will link the country’s two major cities via the quickest route possible. Wires have been strung up in recent years on various commuter routes in and around Glasgow and Lanarkshire, while they are planned for Stirling and Alloa. 

Refurbished High Speed Trains are also to be introduced from next year, serving the country’s seven cities and improving the service offering from three-car diesel multiple units to four- and five-car HSTs. 

Hitachi is delivering brand new electric multiple units to ScotRail from the summer, while the manufacturer’s Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains will start serving Scotland from next year for Virgin Trains East Coast. 

And yet the railways in Scotland come in for constant criticism. Performance is scrutinised, and delays and failures make front page news in the national press. Social media is quick to jump on any problems. 

Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has made it quite clear that he and his Scottish National Party (SNP) believe Network Rail should be devolved and run by Holyrood, with funding arranged via the Scottish Government. Already Holyrood’s Transport Scotland sets the specification for the ScotRail franchise, with a higher emphasis on quality than Whitehall would otherwise place. Performance north of the border is good, but seemingly that’s not enough for either the politicians or travelling public. 

The Scottish railway network is also full of complications. The main line to Aberdeen, for example, has 100mph running under semaphores controlled by signal boxes. There are grand pieces of infrastructure such as the Forth and Tay Bridges; modern, electrified routes in Strathclyde and Ayrshire; and lines that wind through the wilds of the Highlands. No two routes are the same. 

The train fleet is quite modern, but is about to be refreshed by brand new Class 385s from Hitachi and 40-year-old HSTs from Great Western Railway (albeit refurbished). Its mid-life Class 170 fleet is to shrink, with trains cascaded to Northern and Southern. 

Glasgow Central is one of the top ten busiest stations in Britain, yet Hynes must also manage stations that few people use. Glasgow Queen Street is being remodelled, but remains open. Likewise Edinburgh Waverley. 

While industrial action is affecting Northern services, Hynes has joined an operator that has been through those problems. He recognises that problems affected performance figures last year. 

For an ambitious man, that’s a lot to contend with. His role also combines both Network Rail and ScotRail, while dealing with Scotland’s operators and stakeholders… and the politicians… and his bosses in London. Yet Hynes is optimistic.

In his office in Glasgow, a short walk from Central station, Hynes explains why he took the job in the first place. 

“I never could work for another TOC. Here, I’m getting experiences I never had with Northern. It’s an exciting business plan.” 

Of his time at Northern, he says: “We delivered the best ever set of performance and satisfaction results. It was a lot happier place when I left than when I arrived.”
If that was the case, why leave? 

“I’m ambitious.”

Hynes acknowledges that politics are never far away in his new job, and he embraces this: “Scotland’s railway is very high profile and pretty political. The media and the stakeholders keep a close eye, but that goes with the territory.” 

He tries to think of anywhere else that is held so closely under the microscope, and suggests that only London gets this much scrutiny. 

“ScotRail has a higher profile here than a typical TOC does in England and Wales. Everything is magnified here. Scotland has five million people. It has its own Parliament. It has its own media and its own papers. I was told Scotland has more newspapers per person than anywhere else in the world.”

If that sounds like pressure, it is. And yet Hynes describes his first few weeks as “brilliant”. He says he knew the job would be full of challenges, but he likes that. Managing the Alliance is a great thing, he says. 

“All the operators are customers of mine. On Day One I rang them and said ‘I’m here, I’m your supplier’. I have met David Horne at Edinburgh Waverley. He said IEPs are coming next year, and it will be the first time two pantographs have been up at 125mph - I need to look at making sure the wires are capable of that.

“Infrastructure is part of the management team here. Next month we have the Edinburgh Festival. Ordinarily the TOC would have its planning team go and talk to Network Rail - in my team meetings we have the same people in the room.”

So if Hynes is in charge of both NR and SR in Scotland, who is Hynes’ boss?

“Nigel Harris jokes that I have three bosses , and perhaps he’s not wrong. I report dually to Network Rail and Abellio.”

Hynes admits that last year was difficult for ScotRail. There were seven days of disruption as industrial action took hold over the planned role of guards on new trains, where Driver Only Operation was being considered. Performance faltered, as did passenger satisfaction (see table, page 49), and Hynes wants to turn that round - fast. 

A Head of Performance is now in place, with the task of tracking how the railway is performing. This is done daily, with updates twice a day that Hynes receives directly. 

“There is a relentless focus on the day-to-day operations within a ‘one team’ approach,” says Hynes. He explains there is also a Head of Control position, whereas most TOCs and Network Rail have just one person to cover both roles. “I think that has helped on delivery,” says Hynes. 

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  • Bob Swift - 16/10/2017 23:44

    Walked away from a faltering Northern, I see he has been quick to embrace the press and get his face out there. Great for an ambitious man that, staying at Northern would have damaged the brand...

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