On the 1st March 2015 the Government handed over the highly successful, state owned Eastcoast Trains railway service to the private sector. This is a route that failed as a privately owned service with the private sector owners walking away before the end of their contract. The Government of the day took the service back into public hands and, surprise surprise, it flourished and made money for the public purse. Then there was a General Election and the new Government, wearing the mantle of the late Margaret Thatcher, decided that they could make some money and reduce the size of the public sector, by selling Eastcoast back to the private sector. And the winners were none other than the Richard Branson Empire (Virgin) backed by the arch capitalist Brian Soutar (Stagecoach). This meant that Virgin would now run the two services linking London with Edinburgh and Glasgow. So much for the much-vaunted competition that comes with privatisation.
I travel regularly up and down the east coast of UK between my home in London and my mother’s home in Grantown-on-Spey, 30 miles or so to the south of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland. The service provided by the publicly owned Eastcoast Trains has been excellent. Their fares have been very affordable, especially if booked a little in advance. So much so that I always travel in 1st Class which, when you take into account the complementary food and drink, the free wifi and the 1/3 off with a Senior Railcard, is as cheap as Standard Class and a bit more comfortable for a 7 ½ hour journey. This trip was to be my chance to sample the new Virgin service one week after its launch date.
The electronic indicator boards at Kings Cross had been changed to the new branding for the 12 midday service to Inverness. An extremely simple change to make but at least it had been done. The same could not be said about the actual trains. The six trains at the platforms were still in the familiar grey and maroon of the old service provider. The only exceptions were two trains that had a crude red flash on the front and rear traction units with the word “Virgin” scrawled across in white paint. This was a classic example of bad brand management. It looked, a botch job, presumably executed in haste for photo opportunities associated with the forthcoming general election.
Once on-board, nothing had changed. Well almost nothing. The “reserved seat” tickets on the backs of the seats were now headed “Virgin trains east coast” and the menu card said, on an inside page, “Welcome to Virgin Trains East Coast First Class”. The sharp-eyed might notice another bit a poor brand management. The words “trains”, “east” and “coast” were presented with both lower and upper case initial letters. I’d always perceived the Richard Branson Empire as having very slick and professional marketing. These were not good examples of discipline, so important when trying to establish a new brand. The train staff had not suffered a Virgin makeover and were still wearing the old uniforms and were their usual friendly selves.
The wifi service had been rebranded “Virgin” but again with mixed messages about the use of upper and lower case. Hopefully a temporary glitch and not a permanent feature was the so called “Live Travel Information”. As we pulled out of York just before 14.00 the LTI panel said that the next station would be Peterborough arriving at 18.06 and our final destination was Hull where we would be arriving at 20.04. This implied that the train was going to do a U-turn and meander in a southerly direction for 4 hours then turn more northerly to Hull. Thankfully the train continued to head northwards and was soon passing through Darlington, Newcastle and into Edinburgh. And we were on time when we arrived in Aviemore.
As we were approaching Aviemore the on-board tannoy system announced, almost incoherently, that the train was about to arrive in the station. This was the first announcement since leaving London apart from some catering information. During daylight hours, which today was up to Perth, passengers could look out of the windows and see how the train was progressing. But north of Perth it was a dark and stormy night. Woe betide anyone new to the route and wanting to get off at an intermediate station. Is this lack of announcements part of a Virgin cost saving exercise?
So what has been the point of this sell off of a profitable public asset? From a customer’s point of view there is no difference. They are the same trains, in the same livery and staffed by the same crews serving the same choice of food and drink. So what are Virgin promoting as the bright new future? I read their literature from the standpoint of my usual journey, their longest route from London to Inverness.
Number one on their list is a New Website Address – wow!! And, wait for it, a red-hot look – wow wow!! Absolutely nothing about web site features. Number two on their list is a price guarantee which is carefully worded to say that the cheapest fares will always be available on their site. It doesn’t say that the fares themselves will be cheaper, in fact they could be doubled and their so called promise would still be true. And so on to number three which, to the best of my knowledge, is unattainable. This is a promise to upgrade the rolling stock illustrated by one of their Pendelino electric-powered trains. It may have escaped their notice but north of Edinburgh and onwards to Inverness the line has not been electrified.
Moving on down the list of things to look forward to the next is Nectar loyalty points. The old Eastcoast Trains had a perfectly good loyalty scheme which included free tickets. No mention of this with the new scheme. Then they are going to improve the catering. Well judging by today, still under the old regime, the food and drinks were absolutely fit for purpose. The use of the word “improved” has a distinct hint of “at a price”. To use an old adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And finally they are going to make London more accessible from right across their network. I won’t hold my breath for too long in respect of the London to Inverness service.
Sorry if this blog post has come over as a bit of a rant but that’s how it is. Of course, I may have to eat humble pie when the improvements start to kick in and the ticket prices remain static, but somehow I think nothing substantial will change without a significant rise in the fares. Will that be a price worth paying? I think not.