Robert Hampton

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15th August 2012

Branson’s Pickle
Posted by at 8.15pm | 3 responses | In the News, Trains

Virgin Train at Liverpool South ParkwayThe West Coast Main Line, linking London with Scotland via Crewe (with branches to Liverpool and Manchester) has faced big upheavals in recent years, with passengers enduring many years of engineering work to upgrade the line and its trains. It doesn’t seem like long since that work finished, but another big change is now on the horizon, as Virgin Trains – who have run the service since privatisation in 1997 – make way for FirstGroup.

The news that Virgin have lost the franchise to operate trains on the West Coast Main Line came as no surprise to anyone, as the news leaked out nearly a week ago. Still, the official confirmation at 7am this morning prompted a big response, including an angry reaction from Richard Branson.

There was a mass outpouring on Twitter, with hundreds of tweets to @VirginTrains commiserating with them about the end of their tenure, and many more heaping scorn on FirstGroup. It seems that Branson comes a close second to Jobs in nurturing brand loyalty.

Ten years ago, if I’d predicted that people would be sorry to see the end of Virgin Trains, you would probably have thought me mad. In its early years, the franchise struggled with a reputation for poor reliability and bad customer service. Virgin had promised a revolution that would change the way the public thought about train travel. The revolution was a long time coming – Virgin tried to apply airline principles to the railway, only to discover that didn’t work, because trains are not planes. Soon, all the jokes that used to be told about British Rail were using Virgin’s name instead.

Ironically, it was a former BR man, Chris Green (the architect of ScotRail and Network SouthEast) who was brought in to save the tarnished operation. Things have improved dramatically since then, despite the setback of losing the Cross Country franchise to Arriva in 2007. The completion of the West Coast modernisation programme has brought drastically reduced journey times and increased frequencies, with Manchester to London now seeing three trains an hour for most of the day, a trebling of the service provided by InterCity.

So, if West Coast is no longer Virgin, does that mean it’s truly fucked? There does seem to be a deep sense of foreboding about the future. I have sampled First’s Scotrail, Transpennine and Great Western franchises, and I found no fault with any of them (judging by my Twitter feed, I’m just about the only person who came away satisfied). In any event, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of how well the new franchise will do.

I do share the concerns at the amount that First are going to pay to the Government. I think the rail franchising system is madness, but I’m biased because I think privatised public transport is madness generally.

First say they can meet the payments through passenger growth bringing in increased revenues, but there’s no guarantee, in this uncertain economy, that all those extra passengers will appear. Many commentators have cited the example of the East Coast franchise, which was let out on a similar basis and came a cropper. The first failure was GNER, who won a new franchise in 2005 based on a huge premium payment. It was supposed to run for 10 years, but the company soon found itself unable to pay and were forced to hand the franchise back in 2007, just two years after it started. National Express took over and, in a virtual repeat of the GNER scenario, terminated their franchise in 2009. East Coast is now run by a subsidiary of the Department for Transport – a temporary nationalisation (which many people wish would become permanent).

The RMT are already voicing fears about staff cuts, fare rises and reduction in on-board services such as the shop. It’s impossible to tell if those concerns have any foundation, as First hasn’t yet given much detail on its plans for the franchise. The company’s press release outlined an “enhanced” catering service but didn’t elaborate. There are rumours that the cooked meals and at-seat service in 1st class could go. This would be a retrograde step; far from saving money, it may cost money in the long run, as passengers decide that 1st class isn’t worth the extra money and downgrade to cheaper standard tickets.

First promises no cuts to train staff, but failed to mention other areas such as station and customer service personnel. It would be sad if the ordinary staff at the coalface lose their jobs, and it can’t be a nice time to be a Virgin Trains employee.

They are promising a cut in Anytime fares, which is – at first glance – a welcome development. Note that they say the cuts will be “an average of 15%”, meaning that some fare reductions could be a lot smaller. In any case, 15% is only enough to go from “extortionate” to merely “eye-watering”. What about cheap Advance tickets and Off-Peak fares? Will they increase in cost, or have their availability restricted?

The big winners? The towns of Blackpool and Shrewsbury, both of which will get direct London trains. The other winner? Hornby – which can release its Pendolino model in a different livery.

The franchise changes hands on Sunday 9th December, but most of the changes will be gradual and I imagine it will be a year or more before regular passengers see a big difference. I genuinely wish FirstGroup well – I travel down to London at least a couple of times a year, and I’d hate for the train service to deteriorate. It’s certainly an interesting time to be a railway enthusiast.

First may be a roaring success, or it may be a dismal failure – time will tell. One thing’s for sure: it’s not a name with sufficient cachet for Brad Pitt to hire a train.

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3 Responses
  1. Comment by Paul
    15th August 2012 at 9:17 pm

    The only way to get a top-quality, fully integrated public transport network is to renationalise it. Or, in the case of the buses, remunicipalise it. Wont happen under the evil Tories, but maybe, just maybe Ed Miliband will…

  2. Comment by Paul Z. Temperton
    15th August 2012 at 10:52 pm

    The curious thing about FirstGroup is its inconsistency. Great Western was appalling but now it is fairly good. Transpennine and Scotrail seem to be thought generally OK. But “First Capital Connect”, the Thameslink part of it at least, my local service, has been absolutely dreadful throughout, with cancellations at the drop of a hat, decrepit and woefully mismanaged stations, graffiti-ridden trains, and staff (when there are any at all) who do not seem to have the first idea about anything. I am prepared to believe that Tim O’Toole is a Good Thing, as I understand he was at LUL, but he has completely failed to get a grip on the Thameslink operation. Meanwhile, Virgin doesn’t seem to me to have deserved to lose: its operation is far from perfect in every detail, and Branson’s PR interventions have been wholly counterproductive (he understands nothing about railways), but things have improved greatly since the early days of the franchise.

  3. Comment by Tredwell Stairs
    18th August 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Apparently First are planning a trial of direct trains to Shrewsbury from 2016. Going by the comments to the Shropshire Star website, most people here in Shrewsbury doubt that the direct trains will last very long, or even that they will ever happen at all. It doesn’t help that the line from the WCML at Wolverhampton is such a horror show, and is the only unelectrified bit from Euston.