It began on March 9, 1997, and it will end on December 7, 2019 – but how will we remember Virgin’s tenure of the Intercity West Coast franchise?

 
Virgin Trains joins Barry Evans and Mr Blobby in our cultural memory

 
VISITED: Since Virgin took on the Intercity West Coast franchise in 1997
SERVICE: Virgin Trains operates long-distance passenger services on the West Coast Main Line between London, West Midlands, North West England, North Wales and Scotland
OWNER: Virgin 51%, Stagecoach 49%
WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Phil Whittingham has been MD since 2013 and he will continue in this role
NRPS: An impressive 91% of users were ‘satisfied’ with their journey in the Spring 2019 survey

 

Amongst the usual self-congratulatory claptrap and personal propaganda doing the rounds on social media last week, was a two-minute video from Virgin to mark the end of its 22-year tenure of the West Coast franchise.

In truth, the video wasn’t that great really and wasn’t in keeping with Virgin’s stewardship of the network. In trying to take our mind back to the early years of Virgin’s tenancy, we had life’s loser from Eastenders, Barry Evans, played by Shaun Williamson, Mr Blobby and drag queen Anna Phylactic with Richard Branson, cheesy as ever, chipping in. However, just by producing this, it did jog folks’ attention that we were on the brink of the end of Britain’s now longest rail franchise ownership.

It would have been better if Virgin had been as unashamed as those who promote themselves on LinkedIn for the slightest “achievements” (which, in my book tend to fall into the category of “doing what you are paid to do”) and gone to town in recounting their major achievements, of which there have been many.

I have never worked for Virgin, not as an employee, nor a consultant, nothing at all, nor do they come under the long list of companies I’ve applied to. If anything, I’ve always found them a bit “closed shop”, people don’t come and go, and they don’t necessarily interact heavily with the rest of the industry. To some extent, that always gave the impression that they were a bit superior to everyone else, almost like an elite, untouchable bunch. That isn’t to say they were hoity toity if you get my drift. So, I give my accolades untainted by any observations from “on the inside”.

As other franchise operators changed hands regularly or went into some kind of meltdown, financial or performance related, Virgin went about its business without fuss.

As other franchise operators changed hands regularly or went into some kind of meltdown, financial or performance related, Virgin went about its business without fuss. Folk might have grumbled occasionally but there was never a time when it teetered on the brink, no threat of an inquiry into some botched timetable or deteriorating punctuality.

In contrast they gave us, along with Network Rail and other industry suppliers and partners, tilting trains and frequencies and journey times between London, Birmingham and Manchester that we could only imagine at the beginning of the franchise – even if Liverpool still felt an anomaly in terms of frequency. Over the course of the franchise, Virgin has trebled passenger numbers and currently, 30% of trips made from London to Glasgow are done so on Virgin Trains.

The on-board experience was pretty good – generally consistently administered in terms of standards and without the haughtiness and snobbery of their East Coast counterparts during the GNER era. Overall, I preferred the East Coast rolling stock; on the West Coast the tilts, low ceilings and sense of narrowness, coupled with the bodywork covering some windows was not my cup of tea, whilst the stench from the toilets took too long to cure. The provision of catering has always been varied and plentiful, and the on-board shops modern in design and varied in products.

Whilst other TOCs have either cut-back, removed or changed their minds on the direction of their on-board catering, Virgin stuck with its service proposition, even if just occasionally it felt like it was handed out in a perfunctory way in First Class. Despite this, with Virgin there were the occasional giggles, the announcements when you open the toilet door telling you not to flush your dreams down the pan or the appearance of an on-board Santa Claus with goodies, or just the notices that were produced in a non-officious manner.

In terms of its stations, they were well managed just like the rest of its service. Virgin combined a good sense of individual community with its famous brand, and was never slow to sponsor local football teams and businesses or showcase the success of the places it served on stations or social media. If the First Class lounge began to have a tired and municipal feel at Euston, it wasn’t the case elsewhere on the patch where you felt that local management had a strong focus on understanding their customers. It was noticeable that at stations where Virgin was not the Station Facility Operator and where it was beholden to Network Rail and other operators, such as Euston or particularly Birmingham New Street, that the experience was rather diluted and less impressive.

Despite this, at times, Virgin did feel like an ever-powerful force. It was Goliath that took on David with big billboards in Birmingham denigrating Chiltern who had developed a competitive proposition with reduced journey times, better frequency and a more airy on-board environment. There was also consternation from some quarters that rather than turn a blind eye to fledgling open access operator Wrexham and Shropshire Railway, Virgin challenged the regulator to prevent them from stopping at Wolverhampton – Virgin having a non-compete clause in its track access agreement.

There were along the way some PR controversies. We had Virgin Trains banning the sale of the Daily Mail in its on-board shop because staff complained of its stance “on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment”, with Virgin and franchise co-owner Stagecoach issuing a retraction – Branson and Brian Souter claiming not to have been aware of the original decision to remove it.

The company also faced a backlash when it offered a third off travel for customers who presented an avocado at a ticket office as a way of softening the blow to those who missed out on an exclusive 26-30 year old Railcard – the quirky stunt being lambasted as condescending to millennials!

Virgin’s marketing campaigns were more inspiring and compelling than their peers in the industry, and good news stories far outweighed negatives

However, overall Virgin’s marketing campaigns were more inspiring and compelling than their peers in the industry, and good news stories far outweighed negatives – one favourite of mine being a push to attract cats, dogs and other family pets to take up an offer of free travel for domestic pets, when accompanied by a fare paying human.

Other initiatives that attracted deserved plaudits included First Class advance fares that were often cheaper or on a par with Standard Class, scrapping of evening peak restrictions on Fridays from London to allow easier, early weekend getaways, and being the first to introduce automated Delay Repay. They weren’t the first, but Virgin also created an entertainment system that allowed customers to stream films and TV programmes on demand using their own devices and provided digital ticketing for all fare types.

If we cast our mind back to the early 1990s when it became apparent that privatisation really was going to become a reality, you’ll recall how excited many folk were about some of the successful household name brands with a fabulous reputation for customer centricity maybe running the railway. Perhaps it was the naivety of youth, but, as a London Underground employee and being at the beginning of my career, I was massively excited by the prospect of working for a Pepsi Cola, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, Disney or Virgin and correcting the legacy of poor customer service across the sector. What a time to be embarking on my working life!

However, without being disrespectful to the bus companies and British Rail management buyouts that ultimately dominated privatisation, this wasn’t what I, or others, probably dreamed of, and Virgin was the only inspiring company to take on any franchises. Furthermore, the franchise set-up that it entered back in 1996 was far more exciting and encouraging of innovation than it is now, playing to Virgin’s strengths.

Maybe it has exited at the right time, their entrepreneurial spark and initiative is unlikely to be sated by the current regime or a future post-Williams scenario in which concession type contracts may be the norm. If Virgin is successful in its open access application to run services from London to Liverpool, then this is a landscape in which it is more likely to prosper and experience fulfilment and enrichment than the current or future franchise system.

Certainly, all was not rosy and perfect at Virgin Trains over the course of its stewardship of West and Coast and previously CrossCountry, but in a world where it is fashionable to chide train operators, it has rightly largely escaped public opprobrium. That Virgin was one of the few UK owning groups may have helped, but more likely it is because of its generally very good performance and the fact that it stuck to its promises and commitments and communicated with customers in an open, honest and unstuffy manner.

Like its West Coast franchise partner, Stagecoach, which also presided with great success over the South West Trains franchise for 21 years, Virgin has left a positive legacy during a period of unrelenting change and strife for the rail industry. In hindsight, I regret that I never worked for Virgin. We’d have got on well, for sure, but being a customer was good enough and at times it was a privilege.

VERDICT: Let’s hope that tacky video on social media triggers some reflection, if nothing else, of a job well done by Virgin. More importantly, fingers crossed that in the post-Williams era, it’ll return to Britain’s franchised rail industry. In the meantime, it will be sorely missed, and life will be a lot duller.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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