The launch of the new West Coast franchise operator lacked the pizzazz of its attention-seeking predecessor, but I have feeling that they will deliver – writes Alex Warner

 
The Avanti logo, a bright orange triangle, is intended to symbolise the geography of this 400-mile route

 

I trotted furtively away from the bright lights of Birmingham city centre into less salubrious territory, past Digbeth Coach Station and in the direction of National Express West Midlands’ Bordesley Green HQ. The night sky was murkier than ever, freezing cold as well and the dank air was lit only by the frontage from the fast-food takeaways, casting a glimmer of light onto the railway viaduct to my left and the mass of warehouses ahead. Round the corner I reached my destination, The Custard Factory, for the launch night of FirstGroup and Trenitalia’s new Avanti West Coast franchise.

Away from the central Brum spotlight, it felt this was an event that the organisers wanted to conceal. The entrance to the launch event was tiny, bereft of wayfinding, situated under the arches of a viaduct. Cars arrived with young professionals slamming doors loudly, giggling nervously then filing their way past strapping bouncers and into a convivial drinks reception. It felt like watching arrivals at a nightclub.

The drinks reception lasted 50 minutes as folk made nervous and forgettable small-talk. At 19:20, security led us through the shell of a mock-up train that looked like the ATP at Crewe Heritage Centre, then into a large warehouse area, with no furniture, just a small barren, empty space, with a closed bar and tiny stage.

The speeches were good, if a little nervous and sticking to script. FirstGroup’s Matthew Gregory, the tallest CEO in the history of the corporate world, was the most polished speaker. This must have been a doddle compared with the Coast Capital EGM and he pretty well nailed it. Clinical, determined and delivered with gravitas. I wouldn’t mess with him.

First rail boss Steve Montgomery played an impressive innings too, his strong and loquacious Scots accent reminding us all, of course, that Avanti West Coast connects three nations, England, Scotland and Wales (and the Avanti logo, a bright orange triangle, is intended to symbolise the geography of this route).

There was the odd wry smile when Steve opened his talk by saying that he was sure we’d all agree what a great location this was – I still cannot fathom whether he meant this or if it was tongue in cheek. There was paint peeling from the walls and ceilings, not a carpet nor chair – the setting was barer than the standard class trolley on East Midlands Railway.

Montgomery’s accent contrasted with Trenitalia’s Ernesto Sicilia, who came across as a right smoothie – a film star name with a film star look.

Buzzwords but also humility abounded, as the speakers spoke of their “honour” and “privilege” in managing a franchise that is already “well run” and one which is “a vital economic link… the red in the brand denotes the artery”. This “family of companies” will provide “best in class services working in partnership… a pioneering partnership connecting three nations” and whilst it will “pay tribute to heritage”, were warned “times are changing and many cities are getting faster and smarter”.

Building into as much of a climactic crescendo as you can on the outskirts of Birmingham in a warehouse on a freezing cold late November evening, for the first time the words ‘Avanti West Coast’ were unveiled and we were told they are “determined to blaze new trails”. Like the cheerleading public address announcer at a UK ice-hockey match in one of those small hangar type ice-rinks on an out of town industrial park, we were told “we are Avanti West Coast… let’s go”.

“Did you like it?” Montgomery asked, with a cheeky glint in his eye. The mobilisation team contingent in the crowd,  perhaps looking for their interim contracts to be transformed into permanent senior roles in the new organisation – shouted  “yes!”

“Did you like it?” Montgomery asked, with a cheeky glint in his eye. The mobilisation team contingent in the crowd,  perhaps looking for their interim contracts to be transformed into permanent senior roles in the new organisation – shouted  “yes!” Then slightly warming to the gameshow host role, Steve said in a still undersold and dry manner… “Let’s go!”

Arguably the most interesting presentation was from Richard Lawson, director of innovation and ventures at forpeople, the brand design agency which dreamt up Avanti West Coast. Whether what he said resonated depended on what side of the fence you sit when it comes to branding. I genuinely get sucked into the hype, so I warmed to the concept of a logo which has simplicity as its key strength and I swallowed the rationale for each colour used and how it derived from the granularity of a particular local theme and heritage, whilst being “dynamic” and “progressive”. We were told that each colour resembled “beautiful materials, places and a landscape to create an experience”, whilst the on-board ambience will be “quiet and have a more confident interior…a modern typeset, friendly yet bold”.

Cynics would claim that what was being conveyed to us could have been dreamt up on a flip chart in an afternoon meeting and as soon as the intricacies and fragility of running a complex railway operation come into play, all the fancy brand thinking and touches will go out the window, and the frontline staff won’t have a clue what the brand personality is supposed to convey. No train operator has yet mastered that.

I felt a bit sorry for First and Trenitalia. We were implored to get behind the brand and there were a few muted yelps of encouragement, but it felt a bit like English cricket’s recent launch of The Hundred tournament – where an auction event to enlist new players led to fans being asked to get behind eight newly created franchised teams and feel the heritage that they represented, as though they’d had years building affinity with them. It was all so artificial, how could supporters have any affinity with ‘Northern Superchargers’, ‘Welsh Fire’ or ‘London Spirit’, for instance, when they’d never even played a match? And how could we whoop with delight about Avanti West Coast when a train hadn’t even left a station yet?

It was pleasing that the existing team is staying on. Gone are the days where it was fashionable for the new broom to kick out the old guard and rubbish their efforts.

It was pleasing that the existing team is staying on. Gone are the days where it was fashionable for the new broom to kick out the old guard and rubbish their efforts. I suspect this is a mixture of recognition of the great job they’ve done. However, perhaps disappointingly, the “main man”, Phil Whittingham – Virgin’s old MD and the new MD at Avanti West Coast – was the last to speak, briefly and scripted too. He seemed a tad cautious and looked moderately uncomfortable about what might lie ahead, even though the Department for Transport has told us that this franchise award has been “Williams Review future-proofed”.

It is easy to be cynical and snipe from the sidelines at these events, particularly as you know everyone has in the back of their minds the problems that First has suffered since taking over at South Western Railway or its financial travails at TransPennine Express.

A Sir Richard Branson launch event would have been racier,  maybe with some pyrotechnics or a rock band. Presenters would have been encouraged to go rebelliously or chaotically off-script and there would have been a whole list of customer benefits, even if they might have been pie in the sky, rather than free Wi-Fi mentioned almost as a USP. We were, though promised standard class seats that would appear to be, once and for all, properly ergonomically sculptured “reclining to maximise blood flow and no more rolling forward as you nod off”.

The unpretentious, almost minimalist, nature of the event also meant that sexy HS2, of which First and Trenitalia will be the shadow operator, got only one mention. This was all about the “here and now” rather than the promised land.

Perversely, the attraction was that this wasn’t Virgin, but it was instead a curious combination of a longstanding, workman-like and sometimes unfairly maligned UK company and some suave Italians. It was down to earth, no bells and whistles, the setting being “deliberately industrial” to reflect the places served and the fabric of the network, as one wag pointed out to me. The beauty also was the lack of showmanship, the fact that we had very experienced railway professionals playing out of their comfort zone when they’d probably prefer to be actually running their business.

The speeches reminded us that FirstGroup are now the biggest rail operator in the UK, even though it still feels like a bit of an underdog. However, in reality, I reckon it might just confound the odds and succeed.

The launch wasn’t opulent and nor was there much pizzazz, but quite a bit of thought had gone into it and the new brand. As I trotted back towards the civilisation of Birmingham city centre, I had a warm, almost affectionate feeling towards this lot now in charge of the West Coast. I wish them well.

VERDICT: Some were aghast when First and Trenitalia knocked Virgin off their perch and predicted it will all end in tears. I’ve a sneaky feeling that the outcome will be good and when it is, I can say “I was there” that kick off night in Brum. As Montgomery concluded, “Let’s go!” Yeah, pal, bring it on!

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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