15 APRIL 2019


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Article from BTNews 15 APRIL 2019

COMMENT: Virgin Trains

The business antics of Sir Richard Branson may have led to as many disliking him as admiring him, but he can take heart from last week’s reaction to the news that Virgin Trains, after more than two decades, could vanish from the rail tracks of Britain within a few months.

Virgin Trains has over two decades set the standard for other British train franchises to try and equal. (See story in this issue.)

The furore was best summed up in The Independent by travel correspondent Simon Calder, whose views are worth repeating.

He wrote in part: “If you start a ferry firm with no ships … and cut and paste the legal terms from a pizza takeaway, the Department for Transport (DfT) will award you a contract to connect Kent with Belgium in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

“But if you run a train company that has been connecting Scotland, northwest England, the West Midlands and London successfully for 22 years, the DfT may abruptly dispense with your services.”

Calder, whose piece made clear his sympathies lay with the rail companies, said Virgin Trains and its partner Stagecoach had been excluded from bidding to continue to run trains on the West Coast main line beyond 2020 because, in the words of the DfT: “They submitted non-compliant bids for all current competitions which breached established rules and, in doing so, they are responsible for their own disqualification.”

BTN has always found Virgin Trains extremely good and reliable, but its success cuts two ways – readers may recall the frequency of the services destroyed the VLM air route between Manchester and London City Airport, and the one from Liverpool too.

Virgin Trains’ response to the news was to say it was “very disappointed”. The company noted it had led the industry for more than 20 years with innovations such as its automatic delay repay scheme, and award-winning customer service.

The statement noted Stagecoach and Virgin were working in partnership to operate the West Coast inter-city route, which connects Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and London with a high speed, high frequency service, offering shorter journey times, more comfortable travel and excellent customer service.

“Customers consistently rate Virgin Trains ahead of other long-distance rail franchise operators in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) commissioned by industry watchdog Transport Focus,” Virgin added.

BTN has followed the Virgin Trains story, given its importance to the business traveller, from the beginning. Its approach to challenging the status quo includes introducing tilting Pendolino trains, the automated delay repay scheme, introducing the onboard entertainment streaming service, BEAM, and becoming the first franchised rail operator to offer m-Tickets (mobile/electronic) for all ticket types.

What brought things to a head appears to be the joint venture with Stagecoach being due to expire on 31 March next year at the latest. The government is due to award the next franchise this June and, if the winning operator says it can start running a service by November, the handover would be brought forward – as would the demise of Virgin Trains.

If the tone of the article in The Independent can be taken as representative of the general mood, there might yet be a change of heart.

(See also Farewell to Virgin Trains? in this issue).

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Norman Bartlett, Chelmsford

Change of heart? From Failing Grayling? Change of brain at the DfT might be more sensible. Norman