Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Virgin on the implausible

on August 13, 2012

Only an indefinite period of time to go till journey’s end.

My latest trip by train from London to Morecambe to see my folks resulted in a delay which was greater than the intended time of the journey.  Rather than taking two and a half  hours, it took almost six, and I had to be rescued by my dad at Preston.

This is the latest calamitous episode in my relationship with Virgin Trains.  It appears to be the case that every time I make this journey, there are hideous delays.

The privatisation of the rail network was supposed to make things more efficient and effective.  It does appear to be the case that trains are growing in popularity, but how much of this is down to privatisation rather than, say, exponential increases in the use of cars, causing our roads to be less effective, is unclear.  Trains are clearly better used, but they’re also more expensive and more overcrowded than ever before.  Virgin operate the West Coast route, and beyond, say, Manchester or Birmingham, there is no alternative.  So much for  increasing competition.

So, for my latest journey, I arrived at Euston for the 1725 service to Glasgow Central.  I had 3 year old Toots in tow, and a little bit of luggage.  The cheapest option was for me to buy a ticket, which came with a seat reservation, and for Toots to travel for free, which did not have a seat reservation.  The service was full.  Our seat was in coach C.  The seat was at the end of the carriage and had no window.  In coach C, the ceiling drops because of the pantograph on the roof of the train, so the overhead luggage racks were not adequate for any of the bags I had.  So, I faced the prospect of having Toots on my knee for over two hours, with her entertainment in a bag that I couldn’t put anywhere except between my feet.

The Pendelino trains which run on this service are, apparently, the pride of Virgin Trains.  They are, in fact, some of the worst long distance trains on the whole of the rail network.  There was a time when all of the seats in a rail carriage had a table but, now, when profits are more important than the passengers comfort, very few seats have a table.  Pendelinos are especially cramped.  The windows are very low down, and the plastic interiors are pokey and unappealing.  For those with pushchairs or larger items of luggage, there is little or no space to adequately store these, and very rarely is storage in a place where access to them is easy.  Often, there is a hum of urine in the air from the toilets.  Wi-fi access has to be paid for (bizarrely, the access code for the internet seems to be emailed to you and, of course, without the code you can’t access your emails).   The buffet car has given way to a rather barren shop.  So, given the circumstances of this particular journey, and my loathing of the Pendelino, it was not a journey that I wanted to stretch out.

All was fine until Crewe.  Coming into the station, the ‘train manager’ warned that there was a trespassing incident between Warrington and Wigan to the north, and we’d be held at Crewe for an unspecified period of time.  As time went by, the doors of the train were opened, and passengers were invited to stretch their legs.  As more time went by, news rippled through to the passengers that the train would be going no further.

Panic and confusion followed, with no-one really knowing how to proceed.  There were upward of 500 passengers now stranded at Crewe, already a hour behind schedule, some expecting to reach Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Those travelling as far as Lancaster were advised to travel to Manchester and change for ‘other services’, and so I made my way with a large crowd for that train (which arrived into Crewe late, and 20 minutes after the time I was due at my final destination).  On the Manchester train, the ‘train manager’ gave the passengers for Warrington, Wigan and Preston further instructions, but not those travelling to Lancaster.  She invited queries at her office in coach C but, on this train, I was in coach H, still with an increasingly weary 3 year old and an extra trains worth of people standing in the vestibules and aisles between H and C.  Via the internet, I was able to find out that, in fact, there were no trains from Manchester to Lancaster at that time on a Sunday evening, at which point I called my father to ask if he’d do a 70 mile round trip to pick me up at Preston. Which he did.  Virgin failed to get me to my destination, and I arrived home at 11.15, three and a half hours late.

As it happened, there was continuing confusion at Manchester.  The train arrived just as most of the food places were closing.  Different people for different destinations were huddled in little groups, but were ultimately told to go as far north as possible for now and find out more when you got further north (which meant everyone was on the same, very overcrowded, train to Preston unsure of what they’d be told on arrival there).  As I found my dad at Preston, there was a rumour of a train to Glasgow, but they were unfounded, and I have no idea what became of passengers going further north that night.

There were a number of things that I perceived between Crewe and Preston.  First, the Virgin staff at Crewe weren’t talking to each other, as I received different information from two different members of staff.  It seemed that there was no real plan for passengers – the advice was to just keep going north but, when that process stopped, it was not clear what would happen.  This made it hard for passengers to give news to people waiting for them.  Overhead conversations between Virgin staff on the train to Preston confirmed that they didn’t know what was going on a lot of the time, and they couldn’t respond effectively to passengers.  It also appeared that Virgin staff had different access to information about what was going on themselves.  At Manchester, staff from other train companies were not equipped to deal with the enquiries from Virgin passengers.

As it happens, I was hoping to get to Lancaster to have some dinner and watch the Olympics closing ceremony.  I missed the ceremony and dinner; dinner instead was  a pasty from Manchester Piccadilly, and Toots had a croissant.  The purpose of my journey was to drop Toots with my parents and return the next day – indeed, I’m writing this on the return journey, which is already 30 minutes late.  My back is aching from leaning over the computer, which is balanced on a flap pulled down from the seat in front of me.  I paid £84.10 for the return ticket, which I consider to be over-priced given my experiences.  I don’t expect to be compensated to much of a degree;  certainly, there’ll be some of the ticket refunded in rail vouchers (certainly not cash, although I distinctly remember paying with cash, and not rail vouchers), but not all of it, and I certainly don’t expect to see any sympathy for the food I’ve had to buy additionally on route, nor the petrol used by my dad in picking me up.

Worst of all, I have the whole Virgin experience to do next weekend with my wife and 4 month old Bub between London and Lancaster, returning on the Monday with both children.  Given this terrible experience, I’m not looking forward to it at all.

And the return journey arrived in Euston 35 minutes late.

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