Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Virgin, First, Common Sense Second

on August 29, 2012

Mo Farah not visible.

It can’t have escaped the notice of even the least observant of you that I have some issues with Virgin Trains.  In truth, this goes back some way, as they were operating the West Coast Mainline (WCML) at a time when I spent a lot of time to-ing and fro-ing from Lancashire, where my parents still live.  I was also reliant on Virgin for much of my time in London, when my job involved frequent trips to Liverpool, Manchester, Stoke and Birmingham all of which are on the Virgin network.  I have to say that there were good journeys, but my overwhelming impression of the service is tainted by the rotten trains, which might be fast, but are always pokey (with the exception of first class).

You might have thought, as well, that as they lose their franchise to First, and start a legal campaign to challenge the decisions, I’d be fascinated by the battle that is unfolding.  Well, no, actually.  I also have experience of First Trains, having lived on the Great Western (GW) route for ten years and had the joy of using First Great Western for long periods of time.  First also operate trains in the north west, particularly the slower inter-city services and the lines filling in the gaps that the longer distance services have to speed through.  On the GW, First we’re fortunate in inheriting great trains – the Inter City 125 – but stripped out the comfy seating layout and crammed in as many seats as they could, making their interiors dark and sweaty with nowhere to store anything.  It seems to me that, whoever runs the railways, we’re doomed to a service that values profits over comfort, and that has a PR engine slicker than the railway engines.  No amount of complaining about the quality of the Pendolino to Virgin has made any goddam difference to the comfort of the trains (they insist that passengers are getting used to them, which suggests encroaching apathy to me), so what difference will public outrage about the latest round of rail franchise contracts make, whoever runs it?

What has been entertaining, however, is the coverage of the legal battle that Virgin are preparing for, on the back of the e-petition gathering over 100,000 public signatures in an attempt to have the procurement process revisited.  Quite how this can be revisited, and quite what First think of all this fuss, having entered a long and complex procurement process and won out, is anyone’s guess.  My favourite piece of reporting about the ongoing saga was on the BBC website on Sunday.  Not only, it was reported, has Lord Sugar backed the Branson campaign to urge the WCML contract to be reviewed, but also Mo Farah, the well known transport commentator (ahem) and double gold medal winning Olympian.  Quite what Mr. Farah adds to the debate is deeply questionable, and adding his name to give weight to the cause is rather shallow, particularly given his new role as an ambassador for Virgin Media.

Through this, it’s hard to balance what is worse; the shoddy and shambolic fragmentation on the railways, which offers a largely forgettable and functional service and an inability to coherently and constructively complain about it; the simplistic public outcry over procurement which seems based on idyllic ideas about a long running, yet average, rail service coupled with middle England’s inherent fear of change, or the use of an ‘of the moment’ public celebrity to add weight to a news story which has nothing to do with his particular expertise.

Or perhaps, what’s worse is that no-one seems to notice any of these things.

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2 responses to “Virgin, First, Common Sense Second

  1. Marcus says:

    Richard – what would you think of this as an alternative? Rather than 15yr exclusive franchise agreements with one operator (switch of Virgin/Stagecoach to First on the West Coast route out of Euston) – why not have “open access” and sell departure slots at Euston? This is the model used at most airports – like Heathrow – to auction this scarce resource. It should lead to more choice and lower prices. The concept already exists in parts of Britiain – with the East Coast route from Kings Cross having aside from the main operator ( currently the imaginatively titled East Coast) also competing with “open access” rivals Hull Trains and Grand Central over parts of their route network. This proves its technically possible – albeit I envisage selling all the slots. Just like Heathrow – Competition Authorities would then police the sale of slots to ensure no one could buy them all.

    • bethsaysboo says:

      I’m not convinced it’s an alternative. First, it assumes that the world is centred on London. It isn’t. Most people live outside of London, and the fragmentation of the railways might have improved long distance links between London and the regions, but shorter distance rail travel, and travel between cities that aren’t London is no better now than before privatisation. Your analogy with the East Coast of a good example – Hull Trains and Grand Central typically run up to the highest point on the ECML before stopping at all points on the ‘branch’ lines to Sunderland and Hull. It’s hardly competition with East Coast, nor does it give an additional options to people living between, say, York and Peterborough (not to mention complex ticketing/pricing arrangements and no allowances for connections/information transfer between companies). Those who live in the provinces, or travel between provincial centres also seem to have to put up with the cronky stock – the Adelante, the shabbier HST sets, the plastic DMUs/EMUs running cross country – rather than the more pleasant Class 91/Mk4 stock or refurbished IC125 stock running out of London. Essentially, the problem is that trains are being run for the benefit of men in suits, and at their convenience, rather than as a form of transport used for moving people about between the places they want to travel.

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