Virgin Trains East Coast were very happy with their 92% satisfaction rating from the latest Transport Focus passenger survey. They say it's the highest rating of any long distance franchised operator, the key word here is franchised. Hull Trains and Grand Central are two of their biggest rail competitors and they both scored higher, but the key difference is they're not franchised. So to put it another way, VTEC was rated 3rd out of the four operators at King's Cross, doesn't sound as good when you put it like that does it?
That said 92% is still an excellent score and all the VTEC staff that helped achieve this rating should be really proud that all their hard work paid off. However if you dig deeper things aren't so positive. If you compare VTEC to most other operators in the UK they don't seem that bad as long as you're not on a train with faulty air conditioning or other maintenance related faults and if you're hoping to sample the best food James Martin can provide you have to hope that there's enough staff rostered on the service and the kitchen doesn't have any faults.
I think the main issue with the passenger surveys is they ask questions that apply to all train operators but on the East Coast we have always (since at least the GNER days) had very high standards. GNER made sure their trains were smartly presented, they made sure that standard class had the option of both a buffet and a trolley, they were the only operator that increased the number of restaurants on-board and they ensured first class felt stylish with their branded glassware, they also had a very generous loyalty scheme for high spenders and annual season ticket holders. Most importantly they valued the people who work for them so they felt proud to work for GNER. So when National Express East Coast (NXEC) took over even though they had many cutbacks and killed staff morale they were still one of the better rail operators in the UK, GNER set such a high bar that when the bar was lowered it was still higher than most. When NXEC failed and East Coast took over they started to undo some of the cutbacks of NXEC and they introduced a complimentary catering offering in first class. Although many of us were upset about losing the restaurants, the complimentary catering was extremely popular and they included a high quality evening meal offering on most of the peak time evening trains out of King's Cross which kept the East Coast offering the best that was offered from other operators (there was a few train companies that offer better catering but it was only on a limited number of trains).
VTEC have taken the East Coast service and initially they appeared to be building on it but now it's becoming clear that they're cost cutting faster than NXEC but hiding it with red vinyls and marketing. NXEC used to advertise how cheap their fares were, VTEC likes to promote how awesome they are. Unfortunately that increases disappointment as they over promise and under deliver. As we've discovered the same messaging is sent to staff, they don't seem to want to own up to mistakes when they make them. Because of this many staff who've been around for a long time now rate NXEC above VTEC. I was told by one member of VTEC staff that NXEC used to be upfront with them that they needed to cut costs, it wasn't pleasant working for them but at least they didn't try and spin every cutback as an improvement as VTEC try to do,
Recently we've seen that VTEC continue to pick up awards, their catering got an award a few weeks ago and their marketing got an award today. Unfortunately this will make the management of VTEC stick their heads in the sand further and pretend they're doing a great job when everyone who's travelled with East Coast regularly will know that things have started to decline.
If you want to see what life is like for a VTEC (outside of senior management) employee take a look at any of our #VTECvoices blog posts or have a look at this leaflet produced by the RMT which was based on a survey sent to members. Although you could dismiss this as union propaganda I have heard similar things from many staff so I do believe it is genuine. If you work for VTEC and have a different viewpoint I would love to know, we're happy to publish views both positive and negative.
We're currently running a poll on Twitter which is showing VTEC as the worst East Coast franchise.
#POLL worst East Coast operator?
— Save EC Rewards #BlockedByVTEC (@SaveECRewards) 24 April 2018
It's worth pointing out that when we ran a poll in 2016 most of the people voting were happy with VTEC, the decline started in 2017, it shows that most of the people that follow us on Twitter were originally happy with VTEC but their opinion has changed over time.