What we'd like to see from a new East Coast

It's time to ensure that going forward the East Coast franchise needs to remember to be more customer focused. Although it's easy to think of the VTEC route as a captive market there's actually a lot of competition.

  • Grand Central competes on routes from London to Yorkshire and the North East. They compete with London - York directly as well as London - Doncaster and Bradford but their other destinations such as Sunderland can also share a catchment area with Newcastle for people who live in Tyne and Wear.
  • Hull Trains competes on services to Hull, Grantham and Doncaster.
  • Great Northern competes on services to Stevenage and Peterborough, offering a slower, but more cost effective alternative.
  • CrossCountry and TransPennine Express compete on routes between Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland.
  • Airlines compete on the key Edinburgh to London route and to a lesser extent Newcastle to London, there's also a few flights from Leeds to London.
  • Coaches compete for price conscious passengers.
  • Also don't forget driving if you own a car - unlike the train the cost of driving doesn't rise if you need to go somewhere at short notice so although I've never owned a car (have hired one on the rare times when needed) I can understand why some people like the convenience.

So the East Coast franchise holder needs to remember that many people do have options and so they have to convince them that taking their train service is the best option.

Dependable quality

The Virgin Trains East Coast menu is very good for a complimentary offering. In theory every weekday train should have hot food available, this is something no other train operator can promise. Virgin Trains West Coast doesn't offer hot food on the later trains or outside of meal times. The problem was that people who purchased first class based on the catering offering were often not getting what they expected. A number of reasons caused this - staff shortage, kitchen failures and occasionally the expected stock not delivered to the train. For me one of the pleasures of train travel is to be able to enjoy a meal on the move this makes the journey more enjoyable and means I am willing to pay more to travel first class by train long distance than I would pay for a flight.

Unfortunately although there's always been the rare occasion that the promised catering service couldn't be delivered this used to be rare until last year. Now it is becoming so commonplace that I struggle to justify paying more for the train when I'd just feel let down if my hot meal and dessert was replaced with a sandwich (or occasionally nothing). It's not helped by the official VTEC line being that the service is complimentary so no compensation is due (to be fair East Coast used to say the same but fewer people noticed as catering failures happened less often).

So many passengers expect a decent catering offering, any future operator needs to ensure it can be depended on. The catering issues also affected standard class with fewer trains running the at-seat trolley service.

Fair pricing

Many people have said that there seems to be fewer of the cheaper advance tickets available and at the beginning I was willing to give Virgin Trains East Coast the benefit of the doubt as they claimed that they actually had more cheaper fares available it was just that they were selling well. In practice my personal experience has also shown that the tickets I buy most often also seem to have lower availability with the cheapest fares. When you compare like for like train fares should be cheaper than flights the majority of the time but often on routes with decent airline competition (e.g. London to Edinburgh) you may find flying the cheapest option. Outside of sale periods it seems rare to get a fare that I consider a bargain. 

For those who need flexibility VTEC changed their definition of off-peak in 2016 which meant more people needing to buy the more expensive anytime fares.

The fares need to be looked at so that passengers don't feel priced off the network particularly on services that are operating at quiet times.

Rewards

East Coast Rewards made passengers feel valued, it also gave people who had a choice an incentive to take the train. The previous operators of the East Coast Mainline all had decent loyalty schemes that rewarded travel, Virgin was the first to replace a dedicated travel related scheme with a supermarket scheme. VTEC has to compete with British Airways on key routes Edinburgh - London and Newcastle - London as well as some other routes. A way to encourage frequent travellers out of the plane is to provide incentives for travelling. East Coast Rewards did this well. 

Technology

Virgin Trains East Coast promised a lot technology wise but turned out to be a let down. As mentioned many times already they new booking engine lacks features we had since 2007 and has numerous bugs. The app is just a launcher for the website and a ticket wallet that has a habit of crashing when you need to show your ticket. Not forgetting the new ticket machines that are not user friendly...

It's a shame really as a lot of times technology could really revolutionise travel but they've just not hit the mark, most of the things they have come up with have been disappointing and their partnership with Seatfrog hasn't particularly gone well either.

The rail industry does have to move with the times and I hope that whatever happens there is some serious investment in technology. I'm not sure how VTEC had gone so badly wrong on this front. Ideally those who are comfortable with technology would like to be able to make changes to tickets via an app up until departure and also be able to upgrade without the need for a silly auction app.

Set realistic expectations

Virgin tends to over promise and under deliver. They set expectations high and so people are disappointed when things don't live up to the hype. When they launched the dreadful new booking engine we were told how awesome it was. Everything was spun in a positive light, the changes to crewing arrangements which meant fewer staff on board was meant to be a customer centric revolution when in realitiy it delivered a worse service on many trains. Not everything is perfect and expectation management can help reduce disappointment. This behaviour seems to be one of the small influences that the Virgin brand has had on a mostly Stagecoach operation.

Virgin have been quiet so far since yesterday's announcement. If it had been great news then Virgin would be right out in front taking the credit for it. Although they were only 10% in this venture they chose to allow it to be branded Virgin so they should take the lows as well as the highs.

So far we have a statement from the Stagecoach CEO but not even a single mention from Virgin.