The switch to Nectar was the first piece of news we heard from the new franchise, so it wasn't the most positive of starts. A few more details over time appeared on the East Coast website and some things in the original press release. There's a few questions I'd like to ask...
Will the East Coast booking engine continue to be used?
WebTIS, the East Coast booking engine, had originally been created when the then operator of the East Coast franchise, GNER, commissioned Atos to develop a booking engine better than what they had previously. Virgin, on the other hand, seems to prefer to stick with the antiquated interface of thetrainline.com. Although some people genuinely prefer this I think most people prefer the WebTIS interface. It has now been adopted by FirstGroup (Great Western, Hull Trains, ScotRail and Transpennine Express) and GoVia (London Midland, SouthEastern, Gatwick Express, Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern) who see that it is a more customer friendly interface.
It would be very disappointing if Virgin changed the East Coast booking engine at any point during their franchise.
When will the catering improvements take effect? Will the buffet remain open on all trains?
The exact improvements to the on-board catering offer for standard class has not been given much detail except that passengers will be able to order hot food from their seat using a smartphone app. Presumably this app won't be ready yet (unless it was already under development for one of the other Stagecoach/Virgin franchises), so when will the app be ready?
Do you plan to make any changes to suppliers, will anything be removed from the current menu? Do you plan to change any of the prices? Will the buffet car remain open on all trains, or will it be relegated to a trolley only service on quieter services? Will the buffet be rebranded as 'The Shop' like with West Coast?
Will catering vouchers still be offered?
Catering vouchers were introduced by GNER and have remained with this franchise since then. The main benefit is they're charged at £4 for £5 value another benefit is that you can book them at the same time as your tickets. If I'm travelling standard class for business my company allows me to spend up to £10 on food and (non-alcoholic) refreshments. It's easier for me to add the catering vouchers at the time of booking and just make one expense claim rather than having to make a separate claim for the food.
Any plans to change the on-board first class offering?
Complimentary catering and reasonably priced advance purchase tickets has increased the popularity of first class. Virgin offer the same on the West Coast but I've always found the East Coast offering more generous. Are there any plans to improve (i.e. more chefs on evening trains, there's none on southbound) or cut back the offering?
On a weekend (which is when I'd more likely want it as I'm travelling for leisure) there's no complimentary alcoholic drinks or hot food in first class. Just sandwiches, cakes, crisps, soft and hot drinks. If you want hot food or alcohol you need to go to the buffet. Prior to the changes in 2011 you could purchase hot food or alcohol at seat. If you don't want to extend the full complimentary offer to the weekend, would you at least consider reintroducing the at-seat purchase option.
WiFi. Repeating the mistakes of National Express?
WiFi on board a train is not particularly fast at the best of times but when National Express took over from GNER they decided to make WiFi free to all. The excessive demand meant that the WiFi was unusable most of the time. This is the reason East Coast decided to reintroduce a charge for standard class. Currently Virgin Trains West Coast also operates on this basis. Has Virgin Trains East Coast checked that current technology is able to cope with the increased demand or did they just think it was something that sounded good and have decided to offer it without considering whether it'll actually be usable?
Although stations run by Network Rail (Kings Cross, Leeds, Edinburgh) have automated announcements the stations that are operated by East Coast (Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster, Wakefield Westgate, York, Newcastle and Berwick, and possibly a few others) still use manual announcements. Manual announcements are very rare on the UK rail network and I think they sound better than an automated voice claiming they're very sorry for the delays. Will Virgin Trains East Coast keep the station announcers and provide a better station experience than most other stations?
First Class lounge staffing
In the press release you state: "First Lounge Hosts provided in the lounges at Kings Cross, Leeds, Edinburgh and Newcastle stations to provide a better level of service for customers". Currently Kings Cross is staffed, but the other lounges aren't (they were under GNER but National Express cutbacks made them self service). Would these lounge hosts be new staff hired specifically for the job or would they be people reallocated from other station duties? What extra services would be offered in the lounges to warrant staffing? Would the remaining unstaffed lounges (e.g. Doncaster) remain open as currently?
York is a major station without a first class lounge. Will there be a lounge added here in the future?
The East Coast brand
Has Stagecoach considered that the current East Coast brand is more respected in the North East than Virgin? Would they have been able to keep the existing brand or was the government not allowing it to be used by the private operator? East Coast was voted a business superbrand in 2014 which shows how the brand was highly respected.
Customer Zones. An excuse to cut ticket office staff?
Customer Zones have been described as "new customer friendly open plan areas for combined ticket purchase, information and assistance". In reality aren't they the removal of most ticket office windows with a roaming member of staff helping with the self service machines? The equivalent of the self checkout area of a supermarket. A great way to cut jobs.
Did you look at alternatives to Nectar?
If you wanted an out of the box loyalty scheme, rather than continuing with the excellent East Coast Rewards, did you look at other options besides Nectar? Although not as good as East Coast Rewards, the Tesco Clubcard scheme is significantly more beneficial than Nectar.