The future of VTEC
At the moment there's a lot of information going round saying that Stagecoach can't meet their financial obligations with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) but it's difficult to accurately comment until we get further information.
It seems that the current franchise will come to an end sooner than expected, what is going to happen after that is anyone's guess. It's possible that they will allow Stagecoach to keep running the franchise as a management contract until a new operator is found to run the franchise. The other option would be to take the franchise under government control like what happened with National Express when the government run Directly Operated Railways took over the operation of East Coast. It's even possible if the government values the Virgin brand (I think the brand has become tarnished recently so not sure what value it has among the public) that they continue to licence the Virgin brand whoever is running the service (at the moment Stagecoach own 90% despite the Virgin branding).
The first thing to remember that in this situation all the people who make the East Coast service great will still be there. Their jobs are protected by regulations known as TUPE which means they will transfer over to the new employer, that's how there's many familiar faces on the East Coast many dating back from GNER days.
The Azuma trains will be arriving whether or not VTEC is still running the franchise, although they may not be called Azuma as VTEC have trademarked the brand. Azuma is the name Virgin have chosen to give their class 800 and 801 InterCity Express Trains. Although VTEC have chosen the name and the colour scheme most other aspects of the trains were specified by the government and we actually ordered before VTEC were given the franchise. The operator of the East Coast franchise had no option in choosing the trains so a change in franchisee won't change this,
Personally I think the best option would be for the government to take back the East Coast franchise and run it directly. Passengers and staff deserve some stability and many have now been through three separate franchises collapsing it would make sense if we went back to the formula that worked so well between 2009 and 2015.
Things aren't as simple as nationalisation good, privatisation bad or vice versa. An organisation is only as good as those who run it, you can get organisations badly managed both in the private and public sectors. If East Coast is nationalised again then it's important to get the management team right.
But what about Rewards?
It's a good time to start thinking about campaigning to get East Coast Rewards back. Although this won't be number one on the priority list for whoever takes over the running of the franchise it has to be made clear that it is something they do need to consider. We don't want them renewing the contract with Nectar if the change in franchise owner allows this to be terminated. I do believe if they had retained a decent loyalty scheme it would have helped them reach their passenger targets. Most of the efforts seemed to be encouraging new people into trying the service but neglecting their more frequent passengers.
If you look back at the history of loyalty schemes you'll notice that no operator was able to launch their loyalty scheme from day 1 (with the exception of VTEC with Nectar, but that's the one we wish they hadn't!). When GNER was replaced by National Express no new members of their GNERtime loyalty scheme were accepted but National Express did honour all existing benefits and sent members some additional free tickets to keep them happy until they were ready to launch their own scheme. Then when East Coast replaced National Express they kept their 'escape' loyalty scheme initially and the East Coast Rewards we all knew came about a couple of years later. So it would be unfair to expect a new operator to have a loyalty scheme ready from day one but hopefully they'd make some temporary measure in the interim like National Express did.
Hop on Board
Hop on Board is an ale by Rudgate Brewery that's only available on VTEC services. Hopefully either this will continue or the new operator sources interesting ales from around the East Coast route. It's good to see train operators support local suppliers on the route and this includes lesser known breweries.
It's likely the catering will stay the same over any transition period. This was the case when GNER became National Express and then when National Express became East Coast. The current catering offering on VTEC is based on the service style introduced by East Coast in 2011 with some tweaks. Once the new operator settles in we need to ensure catering standards are maintained. One area of massive complaint last year with VTEC was that the catering service had became unreliable. This generally started to improve towards the end of the year and so we need to ensure that any new operator understands the value we place in on-board catering both in first and standard class.
Will the bug infested booking engine follow us to a new operator? That will depend on whether the new operator wants it and also who currently holds the rights to it. To be honest I don't know my preferred answer to this question. It might be possible that the missing features are almost ready for release and therefore it would be worth continuing development. If the missing features are still not ready it may be worth ditching the booking engine completely and switching to a more mature one. There really needs to be work started on the app too, currently the functionality is limited.
Tickets and vouchers
Don't worry about purchasing tickets, any tickets issued now will have to be honoured if someone else takes over the franchise (even if they're labelled VTEC only) this also includes catering vouchers and lounge passes. Vouchers for rail travel will continue to be valid until their expiry date. If you have eVouchers in your online account I would recommend checking the value of these just in case they decide to change the booking engine again. In theory they should transfer over but in reality sometimes there can be issues.
Final word for now is from Stagecoach Chief Executive Martin Griffiths so you can hear his side of the story
There will be further blog posts through the week once we find out more.
(Posts in the blog section reflect the opinion of the contributor only)