Comments in the blog section reflect my personal view only and may not reflect the views of Save East Coast Rewards as a whole
It's hard to believe that Save East Coast Rewards actually had a decent relationship with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) from around mid-2015 but this started to fall apart in 2017.
For the first two years it seemed like VTEC were just building on the success of East Coast, making small changes to the service style but nothing too drastic and adding new items to the menu including Hop on Board ale and prosecco. The trains were also refurbished and the entertainment on demand service BEAM was launched. Although the refurb was mostly cosmetic (the seats were the same just new covers and carpets) it was good to feel that the company was investing. Although I did question how it was possible for VTEC to pay such high premiums they had me assured that they were going to grow the business by investing in quality. Making passengers want to come back is the best way to achieve loyalty after all.
So by the summer of 2015 I'd been to one of the Airtime meet the manager events and talked to David Horne (MD) and many of the other senior team. A couple of the social media team also happened to be there (^MS and ^JW)
— David Horne (@DavidHorne) July 16, 2015
I had a talk about their commitment to technology. I was given the confidence that they had big plans to invest in technology to improve the experience.
VTEC used to spend a lot of time participating in events on the route. I met some of their team at Newcastle Pride 2015 but they were also present at many other events along the route.
— Save EC Rewards (@SaveECRewards) 29 August 2015
In 2016 I was even invited to the Azuma launch event which was the first time most people could see one of their new trains up close and the first time they announced that it was going to be called Azuma. It was a major event which included Richard Branson, Brian Souter and David Horne. Former East Coast MD Karen Boswell was also there as now she's MD of Hitachi Rail Europe who are building the new trains. I even managed to Tweet out pictures before the VTEC social team managed to!
— Save EC Rewards (@SaveECRewards) 18 March 2016
So from a passenger point of view 2016 was a good year. I was travelling quite frequently at this point and the tradition of excellent service carried on. In the first two years I had only encountered a single train where the advertised catering was not provided (due to kitchen failures), ironically it was the trip when I was travelling to meet the management at the Airtime event. Although catering failures did happen they were quite rare at this point.
In 2016 I ran a poll on the website asking your views on VTEC and Nectar. The reason for this was I wanted to separate out people's thoughts of Nectar when judging the rest of the performance of the franchise.
The poll is here and the results were positive for VTEC. The most popular result was "Love VTEC, hate Nectar" at 43%, people who rated VTEC OK or above was 84% with only 16% rating VTEC as rubbish.
Although different people have different views I thought the Bound for Glory ad campaign hit the right notes and helped create a good impression of the Virgin brand.
The video "Taking everyone to amazing" created a positive view of the future.
In 2017 the hashtag #CateringLottery came about. This was caused because the number of services without the advertised catering started to increase. This was often caused due to shift rota changes that happened in April along with failures of the kitchen equipment. The second main issue was eCommerce, we were promised an investment in technology but in the end what we received was worse than what it replaced. The new web booking engine lacks features that the previous one (that we had since 2007) had such as cycle reservations, modifying tickets and ordering catering vouchers. It also had a number of bugs which meant you could be overcharged for your tickets.
The ticket machines have two issues, reliability and usability. The machines now seem out of service more often and for usability they make the simple tasks too complex. Here we compare the VTEC ticket machines to the Great Northern ones.
But worst of all is their app "Travel Buddy". It keeps having stability issues meaning that passengers can't access their tickets that they've downloaded to the app. The app hasn't had very good reviews.
The marketing also seemed to take a turn for the worse. The 'Bound for Glory' ads had came to an end but the new 'Spandau v Speedcore/Metal' ads were just annoying. In the stations the ads were getting more in your face too with banners plastered all over the place. This really needed to be toned down.
Although I was trying to first try and feedback issues directly to VTEC I felt like I was getting ignored. It felt very much that VTEC management were taking a 'head in the sand' approach and so to get heard I needed to make a lot more noise so I used the Virgin playbook of being loud, cheeky and with a bit of humour.
So to show how I thought the new booking engine was taking us backwards I launched a parody site called Virgin Train's [sp] East Coast - the new booking engine took us back over 10 years in functionality to 2007 so I looked at what it might look like if phase 2 took us back another 10 years. I also did more serious blog articles indicating where I thought they were going wrong. I also did some Twitter polls and found that the opinion of VTEC has dropped sharply among the followers of the SaveECRewards Twitter account.
#POLL who was the best private operator of the InterCity East Coast franchise? GNER operated 1996-2007, National Express 2007-2009 and Virgin Trains EC from 2015
— Save EC Rewards (@SaveECRewards) 8 February 2018
— Save EC Rewards (@SaveECRewards) 5 January 2018
— Save EC Rewards (@SaveECRewards) 12 October 2017
It seems quite surprising how quickly the mood has changed. I've also noticed people being more negative towards VTEC in general in other forums compared to how they were in 2016.
A number of staff have spoken to me since I started documenting all the failures from a passenger point of view and have told me that it's the same for the staff too. They get the same nonsense that every cutback is an improvement, staff have said they'd have more respect if they were honest about any cost cutting they need to do rather than wrap it up as an amazing improvement.
If I had been told in 2016 that VTEC would be having their franchise terminated early I probably would have disappointed but as 2017 ticked on they just seemed to get more defensive and arrogant. I would rather have worked with them than against them, but they showed that they weren't willing to listen to either passengers or their front line staff.
Just to further show that VTEC aren't interested in listening towards the end of last year they cancelled all the remaining 'Airtime' meet the manager events (there was events already planned in to 2018) and they had planned to disband their passenger panel that used to meet in person and instead rely on an online only platform.
So hopefully we can work closer with LNER. I really do want to see the East Coast succeed as do the others that have contributed to this project. I've personally spent a lot of time, energy and money on trying to raise awareness of the declining standards. I'd rather put this time and effort towards working together to ensure the East Coast is heading on the right path. After all silly 'wars' are very much a Virgin thing!