As 6 months have passed I thought it'd be time to write about my thoughts on the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. At this stage it's important to point out that these views are my own (Dave - ^DH on Twitter), and may not reflect the views of other Save East Coast Rewards contributors. We all agree that East Coast Rewards was an excellent scheme and more effort needs to be done to make us passengers feel more valued but individual views on the running of this franchise do differ.
So I'm going to answer some questions that I made up, feel free to ask me anything else on Twitter ;) As I was one of the founders of this campaign I've been around since January.
What were your thoughts prior to the franchise switchover?
To say I was worried was an understatement, we had a well run franchise with an excellent loyalty scheme and the first public announcement VTEC made was they were scrapping the loyalty scheme and replacing it with Nectar. This was a bad start because they were scrapping something that was appreciated by many and I was worried that this would be the first of many cutbacks.
I did gain more confidence when I found out more about their MD, David Horne, and speaking to staff on my regular trains they were very confident in the future. This is contrary to when National Express (NXEC) took over the franchise where staff were unhappy and morale was low. As one of the most important aspects of the on-board service are the people who deliver it I think staff morale is important.
How did the early days go?
My first VTEC experience was very positive, in fact it was pretty much the same as East Coast but with new name badges and the locomotive had a Virgin banner on it. I found this reassuring as it showed they weren't about to rush out and make any other (i.e. except Nectar) major changes on day one just because they could. There was a nice poster at King's Cross station which acknowledged the good work of East Coast:
Great people, greater things
We've seen what East Coast have achieved over the last few years, a true railway success story. We're not here to change that, but to add to it. Building something for the future, together.
Welcome to Virgin Trains East Coast, the start of an amazing journey.
That was on the 1st March and also travelling on the 2nd March was pretty much the same thing.
Then on the 3rd March some guy with a beard came along acting like he owned the place (Virgin only own 10% of Virgin Trains East Coast). In a newspaper article he told us he wanted to make East Coast sing like the West Coast, comparing East Coast to the run down West Coast service Virgin took over in 1997. In fact it's totally different, the East Coast service has always been highly regarded whether under British Rail, GNER or East Coast whereas the west coast was well overdue for an upgrade in 1997. I considered Branson rubbishing the East Coast as an insult to everyone who's worked hard to keep the standards high on this line.
Although the livery is one of the least important things about the franchise I do think they've done a good job of it and I think it suits this style of train better than the Virgin Trains West Coast livery would have done. But I do think a change in livery will be in order when the new trains arrive as this style wouldn't suit a more modern train quite as well.
How are things now?
Not too bad! For me the service has been as good as ever. A few minor issues but East Coast had their share of issues too, there doesn't seem to be any major issues, I still enjoy travelling on VTEC. On the other hand British Airways seem to be doing all they can to take the fun out of flying so although I expected to be flying more I gave up on that idea pretty quickly. Although I can drive, I don't own a car as I generally have no need for one being based in London. So while I'm happy with VTEC now, if things did decline or get too expensive it would see me getting a car.
Private or Nationalised?
My fondest memories of rail travel were during the GNER days. I loved that just about every weekday service at or around mealtimes had an on-board restaurant and they took pride in their glassware (it feels better drinking wine out of a wine glass rather than a tumbler). Being able to have a three course meal on-board the train is a great experience. Therefore I can't say privatisation is always bad and I'm certainly happy to give Virgin Trains East Coast a chance to prove themselves. However, I did believe East Coast was doing a good job and was profitable that the government should have instead focused on poor performing franchises such as Greater Anglia rather than risking a generally successful formula.
What have been the nice surprises?
They still talk to me! :) I've spoken to many people at various levels of the organisation including David Horne and they are keen to listen, he's one of the few railway MDs on Twitter and is happy for you to email him. The Save East Coast Rewards team have started an ongoing dialogue with the marketing director, Danny, with the intention of having meetings going forward every few months to see how things are progressing in our efforts to see passengers get rewarded more.
That said, the journey should be its own reward and I want to see the franchise be a success. If the only mistake they've made by the end of their franchise is Nectar then they'll probably still be the best operator in the UK. They have the right team to do great things, let's just hope that their budgets allow it (while keeping fares fair!)
The thing that's impressed me more than anything about VTEC is their community engagement. Doing things that promote the areas served by VTEC is a win-win situation for both themselves and the economies of the local areas if they can get more people to visit. Big events they've had a presence at have included the Lincoln Magna Carta celebrations, Newcastle (and the lesser known London) Pride and Edinburgh Fringe.
So as their launch poster said "great people, greater things!" I'm still optimistic for the future, even if it'll never be quite as rewarding. But don't worry, if I see standards slipping I'll certainly be doing my best to keep them on their toes and make improvements. Let's ensure we keep the East Coast the best in the UK.