It's been a while since I've had a Tweet like this:
Oh do give your hate of Virgin East Coast a rest, it's becoming like a broken record. LNER won't be the saviour, who knows they might even do away with any sort of reward program
— Kite (@KiteWithRoseton) 2 June 2018
A lot of tweets in the early days along the lines of 'give it up' and more amusingly 'Virgin [or Stagecoach] know what they're doing' considering they realised they had got their figures wrong just weeks into the franchise I don't think that counts as knowing what they're doing.
So for those who don't follow closely it may seem that I have a deep hate for Virgin because of scrapping Rewards. This is not true. Although it was a mistake for them to scrap the Rewards scheme (they may have come closer to their projected growth targets if they hadn't alienated their regular passengers from day one), between 2015 and mid 2017 I had a decent relationship with Virgin Trains East Coast. I was even invited to the Azuma launch event.
For the first few years it seemed the only mistake VTEC made was the loyalty scheme. The rest seemed to be building on the success of East Coast so I was happy with VTEC overall, sad they got rid of Rewards but still rated them the best operator in the UK.
So we can break down my current issues with Virgin Trains East Coast as follows:
- In 2017 they changed staff rotas meaning fewer staff rostered on board. This meant some trains didn't have enough staff to do the full catering offering. The first thing to go when there's staff shortages is the standard class trolley, then the service in first class gets reduced. If you've booked first class for the purpose of enjoying a hot meal on a 4+ hour trip to Edinburgh then you're going to be disappointed. Catering has always been important on the ECML, GNER had great pride in their catering, East Coast launched the current complimentary service style. For me messing with the catering messes with one of the things that made East Coast special.
- The changing rotas also affected a lot of staff morale. Staff make the service what it is. Many continue to deliver a good service while hating their employer, something is wrong there! The 'Virgin Way' is supposedly to look after your employees but at VTEC this wasn't the case. On the day it was announced that VTEC had lost their franchise I jumped on a number of trains asking staff what they thought of the news and all of them were delighted. I did the same when I travelled on the weekend after the announcement. Everybody I met on these days seemed happy. I know not everyone will be happy, but the ones I encountered since the announcement certainly were.
- The new VTEC booking engine and ticket machines. I've written a lot about these already. In terms of features the booking engine has taken us back 10 years. We lost the ability to change tickets online and to book cycle reservations online (which is a pain as cycle reservations are mandatory on VTEC services), a number of bugs in the site meant you could get overcharged in certain situations too.
- Station staff have been reduced too. This means many ticket offices are closing earlier, ticket barriers have been removed at Durham, Newark NG and Grantham and at terminating stations there's fewer staff available to put the reservations out. This also affects stations with first class lounges as stocks in the lounge are replenished less often (Newcastle and Doncaster now rarely have biscuits) and also the lounges are often a mess due to no one to tidy them.
- Maintenance issues and the poor information provided around these. A number of trains have had issues with accessible toilets being out of order, the same with kitchen equipment which is another reason some trains don't have the advertised catering. Rather than inform people in advance of these issues so people can make alternative arrangements this information is not made public because they don't want the bad press surrounding it. Even if accessible toilets and catering don't affect you then issues with the air conditioning might do in the summer, there's been many reports so far with sets with air conditioning troubles.
LNER deserve a bit of time to get things back on track, there won't be miracles from day one, but I see it being the same as when East Coast took over from National Express. The outgoing operator had to pay crazy premiums to the government so towards the end was trying to cut back on anything they could to save money, the same is happening here with VTEC. LNER won't have the same financial pressures as they won't have fixed premiums to pay, this can give them the opportunity to address issues such as catering and maintenance which will be putting some people off travelling. Within a few months of East Coast taking over from National Express the improvements started to be noticed.
Ultimately the InterCity East Coast francise is a highly profitable one. Unfortunately because of that operators have a tendancy to overbid. The National Express East Coast bid was way too high and they failed so why VTEC thought bidding significantly more was going to work I have no idea.
If they had made a more reasonable bid I could have seen Virgin Trains East Coast doing well. Without the promise of massive premiums to the government they could have built on the good work of East Coast and delivered an excellent service. I'm not sure what went wrong with the ticket machines and web booking engine, I had great hopes in their ability to advance technology but it turned out disappointing.
This video shows what they had planned for 2017 with their app and failed to deliver.
As for Rewards, even if LNER start with no loyalty scheme that's a good thing. If they carry on with Nectar it's possible that they'll be locked into it by contract for a number of years, but hopefully that won't be the case and, like East Coast, can develop a successful Rewards scheme. As for Nectar, if you really miss Nectar just book your tickets with GWR, SWR or TransPennine Express, unlike Virgin, they give points for ALL rail travel.