I've heard from a number of people who are concerned that nothing will change. We've mentioned before that there is very little change at the top, the MD will be transferring to LNER as will almost all the existing directors. Understandably many think this will be just like Virgin with a new label slapped on and some say it's still Stagecoach in all but name.
This is a quote from one member of disappointed staff
I had the same optimism until the retention of the VTEC Directors was announced. I have lost all hope of ever seeing the ECML back where it should be.
Those Directors are nothing but hypocrites if they abandon the VTEC awesome, wahey, taking everyone to amazing nonsense for whatever direction LNER decide to go in.
How are we (staff and passengers) supposed to trust them when they've spent three plus years spewing out the VTEC gimmicky nonsense only to start being all LNER as they are their new paymaster?
It's all set up with Stagecoach people who will readily be in place when the franchise is "awarded" to Stagecoach in 2020.
They're not the only ones that suspect that the government is planning to award LNER to Stagecoach in 2020 and business will carry on as usual with the vast majority of the public not even realising it's back in Stagecoach hands.
Here's another quote
The staff and proper managers certainly are not happy. It's just VTEC under a new name. Absolutely disgraceful appointments, none of them should have been retained.
LNER needed a fresh start and this ain't it.
Although not everyone agrees (I've heard from some people who have enjoyed their time at VTEC) there is a significant morale issue currently. It seems to mainly stem from when cutbacks were made to on-board crews, although the redundancies were voluntary it did leave a number of trains short staffed, although this has improved since December 2017 there's still reports of staff shortages. There also appears to be staff shortages at stations, sometimes ticket offices are closing early and other times they're short staffed. The new ticket machines still don't do all transactions that you need to be able to do and they're quite complex to use so ticket offices are still important. Station staff are also needed to ensure the lounges are kept clean and well stocked.
The management need to look at the causes of low morale and promise to work on improving it. As well as staffing issues I've heard some staff say the internal communications can be written in a patronising way, they won't admit if something isn't going well and so a lot of them don't feel valued. There needs to be an open and honest discussion (although staff should be allowed to submit concerns anonymously if they're worried). It can take a lot to win back the trust of people but it's not impossible. They need to give it a shot.
Why we're optimistic...
Although it's the same people there's a couple of crucial elements that have changed:
- No longer tied to the franchise agreement this means no commitment to have to pay the expensive premiums Stagecoach was committed to - this means they should be able to allocate more money towards areas that need improving such as on-train maintenance and staffing. It hopefully means any committed obligations in the franchise that don't make commercial sense are also no longer required (franchise commitments were one of the reasons VTEC appeared to be investing in 'nice to haves' while cutting back on the basics).
- No Virgin brand means that they can take the image of the company in a different direction. It will be interesting to see how the brand and marketing teams work with the brand. It needs to be a strong brand recognised for quality. It's a new chance to build a brand from the ground up.
- The senior team should have a good idea now what is popular with passengers, and what they've done which hasn't worked out like they'd hoped. If they use these lessons and admit when things don't work out as planned they can start LNER off on the right track.
On the negative side we could have the DfT putting limits on what they can spend and say that staffing levels can't be improved but then again if the government are going to do this it would affect whoever is managing the company. Hopefully the government will realise that maintenance and providing the advertised service are things that need to be invested in.
What we'd like to see...
Improve staff morale by showing what plans they are to change and admit when things haven't worked to plan.
The most important thing in the short term is to address the maintenance issues. Carriage maintenance issues can affect accessible toilets (well they can affect any toilets but as HSTs only have one and mk4s only have two, one in each class, the accessible toilets are vital), catering and air-conditioning among other things. Maintenance of the locomotives and power cars can affect reliability.
Even with the best will in the world it can never be 100% reliable so communication is important. When we get the information of set issues we tweet it out, but we'd rather not. If LNER informs passengers affected by the issue they get to control the message, they can say what is being done about the issues. Giving passengers notice mean they can make alternative arrangements whether that's taking a different train if their ticket allows it or making preparations beforehand for catering issues. For passengers with accessibility issues knowing about defective toilets will mean they can discuss alternative options sooner.
VTEC offer probably the best complimentary catering on-train catering service in Britain but it's let down by reliability issues either caused due to maintenance, staff shortage or occasionally supply issues. More recently there also appears to have been cutbacks on the quality of the food (the chicken wrap contains so little chicken it could probably qualify as the vegan option - I've been tempted to do a video dismantling a VTEC chicken wrap and compare it with a £2.50 Tesco chicken wrap). If you take an evening meal service you can still see how good VTEC can be. So all we ask from LNER is to consistently offer the advertised catering, inform us before boarding if this isn't possible and ensure that the sandwiches and wraps are of a decent standard.
Once the basics are sorted then it would be good to revisit the loyalty scheme. As well as being an excellent tool to drive more sales they also make regular passengers feel valued and that sort of goodwill is great when things go wrong. The loyalty scheme would encourage people booking direct which would mean it is easier to identifty passengers who have had issues on their trains and be able to proactively offer something as an apology (British Airways often awards their frequent flyers Avios points as compensation if things go wrong in addition to any compensation they're legally obliged to pay).
What we'll do...
The policy of Save East Coast Rewards has always been that it's better to work with VTEC/LNER than against them, that doesn't mean we won't be critical if we don't agree on their approach. As was seen with VTEC if we believe they're heading in the wrong direction and don't appear to be listening we're not afraid to be heard.
Initially we will be giving LNER some time while they work out what, if anything, they plan to change with the company direction but we will continue to publish any maintenance information that we get until they start providing it themselves.
In the medium term the aim is to provide a status page where we can collect information about the maintenance issues and shortforms to make it easier to identify sets that are constantly having problems.
A rebrand for us makes sense too. When East Coast became VTEC losing Rewards was the biggest issue and as most of the other problems didn't start to appear until 2017 the brand Save East Coast Rewards had stuck meaning many people think Rewards is the only thing we care about.
Ultimately the aim would be to develop a platform for passengers and staff (either official involvement or anonymously) to be able to air their concerns, share ideas and give praise where it's due. If you're familiar with Virgin Trains 'Viewpoint' panel then it would be something like that, but done right. It this works as planned it would be great if LNER also used it to interact with passengers in an official capacity.