A year ago (2016) I felt positive about the future of Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC). Apart from the loyalty scheme things seemed to be going in the right direction. That is until 2017 when things started to take a downward decline, one of the worst changes in 2017 was the premature launch of a new booking engine.

The role of head of eCommerce and retail is ultimately responsible for deciding that the new website should go live on 1st August despite it missing critical features, still buggy and due to not offering the full range of tickets means that some people ended up paying more than they should. The same team is also responsible for delivering the 'Travel Buddy' app that is basically just a wrapper around the website and has received many 1 star reviews.

I've worked on enough projects to know that things don't always go to plan. Delays happen and sometimes you just need to go live even if the end product is not ideal. In this case there happened to be so many issues that the launch should have been postponed until they were resolved. The migration in particular was handled badly meaning users who had booked on the old site weren't able to access these bookings, even if the migration script had worked they were only offered a read only view of their old bookings. This caused massive hassle and the wait times for web support sometimes exceeded an hour, all this could have been avoided with some better planning.

It's now October, the site has been live since August, and had been in public beta since at least June. When the site was in beta I spent some time going through the site noting both bugs and suggested improvements. The site was missing some key features which we've had since 2007 when WebTIS (also known as Mixing Deck) was introduced by GNER and was continued to be used by National Express East Coast, East Coast and VTEC until August. It was also adopted by other operators such as GWR and Chiltern.

When one customer asked about the lack of cycle reservations on Twitter during the beta period they were told the site was in beta and the feature would be added. It has yet to be added...

But when they were asked a simple yes/nno question there was no reply. This was when I started to worry that this feature wouldn't make the first release. In fact I suspect it somehow got missed off the initial requirements, otherwise why wouldn't they have ensured this feature was in from the beginning like GNER had managed when they were the launch operator for WebTIS?

At the beginning I had a positive dialog with the head of eCommerce seemingly happy to take all the feedback on board, but it was frustrating as the launch date approached there was no confirmation whether key features would make it. Just like Henry above, I didn't get an answer on cycle reservations, I also didn't get a reply about catering vouchers (which is something else that's missing, despite adding in support for London Travelcards which is just a rip off for visitors to London). The official line was the launch had been well planned.

A lot of people who were previously happy with VTEC are now finding themselves frustrated and the two main reasons have been a decline in the on-board service due to staffing cuts and the poorly thought out roll out of the new booking engine. There's been a suggestion that more staff will be reintroduced on the trains from the December timetable change but the timetable to reintroduce features into the new booking engine remains a mystery to us.

We're only seeing this from a customers perspective here. It's possible that the eCommerce team had their hands tied and had to launch the new site before it was ready due to a decision made by senior management, it's also possible that David Horne (the managing director) had been shielded from the details of how much of a disaster launching the website in the current state would have been. One of VTECs values supposedly is to 'Do the right thing' and that's what we suggested they did before they launched the new website.

Virgin, in general not just VTEC in particular, need to manage expectations better. They market everything they do as amazing and never seem to admit when they make a mistake. The motto seems to be over promise and under deliver, the website has a few decent features already but they're overshadowed by what it's missing.

^DH - views in the blog section reflect the individual contributor and may not reflect the views of the Save East Coast Rewards campaign.