I first started regularly travelling GNER in 1999. They were the first operator on the East Coast Mainline to take over from British Rail and they were the company that gave me my love of rail travel and the appreciation of the East Coast Mainline offering a much more special service than you'd get elsewhere.
Even though I travelled exclusively in standard class at the time GNER still seemed special. It was the people who made (and still make) the service special.
I soon discovered that on a weekend you could get cheap upgrades to first class and so that was the start of my regular travelling in the comfortable seats. It was always nice getting on a train and then being recognised from a previous trip. I was travelling regularly and so quite a few people on board recognised me.
When I was travelling weekdays I often heard announcements about a restaurant on board. At the time I thought it would be a restaurant in the same way as McDonald's is a restaurant. I thought it would be nothing more than serving the food from the buffet to you at your seat.
I was completely wrong, I found out each train with a restaurant had a chef that'd offer amazing breakfasts and three course meals for lunch and dinner. Some of the trains also offered lighter lunch options for people who didn't want a big meal. Whereas a few operators ran a restaurant on a few trains a day, GNER inherited 66 services a day with a restaurant offering from British Rail and increased it to 100 a day over the course of their franchise. Fine dining was available on so many trains, it truly was a magical experience.
GNER were great with customer relations too. Most of my emails were answered the same day, sometimes the same hour. Although there was probably a significantly lower number of people using email in the early 2000's it's a shame that now we're told that response times can be up to 20 days.
Even the little details mattered from linen tablecloths in the restaurant to glassware with the GNER crest on it. The experience in first class had a luxury feel to it.
One thing that hasn't changed is the people. GNER employed some amazing people and that tradition has continued on through the other franchises. When the Hatfield and Great Heck rail crashes happened it was a sad time thinking that these great teams had lost some of their friends and colleagues in these accidents. Seeing many of them evey week and always being made to feel welcome did make you feel part of the GNER family. I remember trying Virgin Trains on the West Coast when they got their Pendolinos and I was totally underwhelmed, there just wasn't the style or quality that GNER offered.
So we've had a couple of franchise changes later and although we no longer have restaurants we still have a complimentary meal offering that puts Virgin Trains West Coast to shame. We still have an amazing team (some are from the GNER days, some are more recent), then you have the other aspects that make it special including the views. The East Coast ad campaign summed it up well, I do still "Feel at home" on East Coast trains.
To me VTEC is East Coast first and Virgin second (although ECVT wouldn't sound right!) When they started with the announcement that they were scrapping Rewards (we've always had a proper loyalty scheme on East Coast) it made me think it was going to be the start of many cutbacks and we'd soon end up with a clone of Virgin Trains West Coast with nothing remaining that made East Coast special.
In the end, with the exception of loyalty, I was pleasantly surprised in 2015 and in 2016 we started to see some improvements such as refurbishments and the entertainment system #BEAM. The loyalty and recognition, however, continued to disappoint. After a massive glimmer of hope in Christmas 2015, I never received a single free ticket, lounge pass or other reward in 2016 despite spending over £6k that year. If I stick my approximate spend into our points calculator I see I would have earned the following with East Coast Rewards:
- 20 First Class single tickets valid anywhere on the East Coast Route
- 3 First Class lounge passes or 24 hour on-board WiFi vouchers
I would have been more than happy with an annual lounge pass (for the times I travel standard) and a small number of free tickets or even catering vouchers. Although the Christmas 2015 surprise was a lot less than I got with Rewards, it was disappointing I got nothing in 2016.
I know a number of people who travel signnificantly less than me who got lounge passes last year (and this year) for their loyalty. With previous loyalty schemes (East Coast Rewards, Escape, GNERtime and GNERexcel) you knew what you needed to obtain a lounge pass. With airlines I know how much I need to fly to get the status that gives me lounge access, With VTEC I feel like I travelled too much with them in 2016 so I'm taken for granted and they're targeting lower spending customers who they think they can convince to travel more.
It wasn't loyalty schemes that kept me loyal to GNER it was their excellent service. I wasn't a member of their scheme in the beginning but when I started to travel more the schemes managed to make the experience more special so the removal of the loyalty scheme was just one more thing which helped make East Coast unique.
So 2017 has to be the year of the mistakes. It started with the rollout of the ticket machines. They have a number of usability issues and also reliability issues. This was followed by crew rota changes meaning some trains were running with only two crew which definitely affects the quality of service and now it's the disastrous roll out of the new online booking engine.
As someone who wants the East Coast Mainline to remain special I want to see VTEC succeed. By succeed I mean for all of us, not just the shareholders. I don't want a cut back west coast style offering where I can't get hot food in first class after 7pm. The west coast offering is impersonal and can be performed with fewer staff but it reduces the feel of quality. I was told back in 2015 that VTEC wanted to grow the business by offering a quality product, not by cutbacks. They also need to understand that to win over business travellers on key long distance routes like Edinburgh - London they need to offer the regulars some advantages like British Airways do.
So the reason I'm annoyed about the rollout of this new website is because I care. I work on software development projects for a living. Most of these projects I don't particularly care about but I make sure I do my part to deliver a quality product. I know it's too late now but I would have loved to be part of a development project for something I was actually interested in, something that I knew a lot about and something I could have been able to spot at an early stage if the project was going off track. I would have noticed missing requirements like the lack of cycle reservations and raised them at an early stage.
Some people at VTEC have pointed out that this is just stage one and there's more to come, but in the meantime customers who need to make changes to their bookings are told to phone up, people who need to book bikes are also told to phone up. This has caused massive delays on the phone lines. When implementing a new product it should not be released until it is ready and core functionality that people use every day is implemented. In the meantime they should have kept the new site running in the background as a beta. Once the required features are in and tested then the new site could be made live.
So who knows who's to blame here. Did VTEC poorly define the requirements, did the developers not understand the requirements? Is cost cutting to blame?
In my meetings with VTEC in 2015 and 2016 they gave me great optimism about the use of technology within VTEC to improve the customer experience, the new website is part of that. I'm worried that there'll be more failings in the future where software is rushed out untested or still with known issues.
So for the sake of the customers and the staff who are the face of the organisation and help keep East Coast special, I hope that VTEC spends some time looking at what has gone wrong and works on plans to improve it.
(the articles in the blog section represent the views of the contributor and may not reflect the views of the Save East Coast Rewards Campaign