I was asked yesterday why I thought Virgin Trains was a weaker brand on the east coast than it was on the west coast. When Virgin Trains West Coast looked like they were losing their franchise in 2012 (as First had won the bid) a lot of frenzy was whipped up on social media and Virgin were encouraging people to sign the petition to retain their franchise which resulted in 174,578 signatures.
Now Virgin Trains East Coast are having their franchise terminated early (replaced by LNER commencing 24 June 2018) there's not the same panic on Twitter and I'm not aware of any campaigns to keep VTEC. I'm sure if anyone launched a petition it wouldn't gain much traction (anyone want to try?)
Most of the people I've seen on Twitter that have been sorry about the loss of VTEC were more worried about the future of their great frontline staff (they're protected so will carry on at LNER on the same terms and conditions, the ones I've spoken to are delighted with the news) or thinking the new trains will be cancelled (the trains VTEC calls Azuma were ordered by the government, they will still be arriving, but it's important to note the 'coming 2018' VTEC say is misleading, only one train will be in service by December 2018 and the full rollout won't be complete until 2020).
So why did the Virgin brand not attract much love on the east coast?
Bad news before they start
In January 2015 East Coast Rewards had 671,000 members, they all received an email from East Coast saying that VTEC was planning on closing the Rewards scheme and replacing it with Nectar. The email had links to the East Coast site that further explained the plans including that season ticket holders and business travellers that had to book through an agency would be getting nothing.
This email, sent to those who were most engaged with the current operator at the time, meant that the first most heard about Virgin Trains East Coast was bad news. There wasn't even any good news provided in this initial email to take the sting off this.
Those who followed East Coast on social media would have been likely members of Rewards. The complaints soon started flooding in on Twitter once people realised that Nectar wouldn't be a good alternative. It was clear a lot of people were upset and so that's how Save East Coast Rewards was born (the original idea was from a colleague of mine, he's moved on put he put a lot of early energy into this campaign).
When VTEC took over in March 2015 they took over the East Coast twitter account and changed it to @Virgin_TrainsEC this meant all the existing followers of East Coast were now following VTEC.
As a lot of these people were already bitter about losing Rewards they weren't ready to be bombarded with all the cheery Virgin style tweets about joining the #VirginFamily and hashtags like #VirginSpin and #VirginDrivel were commonplace.
I'm sure a lot of people would have been a lot more welcoming if the first action wasn't to have taken away the Rewards scheme that many people were enthusiastic over.
Already seen as an inferior brand in the north east
For those who travelled on the ECML between Doncaster and Aberdeen they may have remembered the 'Virgin Trains' brand from CrossCountry. The original CrossCountry franchise was operated by Virgin Trains and many people considered it inferior to GNER. A lot of people in the north east won't have had any reason to use Virgin Trains West Coast so their only exposure to Virgin Trains was when they ran CrossCountry.
While InterCity East Coast had a mostly new fleet at the time of privatisation InterCity CrossCountry had an aging fleet. This meant at the very beginning of privatisation GNER looked a much better operator. They also built on what BR offered by improving the on-board service and keeping things like restaurants (they were the only operator to run more restaurants than British Rail did). Virgin seemed to have the policy of doing as little work on their old fleet as possible which was generally assumed it was to make their new fleet seem better when it arrived. The fleet they chose for CrossCountry was mostly 4 car Voyagers which were too short for the route and caused overcrowding. Now most Voyagers are 5 car and are doubled up in busy periods but they're still not ideal trains for the sort of routes CrossCountry does. When Virgin lost the franchise Arriva then had the misfortune of inheriting their fleet!
Because of this many people on the east coast didn't associate the Virgin Trains brand with quality.
Then the good stuff
In an earlier blog post I mention that VTEC seemed to get off to a good start. They didn't seem to want to change anything service related too drastically and they were building on the work East Coast did with on-board catering. Refurbishments on-board and in the lounges made it look like they planned to grow the business on improvements rather than cut backs.
From a passenger point of view service quality was maintained and so most of us were happy with VTEC saying that their only mistake was Nectar.
They even seemed to make Nectar play a low key, although as a Nectar partner they had to show their logo in a few places on the website and on some posters, they seemed to understand that many of us would rather not have the scheme pushed at us.
Then the cracks appear
At the beginning of 2017 it was all looking great for VTEC. This was the year when technology was going to revolutionise the business. This included new ticket machines, web booking engine and an app. But before that we had the start of the Catering Lottery where there was a chance you might not get the advertised catering either due to staff shortages or equipment failures.
As I've mentioned so many times before the web booking engine, app and ticket machines all had their issues and rather than revolutionising ticket purchase set us back 10 years in terms of some features.
In the stations they started sticking their banners in more places than ever before, something I've heard people describe as 'tacky' or even 'grafitti' as they think it spoils the look of some of the better stations. Pushing it more in the faces of people isn't going to help endear the brand to someone. They've also started making Nectar more prominent again, possibly as a last ditch attempt to make it work.
It was also becoming particularly clear in 2017 that VTEC was still taking their regulars for granted. There was no evidence of the promise of offering some benefits for high spenders (like GNERtime or NXEC escape) and it seemed like they were spending more efforts on getting the occasional traveller on board than they were in retaining regular travellers (you need to do both).
The passengers were also taken for idiots. When there was nearly a strike due to staff cutbacks on board David Horne said they were working on a "customer centric revolution". Apparently having fewer staff on board was supposed to deliver a better service.
The ticket barriers at Durham, Newark Northgate and Grantham were also removed. Someone asked on Twitter why this was and the reply was something along the lines of it was to make the stations more welcoming and friendly, the actual reason was so they didn't have to employ barrier staff. I know the reason why they couldn't just leave the barriers open when not staffed like they normally do but that's a story for another blog.
This is to make the station more open and friendly for passengers. ^SH
— Virgin Trains EC (@Virgin_TrainsEC) 10 July 2017
A final example of VTEC treating their passengers like idiots is when they said in an email to passengers who often book the first class quiet coach that they were doing this in response to customer demand. I've seen the survey they sent out and it was deliberately written in a way to ensure that the quiet coach would seem unpopular (it asked which features of first class do you value most. Therefore most people are going to select more space or catering, if they didn't care about that then they'd book the standard quiet coach).
Staff I've talked to have said the same. They get the same sort of patronising communications making cutbacks sound like improvements and trying to create the impression that all is going well.
In reality most people would respect the company more if they're not trying to claim everything is awesome when it's clear it's not as good as it should be.
Another thing to consider is Richard Branson and also the actions of other Virgin companies. This may also explain why people have a less positive opinion of Virgin as a whole. One of the key areas in 2017 was when it was reported that Virgin Care was suing NHS trusts. Personally I don't tend to think of Virgin as a single entity as the separate companies have different owners. Virgin Care is 100% Virgin owned and VTEC is only 10%. However, not everyone is aware of this (or cares) so the actions of Branson or another Virgin company can have a negative affect on the other ones.
Passengers on the west coast have had Virgin as their only long distance operator since privatisation. Those who remember British Rail will remember the fleet on the west coast was old and the line speed was never above 110mph. Therefore many see Virgin as the ones that transformed the west coast mainline. In reality it's a bit more complicated than this but most people credit Virgin with the improvements.
The east coast mainline was different. British Rail had just recently introduced an electric Class 91/mk 4 fleet and so the vast majority of rolling stock was modern when it was handed over to GNER. So GNER built upon a relatively modern fleet and then renovated them when it became necessary.
So long time west coast travellers credit Virgin with revolutionising the west coast mainline while east coast travellers are more likely to think of Virgin CrossCountry and associate GNER with quality.
One thing I don't know is the demographics of users of both lines. Do the people who travel on the west coast fit the core Virgin demographic, is there still a core demographic that finds Virgin appealing?
When privatisation was happening I was just finishing school and the sound of Virgin running the trains sounded appealing. Their marketing made Virgin Atlantic sound a great way to travel and I thought this would work better than bus companies (First, National Express) or shipping companies (GNER was owned by Sea Containers) running the franchises. In the end the east coast got GNER and as I moved through college and university those students who had to travel by train also tended to prefer GNER if it was an option on this route. Once they tried Virgin XC they realised it wasn't a great experience compared to GNER.