Although it's impossible to keep everyone happy we did find that in the first two years Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) did quite a good job except with the loyalty scheme. A poll we ran in 2016 had over 1000 votes with the majority rating VTEC highly.
So now what's changed? It almost seems like every change they make this year is bad news for passenger experience. Here's the key changes:
- New ticket machines have been rolled out across the VTEC network. Based on the number of complaints that have been Tweeted about them it seems inadequate usability testing was performed on them. What's even worse is they seem to suffer stability problems meaning sometimes all the machines are out of service meaning no one can collect tickets.
- Changes to the on-board roles and rotas have seen the guards become Train Managers meaning as well as being responsible for safety and revenue they're also responsible for the on-board catering services. Many trains now have fewer staff which makes it harder to deliver the advertised catering service. You may board a long trip to Edinburgh looking forward to the (usually excellent) evening meal menu, but end up getting just a pre-packaged sandwich due to staff cutbacks.
- The new website launch has caused a whole range of issues, we predicted this would happen but the launch went ahead. Here's a summary of some of the issues.
- Related to the crew changes on-board you will notice some small changes in first class such as the sandwiches being served in a box all week (they used to be only boxed on a weekend and served on a plate weekdays). In standard class, the trolley service is becoming rare.
- Cutbacks in the first class lounges such as removing Coke and Diet Coke which used to be available at King's Cross, many smaller lounges don't have biscuits and they're often left untidy.
Despite all this is important to put this in perspective, we still have one of the better train services in the UK. We still have some of the best on-board teams in the UK. But despite all that we need to ensure standards are kept high, they should not be allowed to slip. We don't want the East Coast to become a clone of Virgin Trains West Coast or even worse, sink to the level of some of the other long distance operators (although we enjoy the GWR Pullman service, it has to be remembered its regular long distance first class offering is disappointing, except for the seats).
GNER set high standards on the East Coast Mainline and although they slipped under National Express they were improved under East Coast (some consider GNER the better operator, others prefer East Coast they both had their good points, although neither were perfect). East Coast showed that it was possible to make a profit while providing good service and even offer the UK's best loyalty scheme on top of that. Although VTEC dropped the loyalty scheme they did continue to maintain standards in the first two years, while refurbishing the fleet and making improvements to the catering selection (such as Hop on Board) overall things looked positive.
We think it's better to work with VTEC than against them and therefore we have always been open to providing feedback. On the other hand if they make changes that make our experience worse while trying to make them sound like improvements we have to ensure our voice is heard.
When the new website appeared as a beta in June we looked over the site and provided detailed feedback on many areas of the site, we also enquired about whether we could beta test the app which had not been launched at that point (and turned out to be a disaster) but never received a reply on this. We originally kept feedback about the website private between ourselves and VTEC and only started criticising in public once it was clear they'd be launching without many key features. At this point we knew the launch would be a failure and result in many annoyed customers, the site is lacking key features that we've had since 2007 and now many of us have come to rely on. In the end the launch was even worse than we expected as they also hadn't made it possible to edit bookings made on the old site.
At the moment we don't feel like anyone in VTEC is listening so it's important for all of us to do our part to help VTEC management get their heads out of the sand.
Compliment and complain
It's important that you get your feedback heard. We don't think feedback via Twitter is logged as an individual complaint, just the feedback collected in aggregate. Formal complaint figures have to be reported by the rail operator to the regulator so these have to be addressed.
On the other hand, just complaining is not the best approach, also let them know where they're going right. Had excellent service on-board, let them know about it! Let them know we appreciate things such as chef prepared evening meals or the excellent crews who are doing their best under difficult circumstances.
It's best to use the correct webform so the feedback reaches the correct people.
Here's the links to report positive comments:
- Praise a member of staff - this could be on-board, at the station, over the phone or online
- Catering feedback - use this form for praise or general comments, see below for catering complaints
- General feedback/enquiries
Using the official complaints forms will ensure your feedback is logged as a complaint.
- Ticket buying process/facilities - this includes the new website, ticket machines and telesales
- About my journey - this will include the advertised catering service not being delivered, issues with heating, air conditioning, sockets, WiFi, etc
- About a member of the team - hopefully this is one you'll never need to use
Positive feedback helps VTEC understand the value of some of the services they currently offer as well as give the opportunity for them to reward those who provide excellent service. Complaints will show that they must do better and not let standards slip. Both are important.