Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) have now been the operator of the InterCity East Coast franchise for two years, taking over from the state owned East Coast on 1st March 2015. We're taking a look at how VTEC has performed over the last year in the following areas:
There's a few areas of improvement that will help make the journey more enjoyable for passengers. The main one of these is BEAM which is a new video on demand service launched on both Virgin Trains East Coast and West Coast in June. As many passengers are travelling with an Android or iOS device they have created an app that allows the user to watch content that's stored on a server on the train. As the content is stored locally it does not affect the performance of the WiFi and is accessible free of charge even if the customer does not have free WiFi access.
Similar systems are available elsewhere including some airlines and more recently National Express coaches (the on-coach system is branded VUER). Some of the airline systems also allow you to watch live TV, which could be an future improvement to BEAM, another suggestion would be to make catch-up TV content available from the main UK channels.
For catering the main change is the menus in both first class and standard are now produced in association with James Martin. A key improvement with the new first class menus is that you're now able to get hot food all day. The old menus used to have an afternoon tea menu which only offered sandwiches and a cut down mid-morning menu. The new menus offer a full breakfast until 11am and then the all day menu takes over with a mix of hot and cold items. The popular chef-produced Evening Meal menu has been retained on services from King's Cross and more chefs have been introduced on the breakfast trains meaning the freshly cooked breakfast complete with fried egg can be offered on more services. The main downside with the James Martin menu is there's only two menu rotations rather than four which were available previously, this is OK for the occasional traveller but for regulars it does get a bit repetitive after a few months, maybe changing the menus four times a year rather than two would keep things more interesting.
It's worth mentioning that the East Coast offering is still lacking something at the weekend, however it is infinitely better than its West Coast counterpart. We will be pushing VTEC to ensure that even if the two operators adopt some similarities between themselves that they must retain their food offering rather than adopting the West Coast alternative.
WiFi is now free to those in standard class but only if they book through virgintrainseastcoast.com - this is generally a good idea as it provides an incentive to book direct but it has caused some confusion with passengers who have booked through the wrong site and so don't have free access to the WiFi. It was also originally not clear whether the free WiFi is available to season ticket holders, it took a while before the social media team and customer relations were aware of this but now it has been confirmed that monthly or longer season tickets get free WiFi.
In March 2016 Virgin did a press launch of their new Class 800/801 trains and indicated that they're going to be branded Azuma (meaning 'East' in Japanese). The launch included speeches by Richard Branson, Brian Souter and Karen Boswell (who used to be the MD of East Coast and is now at Hitachi Rail Europe). The trains are still undergoing test runs and will not launch on the East Coast until 2018 but in the meantime work is going on at some stations to lengthen the platforms to accommodate these new trains. The seats and the seating layout have been specified by the government so they'll be the same seats that will be in the Class 800's that Great Western Railway (GWR) are using except they'll be in Virgin colours. The VTEC Azumas will have a buffet/shop on-board which the GWR ones won't have and the intention is to also allow customers in standard to order food via an app at seat.
We understand that VTEC have further plans to enhance their app to provide a full end to end journey experience in line with the new fleet and we will keep you posted with more information around this as we become aware.