Virginity Lost. First to gain Intercity West Coast Franchise…

Well, the fat lady has sung. Virgin Trains did not regain the franchise to run West Coast mainline trains out of London Euston up to Birmingham, the North West, and Glasgow. The franchise will be taken over by First Group in December this year.

I have mixed feelings, as Virgin did a lot of good things, particularly to attract business travellers out of their cars and away from domestic air travel, and their excellent use of Social Media, but they also did some pretty iffy things as well, and like so many Virgin companies, place form over function, style over substance.

But, what does this mean to you?

There’s been a lot of claptrap in the twitterverse and blogosphere (and here I am adding to it!), emotional people saying “I’m never getting a train again”, and lots of misinformed comment about the service changing overnight, the “new longer trains being taken away”, and people seem generally confused, given they seem to think that First won’t use the Pendolino fleet but draft in some old tosh from one of their other franchises, or that the journey will suddenly go back to pre-WCML modernisation speeds.

Here’s a quick list of things to help you through the transition:

Should I expect a change overnight?

In a word: No.

Will the Pendolinos and Voyagers be taken away by Virgin when they go?

No. The existing rolling stock will stay on the West Coast route. Many of the special features which make the Pendolino speedy only work on the West Coast routes out of Euston. Keep in mind that Virgin only lease the trains. The lease will be transferred to First. The trains will be de-branded/re-branded, and eventually re-painted in First’s colours.

I’m a regular passenger and I like the Virgin staff I see when I travel, what happens to them?

The operational staff, both frontline and back-office, will stay in their jobs for the immediate future, transferred to the new franchise.

Their employment is protected under TUPE. If they are uniformed staff, the colour of their uniforms will change, but the faces will mostly stay the same. If people choose to leave because they preferred working for Virgin, and don’t want to work for First, that’s their decision. The most likely changes are at HQ level, in senior management.

First is really a “brand” in this sense, as is “Virgin”, and it’s the people who are actually running the franchise on a day-to-day basis who make the difference.

Of course, if senior leadership from the parent company is poor, this would be a negative and foolish thing.

Will the timetable change?

Maybe, but initially, no. The format of the timetable, service frequencies, stopping patterns and train lengths are largely laid out in the franchise requirements from the Department for Transport, and are changed gradually over time in line with changes in passenger demand and traffic patterns.

First have pledged to add further services on the West Coast, including restoration of direct services from London to towns which had lost service during the Virgin franchise (and previously under nationalised BR), such as Blackpool, but remember that such extras are actually being enabled by taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements (such as electrification), and not just by First Group. It’s likely that these extra services and trains would have also happened under Virgin’s management.

Will journey times, which Virgin have brought down, increase under First?

No. The same trains will run over the same tracks, driven by the same people. Journey times should stay roughly the same.

But Virgin have just introduced new longer trains! First will make the trains shorter and increase overcrowding!

This is just rubbish and spreading FUD.

The entire Pendolino fleet is staying for the forseeable, including the 11-car Pendolinos which have been launched during 2012, likewise the Voyager fleet.

Indeed, the plan was for the franchise to change earlier in 2012, and the new franchisee would have deployed the 11-car trains, and not Virgin – at which point some of the more fickle among you would have no doubt been singing First’s praises for fixing the overcrowding with their longer trains and slagging Virgin off for keeping you “cooped up in cattle trucks”.

However, the Virgin franchise was extended and they worked with Alstom (who build and maintain the Pendolinos) to deliver the 11-car project, which was actually done through a seperate Virgin company (Virgin Rail Projects), to get the much needed extra capacity in service.

Will the trains breakdown more often?

Unlikely! The trains are leased, and include a maintenance package from the manufacturer (like a new car) – Alstom in the case of the Pendolino, and Bombardier in the case of the Voyager. The maintenance regime, the depots which do the work, and the people involved, will stay the same when the franchise changes.

Will the fares go up?

Not specifically because of the franchise change. But rail fares do go up over time. First will operate a similar range of tickets to those provided by Virgin. Certain levels of ticket have to be offered as a bare minimum anyway. What may change is that some of the cheaper offers, which are not regulated by the Government, but yield/demand managed by the franchisee themselves, may change in terms of price paid or number of seats offered at the cheaper prices.

But, remember that First Group have shown that they plan to offer a number of better value fares as part of the franchise bid.

What about the inclusive offering in First Class (food, drink, etc.)?

First offer complimentary refreshments to people in First Class on their other Intercity franchise – Great Western. This is basically unlikely to change, but what is offered may change over time (such as the complimentary food offered, and complimentary alcohol). For those who don’t remember, the catering offer has changed quite a bit during Virgin’s time running West Coast. The First bid has also pledged to improve onboard catering to all classes, but we don’t really know what this looks like as yet.

Apparently, First have already been talking to Alstom about potential modifications to the Pendolino fleet with respect to catering facilities, and there are rumours circulating that standard class catering will be reduced to a trolley service. But I suspect the 1st Class morning fry-up is not under threat, though you never know, you might end up having to pay extra for it.

Will the trains become dirtier?

I doubt it. First actually have a fairly good reputation for train presentation. The change when First took over the Thameslink franchise was noticeably positive, for instance. The smelly, dirty, graffitied trains, still containing original BR interior decor and seating trim, were very quickly cleaned up by First.

The Pendolino is uncomfortable and cramped. Will First change this?

Well, the Pendolinos are over 10 years old now, and may be due an interior facelift. We already know that both Virgin and First had been talking to Alstom about alternative interior configurations in the run-up to refranchising. Maybe First could refit the interiors and make the seats more comfortable and line up with the windows a bit better!

Will Virgin Trains’ great Twitter update service go? They’ve been a huge help to me when there’s been disruption.

It would be a rather foolish move by First Group reduce the level of social media activity of the West Coast franchise. Studies have shown that participation on services such as Twitter increase customer forgiveness during disruption because the timely flow of information helps them make informed decisions to change their plans.

In terms of style, I think the current @virgintrains Twitter staff do a fantastic job, and present a credible front for the operation. They don’t fall into the normal social media trap of asking banal questions on a “slow news day” like “What are you having for dinner?” which damage the credibility of the real information.

I hope that the social media team at VT are transferred to the new franchise and left to get on with what they do, as they do a great job of it.

The performance and satisfaction on another First franchise is really low. Will the performance drop to similiar levels with First taking over West Coast?

Probably not measurably. Low performance levels are more frequently due to route-specific conditions such as age and condition of rolling stock, tracks and signalling. As none of these actually change overnight (same tracks, same trains, same people, just different colour trains and uniforms) at the point First take over West Coast ops, there shouldn’t be a noticeable change in the performance of the service.

Whether the high performance of Virgin in the latter days of it’s franchise (and remember, this was after a terrible start – because the infrastructure was ageing and suffering from underinvestment) will be maintained throughout the First franchise remains to be seen. It largely depends on First’s business plans and strategies for West Coast. Anyone got a crystal ball? Divination rods?

I’ll try and update this as more info is known, or more frequently asked questions are seen…

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