Virgin on the inedible

In the glory days of the railway, the British Rail restaurant car breakfast was something of a treat. Cereals, toast, juice, and full English – offered to you “service Anglaise” from a tray, so you could get what you wished. They even had kippers.

Even despite “modernisation” of the BR buffet car under InterCity in the 1980s and early 90s – think along the lines of moving away from Mr Kipling cakes and Maxpax coffee to croissants and the chewy microwaved burger – the Great British breakfast was left well alone, lest the Great British businessman kick up a stink…

Retro BR breakfast service complete with retro hairstyle...
The hair is a dead giveaway as to which era this BR breakfast belongs! Photo: NRM

For a while, this even survived into privatisation, most notably perpetuated by the late GNER: “Great” for so many reasons, and not just the fact that even when travelling in the cheap seats one could still sit in the restaurant car and eat real food at 100mph-plus, as I often did.

Where freshly cooked food is still available on British trains, the current trend is a move away from the classic restaurant car to an at-seat service for 1st Class passengers only, called “complimentary” by the train companies, as opposed to inclusive, so they are able to weasel their way out if the service can’t be provided as advertised. Generally, this service includes a cooked breakfast, light food across the day and sometimes a cooked evening meal, which is what Virgin Trains provide on their routes out of London.

I’d recently travelled from London up to the Northwest, and by a quirk of the UK railway fares structure, it was one of those trips where by booking in advance, it was cheaper to go 1st Class as opposed to Standard. “Great”, I think, it’s a train where they serve breakfast, and while I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as in days of yore (as they never are!), I’ll happily admit to looking forward to it.

I’d not travelled VT’s 1st Class where they served hot breakfast in a while (about 3 or 4 years, I think), and the last time I should have had a VT breakfast, it wasn’t available, which meant I was kind of hoping for more success this time.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I was offered “the last rasher of bacon”, which was overdone to the extent of being tooth-breakingly crispy – you couldn’t get a fork in it, a “grilled” tomato almost reduced to mush, some overdone black pudding, a dry-looking hash brown, and a rubber egg. I took one bite, and pushed the plate away, but not before I got a pic of it, so disappointed to be served such obviously second-rate tosh…

Hope you like your bacon crispy?

“No more bacon…”, I was told. It seems that the people sat further up from me could only be offered similarly incinerated sausage. I asked one of the crew to take it away, and I tweeted the above pic to VT’s (excellent) Twitter desk, to see what they had to say…

Either my rejection of the burnt offerings, or the message to the Twitter desk, got someone’s attention, as a few minutes later, this arrived…

Bacon and eggs, was it?

“No more bacon”, apparently. Hmm. I didn’t notice us stop to pick some up, either.

But, nice save of face by the crew in the end, though the sad thing is that I had to complain before something was done. Really, that overcooked stuff shouldn’t have been served in the first place. Surely the person with the tray noticed what she had was burned? Wasn’t she ashamed to serve it?

This isn’t the only beef about the alleged “1st Class” service offered on that train. Things could have been done with a bit more style, and thought for the passenger.

For instance, there seemed to be an assumption by the crew that people sat in 1st Class knew what was on offer, and what to ask for. There were no menu cards, and no explanation offered about what was available.

One of the crew members walked past with a closed up solid-sided trolley (like an airline food trolley) mumbling “Anything from the snack trolley?” – wouldn’t this have been better if the trolley was more open plan so we could see what was available, or if the person had told us what they had inside the trolley?

Later in the journey, between Crewe and Warrington (and by this point, we were 30 minutes late because of a signalling problem near Stafford), the crew were starting to collect cups and things in, it looked like they would change catering crew at Preston so they were clearing away, and putting out fresh cups, etc.

At no point did anyone ask “May I clear away?”, or “Can I get you anything else?” – your place setting was just cleared away, seemingly with an unspoken message of “Right then, that’s all you’re getting”.

Unfortunately the train then ran into more trouble between Warrington and Preston (faulty windscreen wipers on the North end cab, beaten into submission by the relentless Northern rain, it seems). Initially, the train was going to be reversed by manoeuvring around a triangle of junctions (for North American readers, you’ll know this as a “wye”) just south of Wigan, so the good cab would be on the “correct” end of the train for continuing toward Glasgow. That would have taken another 30-40 minutes. Eventually, after some dithering, this reversal was abandoned and the train continued to Preston and terminated there, an hour late, where it could be swapped with another Pendolino.

By this point, after a 30 minute-plus delay, passengers in Standard are entitled to certain complimentary things (water, tea, coffee, until it runs out) from the Shop. Were those of us seated in the “good seats” taken care of during this period? Unfortunately not. Laying on some tea and coffee would have been fairly simple, and would have given the impression that our custom mattered to Virgin Trains, but it didn’t happen.

You’ve got to question why this is? Are some Virgin Trains’ staff feeling undervalued and demotivated? Uncertain of the future following the franchising fiasco? Or poorly selected and trained? Or simply only allowed to follow the prescribed service, bound by process and discouraged from using initiative?

Maybe it was summed up by a nearby passenger who said to me “If you think that breakfast was bad, you should try the evening meal. East Coast have better food.”

Are us Brits too backward about coming forward? Or is the fact that it is “complimentary” somehow meant to remove expectations of a decent service?

People petitioned hard for a rethink for Virgin to retain the West Coast franchise back in the summer. I agreed that this was the sensible thing to do, especially once the previous franchise process was declared invalid, it made sense to let Virgin continue. Now that’s happened, you’d think they would be wanting to reward passengers for showing such faith in them, and that the support was well earned, right?

Virgin’s basic railway product out of Euston isn’t horrific, with frequent trains and quick journey times (when it’s not blighted by engineering work), but with a little more attention to detail and some effort (and lining the seats up with the windows!), couldn’t it be really, really great?

Disclaimer: I should probably note that I am an ex-UK railway employee, having worked for BR in 1994/1995. That means I’m used to the consequences of disruption, but it’s how you handle it that makes the difference. Note that I pay full price for my tickets these days, this one included.

Here’s an idea, Richard… #seatslineupwithwindows

The folks over at Virgin Trains are well-chuffed that they are going to continue to run the West Coast Mainline on a “caretaker” franchise until 2014.

The decision, along with the promise of a review of rail franchising in the UK, also seems to have restored RB’s wavering faith in the system, as he is now appealing to the public for ideas to help Virgin win the 2014 competition.

So, I have a suggestion…

I’m really not a fan of poor industrial design, and think the Pendolino contains a number of design faux-pas which negatively affect the passenger experience, which I’ve written about before.

But, the biggest of these has to be that the seats don’t line up with the windows.

Despite this being cracked by railway engineers as long ago as the 1900s, the view from the window seems to have become a forgotten talent when it comes to putting together modern trains such as the Pendolino.

Fixing the existing problem on the Pendolino won’t be easy. It has significantly less window area that it’s predecessors (or the Voyagers that Virgin also use). Maybe a more sympathetic reconfiguration of the interior, such as moving luggage racks to positions which don’t have a window, will make things better for the existing equipment, which will be approaching it’s mid-life at franchise renewal time.

But, it needs to be one of the things built into the specification when ordering new trains in the future. It will improve the passenger experience by making the train seem more spacious, and help combat the travel-sickness some associate with travelling on the Pendolino.

So, a view outside. Maybe that’s the biggest single improvement that Virgin Trains could deliver. Make the #seatslineupwithwindows.

West Coast Continuation…

…but more wastage could lie ahead.

So, some common sense at the Department for Transport has prevailed, they have extended Virgin Trains’ contract to run the West Coast Main Line trains, following the failure of the recent franchise bid.

As the CEO of rail watchdog Passenger Focus points out, this is generally good for the confidence of the travelling public, who were still convinced that they couldn’t book tickets for journeys post-Virgin in confidence.

But, they’ve only extended it for another 9-12 months. That isn’t long enough for a new specification and full franchise bid to be run.

So, why the short-term extension? Mainly because of EU Competition Law. Apparently, other operators need to be given a fair crack. This means a “short-term” WCML franchise will likely exist, which will run for around 2 to 3 years, while a new competition for the long term franchise is held.

There are legitimate concerns that the short term franchise will be financially unattractive, which implies it will require some sort of subsidy sweetener, some propping up by the taxpayer. It’s also not good for strategic development, as it favours short-term decision making, rather than a long-term vision. There’s also concerns such as uncertain futures for the employees.

How is this ridiculous short-term franchise beneficial for the passenger, the rail industry, and the taxpayer? We may as well go back to steam power and put shovelfuls of £50 notes in the fire. Thanks a lot, Brussels.

West Coast Rail Franchise hits the buffer stops

BBC Breakfast journalist Susannah Reid: “Well, this is all very embarrassing for you.”

Transport Secretary, Patrick McLaughlin: “Yes”

Late last night, the UK Government brought a stop to the controversial Inter City West Coast rail franchise, which had been awarded to First Group, displacing the incumbent franchisee Virgin Trains.

Not only was there criticism that the DfT had awarded the franchise to First largely on the basis that it offered the Treasury more money over the life of the franchise, but that the First bid was also allegedly “lower quality”, while Virgin criticised the First bid as”unsustainable”, suggesting that First’s West Coast operations would go the way of East Coast out of Kings Cross – that First would surrender the the franchise, and the Government would be left to use public money to pick up the pieces.

There was also public outcry and grass-roots “underdog support” for Virgin’s operations, including a massive e-petition to Government to urge investigation and reconsideration of the decision.

Due to give evidence this to the judicial review Virgin had requested, the Government have slammed the brakes on hard, while reportedly some DfT staff members involved in the process have been suspended pending an investigation.

But, this all has a cost to the taxpayer.

Firstly, the Government have said they will need to reimburse costs to the franchise applicants – and this probably means the non-shortlisted companies (Abellio and Veolia) as well as First and Virgin. Branson’s blog said that the recent ICWC bid cost Virgin £14m, just to put the franchise bid together.

So, we’re looking at shelling out something in the region of £50m of public money to the companies who applied for the franchise, to defray their expenses in placing bids.

There’s also the question of who operates the West Coast from December. There’s two main options – 1) Allow Virgin to continue, or 2) Have the DfT directly operate the railway, as on the East Coast route from Kings Cross.

Branson had previously offered to continue running the trains while the decision was reviewed.

If this offer still stands, and is non-prejudicial, it would be foolish of the DfT to squander even more public money by not taking it up.

Update 20.00 3/10/12:

The CEO of Passenger Focus has made a very valid point on his blog: Passenger confidence must be maintained. People are creatures of habit and don’t like uncertainty.

Chiltern’s offer to Richard Branson…

“…need a lift, Sir Richard?” Photo by @Gracey_Mills

Cheeky marketing by Birmingham to London competitor Chiltern Railways, encouraging passengers to try out their Mainline service.

Those who do try out Chiltern Mainline might be pleasantly surprised to find:

  • Cheaper fares.
  • Journey times that are only slightly longer than on Virgin, and maybe be end-to-end shorter if you’re closer to one of Chiltern’s stations.
  • Seats which line up with the windows.
  • Tables and power sockets.
  • Free wifi.

It’s one of the few places in the UK where you can find some genuine competition on a city centre to city centre rail service.

Chiltern have made massive improvements and real investments, i.e. spent their own cash, not claimed investment of public funds as their own, on the route and have worked hard to build a good relationship and understanding with their travelling public.

The CEO of Passenger Focus recently wrote this blog article on his positive Chiltern Mainline experience, and wondered how they can continue to grow the service. I suggested ia a comment that recommendation, word-of-mouth, is very strong in helping the Chiltern cause, but even tongue-in-cheek marketing like this has it’s place.

There’s one thing about the “wrapper ad” on the Metro which strikes me as bizarre. The words “Book now”.

Continue reading “Chiltern’s offer to Richard Branson…”

When your staff are your best asset…

All stop on the West Coast yesterday, as a mahoosive signal failure at the important Motherwell signalling centre brought everything to a stand between the Scottish Border and Glasgow and Edinburgh. A number of people were stuck on trains in the affected area, which were unable to move for as long as three hours. Other trains were held at the station stop prior to entering the affected area, such as Carlisle.

One of the stuck people was comedienne Janey Godley, who appeared to be slowly losing her mind despite travelling in First Class, and tried to open up a 140 character at a time dialogue with the @virgintrains twitter person.

Eventually things got on the move again, and while Janey had to settle for sausages as opposed to “sex and mince”, today she did point out the kindness of the on-train crew toward the passengers during the extended delay…

Nicely done by the Virgin Trains’ On-Train staff, who seemed to put a human face on the extended delay. Good to see that staff morale is still relatively high despite the ongoing wrangling over the franchise. Talking of which…

As Virgin Rail Group has applied for a judicial review of the DfT decision to award the “ICWC” franchise to First Group, this has brought the franchise handover date itself of 9th December into question.

We’ve got the Branson offer to continue to run the franchise on a non-profit basis (donating profits to good causes) while the review proceeds.

However, the other option is that the DfT take control of the franchise until such time as it can be awarded and smooth transfer of responsibility can happen, not dissimilar as they had to do with East Coast.

But, ask yourself, is it a good use of public funds to incorporate a new entity to run ICWC on an interim basis (this includes hiring management, etc.), rather than accept Virgin’s offer to keep things on an even keel until a decision can be made.

As long as the VRG offer can be taken on a non-prejudicial basis, could this be delivering best value for the taxpayer?

In any case, spare a thought for the staff caught up in this…

“Snackboxes”: Cutesy, yes. Wasteful, probably.

I’m just heading up North on a Virgin Train (thought I’d better try one while I still can).

I ended up going 1st Class because it was cheaper than Standard, when booking in advance. Not that uncommon actually, and sometimes it’s even worth doing if it’s a couple of quid more expensive, because of the inclusives: light refreshments such as tea and coffee, and wifi access at no extra charge. Basically, you can sometimes get good value for money, and Virgin (and other train companies) get to put bums on 1st class seats which would otherwise go empty off-peak, and it reduces the pressure on the cheap seats.

In common with most train operators, the weekend 1st Class at-seat service is a shadow of it’s midweek counterpart: limited to tea, coffee, water and snacks. This used to be things such as (normal-sized packets of) crisps, nibbles, and biscuits.

Today, this has been replaced with “A little box of snacks” – about 2×3″. Now, it looks cute. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a childlike feeling about opening one for the first time.

But the contents are distinctly underwhelming:

  • The smallest bag of pretzels I’ve probably ever seen (and if you don’t like “sour cream and chive”, you’ll be left feeling a bit sour)
  • A micro-flapjack that would leave a hobbit’s tum rumbling
  • A pack of cream crackers and soft cheese
  • A continental “speculoos” biscuit for with coffee
  • A bit of Valrhona chocolate (yum)

I had the pretzels and the chocolate, as I didn’t really fancy the rest of the contents. The rest will no doubt go in the bin.

While I’m in no doubt that it makes inventory control much simpler (and may well be cheaper), it is effectively a reduction in choice for the passenger, and surely increases waste in an era when a huge part of companies’ social responsibility is dedicated to reducing their environmental impact?