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Saturday 25 August 2012

Downing Street Petition – Virgin On The Embarrassing

Following the award of the franchise to run services on the West Coast Mail Line (WCML) to First Group, and their admission – as I predicted last week – that stations would be barriered off, starting with Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street, has come a petition in support of incumbent operator Virgin Trains (VT), originated by Ross McKillop, who asserts that VT have provided a reliable service.

Well, up to a point: McKillop, who is 29, may not remember the early days of the VT operation, which were shambolic and not a good advert for either the Virgin brand, or for the railways in general. Had Richard Branson not summoned Chris Green, aka The Good And Great Grey Controller, back from exile to head up VT, Virgin would have lost its franchises. And it would have deserved to have lost them.

But Green and his successors have steered VT through the chaos of the post-Hatfield work, what sometimes seemed the unending upgrading of the WCML, the introduction of a new fleet of trains, and most recently the implementation of a higher frequency and faster timetable, remarkably well. So, yes, it is most likely that today’s VT customers will have a positive image of the operation.

Not sure if that's allowable

And it is therefore no surprise that the petition passed the 100,000 mark, which triggers the potential for a Parliamentary debate, without any problem. The current total stands at over 118,000. The petition has been advertised not only by Branson, but also has been slipped onto the platform display indicators at stations run by VT, which may be viewed as a little naughty.

So what could happen if there is a debate? By the time it happens, the number crunchers will have gone over First’s figures and whether their passenger and revenue projections are realistic. Any finding suggesting that they are not would be highly embarrassing to the Government, especially following two failed bids for the East Coast Route and, indeed, First calling their own Great Western one wrong.

The matter of First’s indifferent customer service may also be raised, and those with longer memories may look at their takeover of what is now Transpennine Express from then incumbent Arriva. First fouled that one up only moderately, but typically tried to dump the blame on Arriva. I claim some experience: I was a regular traveller on those trains at that time.

And, I’m afraid, all the fault I could attribute was First’s. They were fortunate, though, as Arriva were not quite as swift to run to the media as their successors. There will be no such benefit from Virgin. The Government is on a lose-lose track here: it cannot credibly row back on its decision, First won’t be able to dump mistakes on Virgin, and the ultimate arbiters – the travelling public – will punish them both.

A punishment which will start with a very public Parliamentary debate.

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