Today’s news had been trailed for several days, so it was not a surprise to see that the franchise to operate what used to be called Inter-CityWest Coast (ICWC) had been awarded to First Group, and not to incumbent operator Virgin Rail Group (VRG) who had run the show since it was sold off in 1997. For those of us in the North West, the news is significant, and for me personally not good.
A Virgin Pendolino train passes Nuneaton
Having lived in the area since the sell-offs, and having used the train for daily and weekly commuting on and off over the years, it’s fair to say that VRG and I have had our ups and downs. But the service being offered at present is the most frequent and fastest ever on the West Coast. And over those same years, I have also experienced the service offered by First Group, or lack of it.
First enjoy a virtual public transport monopoly in the Bristol area, and here I have spent some time on assignment recently. Their bus operation generates derision for high fares, lousy timekeeping, poor reliability and equally poor standard of its fleet, sufficient to keep the Evening Post in a regular diet of horror stories. And its rail operation, First Great Western (FGW) took customer service to a new low.
The attitude of ticket office staff at Temple Meads station meant that I vowed some time ago never to do business with them ever again, and the lack of attention paid to clearing drunks and beggars, some of them extremely aggressive, from outside the station was all too obvious. On top of that, the bullying behaviour of ticket barrier staff turned transiting the station from customer experience to grim endurance.
What future for the goodwill of all those enthusiasts?
What is brought to the new West Coast franchise may be totally different, but in some ways may not: Virgin have taken pains to be friendly to enthusiasts, and have deliberately avoided the practice of putting platforms behind ticket barriers. First’s aggressive approach to revenue protection will inevitably mean barriers, even at stations like Crewe and Preston that do not lend themselves to such measures.
Then there is to be “reconfiguration” of the Pendolino trains, which means no on-board shop, but perhaps a trolley service for those in Standard Class. Whether the First Class offer will continue in its current form, with complimentary food and drink, is doubtful. And we’ve been here before with new franchise operators promising changes and then finding they can’t deliver them.
When Arriva won Cross Country from Virgin, they promised more seats in the Voyager trains. None were delivered. First have promised more services, but the current fleet is operating near capacity. They promise more destinations, but Virgin tried that and abandoned it. They promise a cut in full price fares, but have signed on to paying the Government almost two and half times the premium offered by Virgin.
And at the end of the day, it’s we the people who have to put up with the mess.
to be fair, the poor customer service delivered by staff would still happen if someone else took over the great western franchise from First. Thats the thing with this stupid franchise system-the more things change, the more they stay the same.
If you got good customer service from the Virgin staff, dont worry - they will still be there come December 9th.
As well as barriers, First seems likely to introduce Penalty Fares on the West Coast route, as it has done on the long-distance and provincial services on First Great Western (FGW's London commuter services already had Penalty Fares under the previous stewardship of Thames Trains). Penalty Fares make sense on urban and suburban commuter services, where it is often impractical to check every passenger's tickets especially at busy times on frequently-stopping trains, but they are inappropriate for long-distance services which have long journey times between stops, making proper ticket-checking perfectly feasible.
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