With all the whoo-ha around Virgin Rail losing the West Coast Mainline to FirstGroup, those of us who regularly travel to London from Manchester should be living in terror at the thought of being effectively cut off from the capital. And indeed, today Richard Branson tells us that’s what’s left of the recession ravaged North West economy is about to go down the toilet.
And yet I, and people I speak to (who may not be representative), remain strangely unmoved. Virgin Rail is (soon to be was, perhaps) nothing special. I’m not a massive consumer of Virgin branded product. I very much enjoy a trip to V Festival each summer, having attended almost all for about 15 years, and I visit a Virgin Active gym four times a week (but it was much better when it was Holmes Place). Generally, I find Richard Branson a bit annoying. About fifteen years ago I won a trip to Boston flying Virgin and the in-flight TV kept showing films of Richard Branson on a bike, Richard Branson jamming with some musicians, Richard Branson hanging out with second division celebrities and, when we got home, an earnest charity appeal from Richard Branson. One wondered how anyone could be so successful and yet so insecure.
Most travellers will tell you that the West Coast Mainline is much improved since 1997 when Virgin Rail started. And this is true. But it certainly didn’t start well. In the beginning a lot of money had to be spent upgrading the infrastructure and at this time the service could not be worse. It could take more than five hours (as opposed the current two and a bit) and someone was always cutting through power lines and bringing it all to a halt.
Virgin could not have been worse at dealing with this. I was in London Euston on one of those evenings when the power went down. The Virgin information desk simply packed up and ran away. Then the police arrived, with horses, locked all the doors and told us we were going nowhere. All of a sudden London to Manchester travellers found themselves treated no better than had we attempted to storm Buckingham Palace to behead the queen. I kid you not.
Thankfully those days appear to be over. But the investment that brought that about was overseen by Network Rail (and perhaps one of its predecessors, I lose track) with public money. We do have new trains and these are okay. But nothing that special. Back in 1997 there was talk of installing in-flight-style TV systems at the seats and all sorts of goodies. Nothing came of that (not that I’m bothered, but still).
Branson’s end of the world (or at least north west England) prediction comes after the power of celebrity got him nowhere. Footballer Joey Barton tweeted, ‘@richardbranson has free wifi, quiet zones and always do a nice sandwich.’ Joey obviously travels first class. Those of us who travel standard must pay for our wi-fi and the expensive, poorly stocked shop’s signature dish is microwaved bacon butties.
Nevertheless, I really don’t have a great dislike for Virgin Rail. That Euston kettling is in the past now. The train is comfortable enough and my most recent return fair was £36.70, which I think is reasonable (but know I was lucky to get it that cheap) and my expectations were never very high, so I’m not easily disappointed. Most of all though, I’m far from convinced Virgin is anything special and expect FirstGroup to be much the same.