Saturday 25 August 2012

Virgin vs First

Earlier today I was asked in a Tweet where I stood regarding the franchise on the West Coast Main Line.

There has been a lot of press coverage over the decision to award the franchise to First Group over the incumbent Virgin Trains, with the whole process looking like the Government have awarded the franchise based solely on the amount of money that was being offered without taking into consideration that this has not always worked in the past.

As my travels show I am a fairly frequent traveller on Britain’s Railways, and in addition to my journeys on trips I also commute to work by train and regularly travel for work, so have a fair breadth of experience on the niceties of the various train operating companies.

Personally, I am disappointed that Virgin has lost the franchise.  Whenever I’ve travelled with them for work the service has always been excellent, and even on my travels they have scored highly, with just one journey being marked down (and re-reading my review I was probably being a little over harsh with them.)

Virgin does have its faults.  I’m a Virgin Media customer for broadband and TV at home and at times I would happily wrap the telephone cord round Richard Branson’s throat, their service can be patchy and unreliable and when things go wrong they take ages to get fixed (so, in summary as useless as BT)

I always preferred HMV to Virgin for music and if you gave me a choice between BA and Virgin Atlantic I would probably go for BA.

So I’m not enamoured with the Virgin brand, but their trains are something different.

When First ScotRail totally failed with the sleeper service it was the Virgin trains staff at Stafford Station who helped calm everyone down and try to make onward arrangements.

You always get the impression that Virgin train staff actually enjoy their jobs.

That’s not to say that First Group services are all bad.

From recent experience First Hull Trains is an excellent service and I’ve not really got much to hold against First Transpennine express.

First Great Western, when things are working fine, are great – but when they start to have wobbles, you can see how little backup there is.

First ScotRail in general are good, but again, when things go wrong they go spectacularly wrong.  Twice I’ve had the sleeper fail on me and the number of times I’ve had other trains cancelled is pretty high.

Then there’s First Capital Connect.  And this, I think, is the one that really does make me scared for the future of the West Coast Main Line.

I use the Thameslink service quite a bit and it was always pretty useless when it was run by Go-Ahead.  West Anglia Great Northern was regularly called We Are Going Nowhere when it was run by National Express.

These are pretty low baselines to start from, so it was with high-hopes that First Group was awarded the combined Thameslink and Great Northern franchise.

Sadly, from a dire service they’ve actually managed to make it worse.  First Capital Connect is an example of how to run trains for profit rather than customer service.  The trains are dirtier, the carriages more uncomfortable than they were before.  The number of trains they allow to run around absolutely covered in Graffiti that other companies clean off is amazing, it’s almost like they don’t care about the customer experience.

I’d like to think that if First Group do get the franchise that they will bring the Hull Trains level of service to the West Coast, which will match and possibly slightly better Virgins.  However, I fear that it’s three years of First Capital Connect levels of service before First Group do a National Express and decide they can’t be bothered any longer, throw the keys back at the government and walk away.

GNER was an excellent service, they overbid, cut and became so poor that they collapsed and the franchise had to be re-let to National Express who over bid, cut and then walked away from the service.

You would have thought after that the department of transport might have learnt some lessons.

I’m not going to refuse to travel on the West Coast if it is run by First, but I will be quick to complain if the service is anything less than Virgin’s standards.

And yes, I have signed the petition to get the whole fiasco reversed.

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