I’ve had a busy day attending the launch of the latest operator of the East Coast rail franchise, which is branded as Virgin Trains East Coast.
Don’t let the title fool you. Despite the branding, 90% of the share capital is owned by the Stagecoach Group & former East Midland Trains MD David Horne has been appointed to lead the franchise. Virgin are a sleeping partner in this one.
The launch went very well. The press pack turned up en-masse in the 1st Class lounge at Kings Cross to hear Transport Secretary Claire Perry & David talk about what the new franchise would offer. There was no shortage of things to hear. Both spoke well & despite the fact David had been up since silly o’clock on a hectic whirlwind of media interviews he was clearly up for the challenge. Then again, so were his team, an amalgam of seasoned Stagecoach & East Coast people who’ve been here before.
After the speeches the first fully rebranded train pulled into Kings Cross & many of the press took the chance to travel on it to York or Edinburgh. On board the media scrum were given the opportunity to quiz the new team on their plans for the new franchise. At the same time some First Class passengers found an opportunity to have 15 minutes of fame as the BBC, national journo’s & local media vied to interview them.
The East coast franchise has been a Bermuda triangle for operators since privatisation & has had more than its fare share of media scrutiny. One of the people I joked with on the day was long serving PR John Gelson. If East Coast ID cards were medals he’d have a chestful.
So, what did they talk about? Here’s some of the headlines:
A 10% cut in Anytime Standard fares on long-distance journeys to & from London/Stevenage
£3.3bn of payments to the Treasury over the life of the franchise
£21m investment in the existing fleet in the next 2 years to improve reliability & the ambiance of the trains (despite the fact the fleet will be replaced from 2018)
A 50% increase in capacity by 2020
Additional services from Stirling & Sunderland by December 2015
Faster journey times (such as a sub 4 hr headline service between Edinburgh & London. OK, it’s actually 3hs 59mns but..)
From 2019 a new timetable will see changes on many routes, including new services to Middlesbrough & Huddersfield.
All in all it’s an exciting package of improvements. Sadly, it won’t be enough to slay the political dragon of rail renationalisation but, I do believe it goes to show what a sterile argument that is. Certain political sectors spend all their time talking about who owns the railways rather than what’s really needed by passengers & what can be delivered.
Virgin Trains East Coast have got off to a good start & it would be churlish not to wish them well – & applaud their ambition. Especially when one considers the legacy they may bequeath to the railway. Former operator GNER was often lauded but one question I’ve regularly posed is, what real legacy did they leave behind – other than fond memories? I suspect VTEC will do rather better.
If you want to see a few pictures of the launch, feel free to follow this link: http://paulbigland.zenfolio.com/p755024368