Sometimes it’s rude not to travel first class. Not all the time, but on those rare occasions when you’re scanning the internet for train tickets and find the first class price just a couple of quid more or even – sharp intake of breath – less than standard. Then you’d be crazy not to shout, “Woohoo, free tea!” and buy a ticket.
Thus I found myself in the first class compartment of a Virgin Trains East Coast service last Tuesday. I was returning from a trip to York for a summer work placement interview at Jorvik, having decided to make a day of it. (York is one of my favourite cities, after all. I visited the Quilt Museum.) Living just a couple of stops up the train line, I only spent an hour in the lap of luxury, but it was a great hour. I’d boarded bang on afternoon tea-time, so I was offered: a cup of tea, four mini-sandwiches (coronation chicken), an iced bun, crisps, choc and a cold drink. And another tea. Of course I took it all, except for the cold drink because I was a bit full of tea. I regret this, because I could have got myself a mini Absolut Vodka for free. Anyway, I definitely got my ticket money’s worth.
It did feel a little odd, though. This was the first East Coast route train I’d been on since the government-run service was sold to Virgin Trains and Stagecoach and the new providers took over last Sunday. The change was immediately cosmetically obvious. Gone was the familiar purple and white colour scheme and in came the red of Virgin. All the uniforms, posters, reservations and even the platform signs that tell you where certain carriages stop had been changed over PDQ. I was a wee bit impressed (except by the paint job on my train’s engine. It looked less like paint, more like someone had hurriedly coughed up a bit of blood and scrawled “Virgin” across it).
So the feeling of odd: since the service’s nationalisation and ownership by the Department of Transport in 2009, I have been a semi-regular user of the East Coast. Pretty much all my usual destinations are on this line, especially in the days when I was going to uni open days, then tootling between uni and home, and now when I’m visiting mates dispersed across the country. I was especially a fan of how low the fares could be with advanced booking and a third off with a 16-25 railcard.
Of course, the East Coast company wasn’t perfect, but looking back, all my major grumps and inconveniences came from other, privately-owned companies: delays on Cross-Country, delays and expensive prices on Southeastern, and I don’t even want to get started on Arriva Wales. Everyone’s experience is different, but for me, East Coast was good. I can’t really compare my recent Virgin excursion against the old EC service yet: I haven’t travelled on standard class with them, and my only previous first class time was a long time ago. I do remember that I didn’t travel at the right time of day for sandwiches, but I did get two teas and two lots of biscuits, so that’s good.
Equally, I’m not here to slam Virgin trains. I’ve gone on their London to Liverpool service a couple of times and have no complaints. Actually, it was one of my more memorable journeys: I don’t know if it was staff policy, or one bloke was just inspired, but the man who came on the tannoy advertising the café-bar read a small poem each time describing his wares. A different poem after each station stop. Dedication. The stag group I happened to be sharing a carriage with thought this was amazing, so much so that one of them spoke to the poet while he was up buying beer. The next announcement was prefaced: “This goes out to Dave and all the lads in coach C…” but the poem itself was drowned out by the stags, me, and an old couple nearby, cheering. Virgin is a company that appears friendly, accessible and in possession of a sense of humour. Maybe it’s a cynical scheme to make the company popular with the public, but whatever, it makes for pleasant customer service (at least in my experience. Feel free to contradict if you’ve suffered worse.).
Three points as to why I’m not overly-buzzed about the privatisation of East Coast:
1) East Coast was a successful business that put £1 billion profits in the Treasury. I know the Conservative Party have a fixation with privatising everything that moves, because competition apparently improves public services, but surely you’d want to keep a service that people are generally happy with and that generates them money? I personally think it’s better for the Gov to keep a hold of public services and assets: the government then answer to us, the taxpayers and users, instead of a third party answering to their shareholders, who may not have the best interests of the public at heart. Interestingly, this 2013 YouGov poll shows that 66% of people want the railways completely nationalised, so the Gov are flying in the face of public opinion here. Furthermore, I don’t remember any widely-publicised public consultation; the first I heard was the announcement of the sale in November. The whole thing seems to be a fait accompli.
2) Virgin and Stagecoach. They run the West Coast line. I find it hard to believe that privatisation encourages competition if both of the main lines in the country are run by the same dudes.
3) The East Coast line has been privately owned before, by Great North Eastern Railway until 2007 and then by National Express. They both failed to run the line successfully and were unable to pay the Government the amount of money they promised, so it was left to the gov and taxpayer to pick up the pieces. The Department of Transport turned it around. Is it going to be third time lucky for Virgins Trains/Stagecoach, or will the whole process repeat itself in a few years’ time? If the new company is promising to pay the treasury over £3 billion through their running of the line, how will they afford this where others didn’t? Despite what they say, I foresee a big rise in ticket prices on the horizon…
Much as I enjoyed my journey, and the sandwiches, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of small discomfort. Good luck to Virgin and their new responsibilities, and I hope this isn’t just a nice start before any cutting of staff or jacking up of ticket prices. But if a successful public service can be privatised against popular wishes, then what else will be?
Oh yeah, the NHS. Dang.