As we write this Blog at 10:00 on Saturday 28th February there is just 16 hours left of the Government-operation of the East Coast rail franchise. From 02:00 tomorrow morning Virgin Trains East Coast takes over and the line returns to private franchised ownership. I am particularly pleased to see Virgin operating the East Coast route. During my 12 years in Virgin Trains PR I was involved in supporting the bid teams to various extents with media and stakeholder activity on a number of bids. For me personally it will be great to see Virgin trains on the route and I am told that there will be two Virgin branded trains in service on Monday. We will be at the launch so look out for a Blog from us next week.
Despite the Virgin branding, the East Coast franchise will be held by a Stagecoach/Virgin partnership with Stagecoach holding 90% of the shares.
As is normal most days I have NNC Breakfast News on in the background when I get up, but am tiring of the addition of the letter 'r' into what seems to be a growing number of words. Why do presenters insist that Glasgow is pronounce Glarsgow? Bath as Barth? Castle as Carstle? and the list is longer then the examples I have detailed. Come on BBC get it right.
On February 6th 2015 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA announced that award of the franchise to Inter City Railways Limited (ICRL) (a joint venture between Stagecoach Group plc (Stagecoach) and Virgin Group Holdings Limited, the latter of which holds a minority share) may raise competition concerns in 2 areas:
In relation to the Citylink coach services, under the proposed undertakings Stagecoach will not take decisions which may impact the competitiveness of the coach services as against East Coast on the Edinburgh to Dundee and Edinburgh to Aberdeen journeys. These decisions relate to fares, timetables, frequency and service quality.
The CMA announced yesterday that it has decided that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the undertakings offered by Stagecoach, or a modified version of them, might be accepted in lieu of a reference to a more detailed phase 2 merger investigation.
The CMA now has until 21 April 2015 to consider whether to accept the undertakings, or a modified version of them. The CMA may decide to extend this deadline if it considers there are special reasons for doing so.
As part of this consideration process, the CMA will shortly undertake a public consultation on whether the proposed undertakings are sufficient to address the competition concerns. If the undertakings are not accepted, the acquisition will be referred for a phase 2 merger investigation.
Stagecoach has welcomed the CMAs announcement.
Stagecoach and Virgin have worked closely with the existing operator of the franchise in preparation for the start of the contract on 1 March 2015. Both partners are finalising arrangements to ensure a smooth transition for customers and employees and the running of services under the Virgin Trains East Coast brand as planned.
In the last few years it seems that Virgin Trains has dropped off the radar in terms of media coverage on what it is doing. It’s not the case that nothing is happening, the company is implementing lots of projects as part of the franchise extension it has running until 2017. It is more a case that the company seems to be doing less proactive media briefings. My colleagues in the Trade Press have also noticed a change in media strategy from the company.
So you are probably unaware of what is going on right now. And there is a large amount of projects on the go, all of which will improve the customer experience.
First up is a complete refresh of the company’s website. Part of the redesign will include the ability for tailored ‘widgets’ and for ticket booking the ability to specify a specific seat.
Group Travel is not being overlooked and all Group Travel is now managed through a single UK-based call centre with a customer relationship management system set to go live in April. Virgin is also expected to introduce a system allowing Group Travel to be booked up to six months in advance of travel, rather than the current 12 weeks.
A longer term project will see real time information on spaces available at station car parks so customers can check that spaces are available before they arrive at the station.
Improved information has already been provided at stations, with coloured circles on the platform indication the correct position for first and standard class carriages. These have been applied at all stations except Birmingham International where work is to be done soon. Station staff also now have access to a wireless platform announcing system - similar to the one used by London Underground. This allows staff on platforms to make PA announcements without having to return to the announcers office.
Train catering is also being refreshed with Chefs now on board most trains until 13:00 on weekdays, enabling First Class customers to order a fresh alternative to the pre-packed sandwiches. In First Class a pilot to serve street-style food (in disposable equipment) is also being conducted. A new trolley for use in Standard accommodation is being developed and in First Class new crockery is being developed which should be in use from mid-summer. On the North Wales route, Virgin Trains has worked with Welsh Chef Bryn Williams to develop a regional menu, which was introduced on January 12th.
Improvements to On Train WiFi are underway making use of the latest 4G technology. Virgin says four Voyager have been converted so far with six Pendolino sets done. The Pendolinos on which the improved WiFi is now available are 390005/06/16, 390107/22/24. All trains should have the improved WiFi installed by May.
The Voyager train fleet is now receiving a minor makeover. The halogen lighting is being replaced by LED units, vestibule lighting upgraded and some wash lighting and lights under luggage racks replaced with a more relaxing lilac tint. Toilet areas are also being upgraded and gangway doors between carriages are being synchronised. The first upgraded set should be in service in June and all Voyagers upgraded by the end of August.
More Standard seating is to be provided on all none-coach Pendolino sets by converting existing First Class Coach G to Standard. This will add 26% more standard seats on each nine coach Pendolino. It is understood that once converted the new standard coach will become Coach F meaning that all Pendolinos (none and 11 coach) will have a Coach F. Work to convert the first train will start in March. The conversion will take place at Alstom’s Oxley depot and all nine coach Pendolinos should be converted by September.
Staff uniforms are also being given a makeover. British designer Wayne Hemingway, who was responsible for the new uniform being rolled out on London Underground, will come up with a new uniform range, but surprisingly Virgin Trains has indicated that it won’t be launched until 2016 when the current franchise will have little more than a year to run. In the meantime, Virgin Trains seems to have relented to staff comments and plans to re-introduce ties, waistcoats and scarves to its existing uniform range.
Finally, Virgin Trains is improving the way that its staff get operational information. An update to its IT system will enable staff to get masseages from Control; information on booked passenger assistance and a quick view of station departure screens through a series of Apps on staff tablets and smartphones.
PR and media in any industry is difficult to get right. There is a fine balance to be made between managing a pro-active message whilst ensuring that the reactive activity results at, in best, balanced coverage. There is also a view that negative press coverage can be watered down with sufficient positive coverage. Having worked in PR with a leading brand for almost 13 years I don’t buy that. Positive is Positive and Negative is Negative. Far better to have lots of balanced coverage.
Most companies use agencies to monitor their media coverage and score it as Positive, Balanced or Negative. They also highlight the most ‘productive’ journals and writers as well as the key company spokespeople.
When I joined the rail industry in 2000, the Press Desk I worked on had two people on it every day, and sometimes three. Hundreds of requests for comment were made every week and the resultant coverage was negative. The Trade Press were extremely valuable for communicating future plans and giving an insight into major project activity. Sometimes, their coverage would result in snippets appearing in the national and regional press.
Fast forward to 2004 and there was a change that saw more time and resource put into building regional media relationships, whilst still meeting the demands of the Trade Press. Over time the reactive media activity. The focus also changed to consumer-related activity, which was less relevant to the Trade Press. However, all that changed again when it was recognised that these Trade journalists were the first port of call for national (and world) media when things go wrong.
Whilst the example above is from my time in the rail industry I am all too aware that the way the rail industry currently handles PR and Media is vastly different between companies. At times it seems that some organisations put the shutters down and hide behind an answer phone. I was always told the Press Desk phone should be answered within three rings.
Still, if companies take the view that they would rather not deal with certain sections of the media, or discriminate by sector then they must expect to get a “not available for comment” reference in the story. In my book any news story with such a comment this can only be categorised as negative. It would interesting to know what drives this business decision. I suspect that it could be a case of not upsetting the paymasters. And here I’m not referring to the holding companies but the Government. Unlike the early days of rail franchising when franchisees were in control of their franchises, today’s rail franchises are little more than management contracts with the Department for Transport having greater control and influence.
It’s time we got back to a position where train operators welcomed the media, whatever sector they represent, and shouted about their business. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening including at some of the companies who in the past were leaders in dealing with the media.
Apologies if you have experienced periodic difficulties accessing our website over the past few days. We have been undertaking an early Spring Clean, which is now complete. We have given the website a cleaner look and over the coming months will include pages that reflect the work that we can do beyond the specialist transport market. We hope you like the new look which includes all of the information that you are familar with. We don't belive in 'change for change sake', so we haven't changed the pages and have improved the way that you can access them from out home page.
We were particularly pleased to see that Stagecoach-owned South West Trains put a little humour into travel on Valentine’s Day by renaming some of its stations. London Waterloo became London Waterlove, for example. The changes to station names were suggested by both staff and passengers and was a real example of what can be done to make the rail journey more enjoyable. Well done to the South West Trains team.
North of the River Thames at the London Euston HQ of Virgin Trains the feelgood factor created in December when through trains from Shrewsbury to London were re-introduced was lost by a problem with a pocket timetable. Passengers, Stakeholders and Politicians were rightfully angry when the Shropshire town of Wellington was left off the new pocket timetables. Virgin said that there wasn’t room on the timetable, which could only cover three stations. Now it has produced a special timetable just for passengers using its services at Wellington and handed out cupcakes to passengers and the Mayor of Wellington.
After the stop-off was initially missed out and Wrekin MP Mark Pritchard wrote to Virgin Trains to rectify the omission.
Richard Stanton, spokesman for Virgin Trains, said the error was “embarrassing” for the company but hoped train users in Wellington had accepted their apology.
He said: “We wanted to think of a way to make up for missing Wellington off the timetable.
“Wellington is an important part of the rail link and we are looking forward to meeting some new faces on our trains.
The Virgin link to London is follws a hard-fought campaign backed by the local newspaper Shropshire Star and the train from Shrewsbury also stops at Telford and Wellington before running to London Euston via Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
The Mayor of Wellington, Karen Tomlinson, told the Shropshire Star: “We had many complaints about the first timetable but Virgin has made a great effort to sort this situation out. The cupcakes were delicious, we couldn’t have asked for a better response from them.”
Ross Vickers, chairman of Wellington Civic Society, added: “This is fantastic and we fully accept Virgin Trains’ apology. The new timetable looks great and the free cupcakes were a fantastic gesture.”
There are several bus-related events taking place in the Peterborough area in the coming months.
Sunday April 26th - Delaine Heritage Running Day
Bourne, Lincolnshire,-based bus company Delaine Buses is staging a Heritage Running Day between Bourne-Market Deeping-Peterborough. The two rear-entrance Leyland PDs along with a Volvo Olympian and the company’s Leyland Atlantean will be in use, which along with the normal hourly Sunday service will provide a 20 minute frequency on the route. A special £5 Heritage Day Rover allow unlimited travel during the day. Concessionary travel passes not valid on the Heritage operated services.
Saturday May 9th - Fenland Vintage Vehicle Gathering
Once again the Eastern Bus Group are holding a Heritage Vehicle event in Whittlesey & Thorney (Peterborough), organised by us at the Eastern Bus Group. The event will take place at Whittlesey & Thorney on 9th May 2015.
This event will be take place between 10:00 until 17:00 with Free vintage bus services operating between Whittlesey and Thorney up to every 20 Minutes, where there will be a display of heritage cars and lorries. There will also be other Free vintage bus services from Whittlesey to Glatton, Turves (Three Horseshoes) and Crowland!
There will also be a Mystery Tour to a secret Fenland location.
At the end of the day there will be a cavalcade of buses from Whittlesey to Peterborough for those wishing to partake. Passengers can travel on any vehicle (with owners/drivers) permission however, usually only one vehicle returns to Whittlesey and all the other vehicles usually make their way home from Peterborough. The cavalcade is not mandatory for vehicle owners or drivers, but it does turn heads.
Judds Travel will operate their Open top Bristol VR "BKE861T" on their Service 701 from Peterborough - Whittlesey - Coates (Weather permitting). Dependant on fleet availability they usually operate another bus of "heritage interest" on the other duty alongside the VR, This year a former 701 vehicle (pre-dating Judds) is hoped to be operated alongside BKE861T.
Sunday July 12th – Peterborough Bus & Commercial Vehicle Rally
This annual event will again take place at Sacrewell Farm, where vehicles will be on display. Celebrating its’ 125 anniversary as a passenger carrying company, Delaine Buses will be operating a free hourly shuttle service between Peterborough Queensgate Bus Station and Sacrewell Farm using its Leyland Atlantean and Volvo Olympian vehicles. A variety of vintage and modern vehicles will be used on a free shuttle service linking the rally site and the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford.
It’s been a while since we updated you on our activity and thought now is the time to do so.
Our monthly Allocation Supplements which provide up to date information for our Fleet Handbook series continue to interest and many copies are downloaded each month. We intend to continue to provide this service through 2015, but with more fleets now covered in our Fleet Handbook series it will take a little longer each month for all Supplements to be updated and uploaded.
Talking about Fleet Handbooks we have announced today two additions to the series, with books covering Stagecoach South West and Stagecoach South East due to be published in Late March/April. The South East book is our biggest Fleet Handbook so far and due to the number of pages will need to be perfect bound, rather than stapled. This, coupled with the number of pages, means that the price for this book will be £6.95.
Also due for publication by the end of April will be a new Midland Red photo album (Midland Red Remembered), which features photographs from Transport Commentator David Cole and also a Guide Book to the Historic Bus & Coach Fleet owned by Stagecoach. We are extremely pleased that Sir Brian Souter has provided the Foreword to this book.
Work continues on the Stagecoach South Wales Fleet Handbook, but we don’t have a publication date yet.
We will also start work in the Spring on the new edition of the Stagecoach East Midlands book, and will be pleased to receive images for consideration for this title. Towards the end of the year we will also be publishing a new edition of our Stagecoach East Fleet Handbook.
We have also refreshed the look of our web pages, without altering the way that you navigate through the pages.
We are eagerly awaiting the launch of the new Virgin Trains East Coast rail franchise, and will bring you full details at the beginning of next month.
Our Fleet Ramblings Blog continues to be interest and I am grateful to those readers’ who have provided regular information to us.
Finally, Royal Mail is increasing its postal rates from March 30th. Details of the new prices will be available from the end of February but we have posted details of our new charges for post and packing from that date on our publications page. We have now based the postal rates on the actual costs for each type of publication rather than a generic rate for all books. However, we are offering a special postage rate for all orders received up to and including Friday 27th March 2015.
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.