The last few weeks have been an extremely busy time for us with the new Stagecoach South East and Stagecoach South West Fleet Handbooks being published along with the fourth of our Midland Red photo albums - Midland Red Remembered. We have also finally published out guide book to the Stagecoach Historic Bus and Coach fleet. This has been our biggest project to date.
We have also changed our design and layout software. Whilst in the long term this will make the design work on our books and Supplements much easier, it has been a major challenge migrating the data and information from our former system. There may be a slightly different look to the typeface used in our publications and Supplements in the future. We believe it is neater and clearer at the type size we are having to use.
As a result of using the new design software we are also adding the Stagecoach Manchester and the Stagecoach Merseyside & South Lancashire fleets to our Allocation Supplements. The first Supplements for these fleets will appear in early April.
So back to the Fleet Handbooks. As a result of the planned deliveries this year to Stagecoach South Wales we have decided to postpone publication of this new book until the end of the year. Following discussion with Stagecoach East Midlands we have been informed that a number of fleet changes are planned for this year. Therefore the next Stagecoach East Midlands Fleet Handbook will not be published until early 2016.
We will announce our book publishing plans for the rest of 2015 in a few months time.
Our refresh of the website has received positive reaction. One recent change is the page that the Fleet Handbook Supplements are available on. We are now using this page for updates to other books and have renamed it Publication Updates. One downside of this change is that the web address for the page has changed, so if you had bookmarked the previous page it will return a ‘page not found’ message. Just use the tabs on the website to access the new page and then create a new bookmark.
Train leasing company Porterbrook has confirmed that it is continuing with its Pacer refurbishment project, despite the new franchise specification for the Northern franchise insisting that non-bogied trains (Pacers) are replaced during the life of the new franchise that is on offer.
Porterbrook are already carrying out a prototype refurbishment on train 144012, which is currently part of the Northern fleet.
On March 13th Porterbrook confirmed that “the project is still progressing as we expect even though the Northern ITT has stated that these vehicles will not be required on that franchise”.
Porterbrook says that the new look Pacer should be completed next month. It is now known whether it will go into service with Northern once the work is done.
The project dubbed 144e (e for evolution) will see the two car train receive a new interior design and layout including passenger information systems and WiFi. The toilet will be moved from the centre of the train and re-located at the driving end. This will allow two new wheelchair areas to be created making the train fully compliant with mobility regulations. The luggage racks are also being removed and brighter LED lighting installed. 78 seats will be fitted.
The cost of the prototype refurbishment on 144012 is estimated to cost £800,000, but Porterbrook says that the production cost is more likely to be in the region of £350,000. This is significantly cheaper than the cost of new trains, which Porterbrook suggests will be around £3.5 million for a two-coach train.
I have now spent three days using various rail services and various operators on the East Coast Main Line and there can be no mistake - Virgin are in town! I say Virgin, but as we all know the Virgin only has a 10% share in Virgin Trains East Coast with Stagecoach being the majority shareholder.
But the Virgin brand is big. The Virgin brand is powerful. The Virgin branbd has impact. And.... the Virgin Brand comes with Sir Richard Branson. And on Day Three of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise Sir Richard was out there. Combining several visits and activities in the North East Sir Richard took to the train for his return south. With him were Sir Brian Souter and Martin Griffiths from Stagecoach and Virgin Trains East Coast Managing Director David Horne.
Virgin Trains East Coast were quick to play down Sir Richard's appearance when I spoke to them on Monday saying his visit was a staff rather than a media event. That said, whenever Richard is in town there he generates excitement and is a master at the photo opportunity. With thanks to Emma Knight from Stagecoach Group and my good friend John Gelson from the Virgin Trains East Coast media team we are able to share with you some superb images of Sir Richard (and Sir Brian, Martin and David) from Tuesday.
As I said earlier I have made several trips on East Coast rails so far this week and the completely rebranded trains seem everywhere. I've travelled on both sets, seen both sets several times including flying past my Great Northern train as we headed into London yesterday morning.
Sitting on the train at York, awaiting departure for Peterborough it does seem strange to hear reference made to it being a Virgin Trains East Coast service.
This is my third journey today and everywhere there is a Virgin look. Staff have Virgin Trains East Coast lanyards and name badges, some even have red Virgin waterproof jackets and there is a real feeling of pride amongst them that they are now part of the Virgin family.
That is somewhat strange as the company is 90% owned by Stagecoach and only 10% by Virgin but the branding recognises the huge strength and impact of the Virgin name and brand.
The staff I spoke with seen really pleased to have joined the Virgin family. There seems little of the apprehension that 'change' normally brings. Maybe they are pleased to be 'Virgins' or they are well aware of the way that Virgin has managed the West Coast rail franchise. I suspect some of their fears - and there will have been some - have been allayed by Managing Director David Horne and his Transition Team who have been meeting East Coast staff at roadshows over the past few weeks.
When questioned, David said that the number of staff would need to be increased once new trains are delivered and the number of services operated each day increases and he believes that it any increase in staff will attract people wanting to work for Virgin. That Virgin appeal was certainly evident on the West Coast and CrossCountry franchises.
There is a view that customer facing activities and services will not be changed for the sake of it, but there are inevitably some areas where improvements can be made. David Horne specifically referred to the cooked breakfast service in First Class on which he says he will reintroduce a freshly cooked product, which suggests that the pre-prepared egg omelette will be replaced by a fried egg or scrambled egg option. He also says menus could be given a 'regional' flavour and that it should be possible to do one-off special menus for major events and notable dates.
Despite the tight timescales for the handover of the East Coast route, branded leaflets and station signage is visible across the network and on day one interim branding had already been applied to much of the fleet.
The new image for Virgin Trains East Coast has come from the creative minds of Ray Stenning, who in his flamboyant style wore a red kilt to the launch event, and his team at Best Impressions and it really does have impact. The first completely rebranded train rolled into King's Cross shortly after 1020 this morning and a second set will take to the rails tomorrow. Ray had developed the impactful scheme whilst keeping it within Virgin's strict brand guidelines under the watchful eye of Virgin Trains designer Sam Jessup. The livery works well both in close up and at a distance. It is at its most impactful side on. However, can enyone else see a ghostly figure emerging from the graphic on the side of the DVT?
The first re-liveried train worked the 1100 from King's Cross to Newcastle following a press conference in London at which the highlights of the new franchise and the benefits to Government were outlined.
Customers and Communities along the East Coast route will be able to suggest ideas for which a £3 million fund has been set aside with £500,000 available each year from 2017. Twice yearly stakeholder summits will be held along the network to discuss the ideas being put forward and the best ideas will be put to the Secretary of Stage for approval.
If would be fair to say that as he took his seat on the first re-liveried train, Managing Director David Horne was like a school boy with a new train set. His excitement and enthusiasm was contagious and fed through to his management team who were also at the event.
Yes, lots of things were decided before Virgin Trains East Coast took over, like the new IEP trains, but it is Virgin Trains East Coast that will deliver the improvement package. And, until those new trains arrive, there will be improvements in terms of appearance, inside and out, and reliability to the existing fleet.
By August all HSTs and MK4 trains, except those in special liveries, will have gained the full Virgin image. The HSTs will be done at Craigentinny depot in Edinburgh and the Mk4s at Bounds Green depot in North London. Just two re-liveried sets will operate through March whilst sufficient vinyls are obtained and then work will start giving the rest of the fleet a new image from early April.
David Horne, and Rail Minister Clare Perry were quick to scotch any suggestion that the Government retained control of the franchise through micro-management saying that Virgin Trains East Coast had full control of the timetable, which was not prescriptive and the operator had the ability to modify it over the course of the franchise.
Although unable recall the fine detail of all the planned timetable changes, David Horne did say that they were looking at whether some direct journey opportunities, removed as part of the last timetable recast in 2011 should be re-instated. One example will restore a direct link between Darlington and Edinburgh/Aberdeen.
The franchise team has also looked at other journey opportunities as part of the bidding process - such as through trains to London from Cleethorpes/Grimsby and also from Scarborough but a limiting factor is the already tight demands on the train fleet.
It is a really exciting time for staff and passengers alike who have seen Virgin bidding to run the East Coast route since 2000. Now the vision is reality but only time will tell if the operation of Virgin Trains East Coast meets the his expectations and standards of its staff, stakeholders and passengers and delivers the benefits the Government expects it to do. Stagecoach/Virgin will now has the East Coast rail franchise until the end of March 2023, with an option for a one year extension at the DfT’s discretion. We won’t see a return to the classic days of GNER when it replicated the golden age of rail travel but we will see the Virgin flair come to the fore.
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.