Many years ago I was responsible for the renaming of a Virgin Pendolino. I recall the train was named ‘Virgin Hope’, but whilst having a regular meeting with my opposite number at Alstom, Helen Connolly, we were discussing how to mark the occasion of the first Pendolino to travel a million miles.
Several Pendolinos were monitored. 390022 was the one that had travelled the furthest, but the view was that a more memorable name than Virgin Hope was needed. The discussion centred around how we could involve staff and passengers and what else we could do to raise the profile of the Pendolino train.
So, we looked at educational opportunities and blue sky thinking came up with the name ‘Penny the Pendolino’. So now we had a name. The nameplates were fitted at Wembley depot without any ceremony. This created a mystery as to why the train had been renamed.
The next stage was to calculate when the train would hit the magical million miles. By working with train and fleet planners this was fairly simple.
The stage was set, the train would work a Glasgow-London morning service, hitting the one million miles on the journey. A party atmosphere was planned with a celebration cake for all passengers along with a commemorative certificate. The train would then roll into London’s Euston station with staff from Virgin and Alston holding a banner on the platform.
All planned, but then disaster. A few days before the planned run, the southbound cab of 390022 was struck by an object hanging off the overhead line south of Rugby. The windscreen would need replacing.
Worse still the incident had damaged some cab wiring and windscreen surround. Despite the best efforts of the Alstom team, there was insufficient time after the windscreen surround had been repairs to fit a new windscreen and allow the bonding to set. The planned activity had to be cancelled.
Following repairs 390022 was put back into service and recorded its one millionth mile on 8th January 2008 as it headed the 17:15 from Euston to Glasgow. At the end of November this year 390122 (it now has 11 coaches) has covered 3,471,364 miles and could hit the three-and-a-half million mile mark by the end of this year. ‘Penny’ remains the leading Pendolino for the highest mileage.
So that is how ‘Penny’ got her name without a formal naming event.
Virgin Trains is full of surprises at the moment. Just months after it introduced automatic compensation for train delays where passengers buy advance tickets direct from its website, it has now introduced more information departure monitors at London Euston.
Rather than just a departure time, destination and calling points the information the displays really are passenger focused.
The improved departure monitors will help passengers travelling on the West Coast route to find a seat on their train and generally have more relaxed journeys out of the capital.
In what is seen as an industry first, a pictogram on the information screen shows reservation levels in each carriage to indicate where customers without reservations are most likely find a seat. Passengers travelling with Virgin Trains can also see where bicycles can be loaded and where disabled seats are located.
Wow, this really is a step forward, but could Virgin do more. The pictograms only show reservation levels but could could there be a ‘real time’ alternative. The Pendolino trains, at least, have load sensors which is part of the safety systems for tilt. Could these be programmed to calculate loadings? Admittedly it would have to be based on an average weight per passenger, but it could give real time train loading information.
That said, the system in use now is a major step forward.
The new screens at London Euston station will also provide customers with a range of information aimed at helping them to:
Relax at the station: The screens will show each train’s approximate boarding time to help put customer’s minds at ease, and allow them to enjoy the station’s other facilities until their train is ready to board.
Manage their time: The estimated arrival time at each calling point will be shown.
Cope with disruption: If a train in cancelled, the screens will show next train information for all calling points so passengers can find their next best option.
Last month Virgin Trains on the east coast (yes, that’s how they want to be known and guess what – their colleagues on the West Coast routes out of Euston station would like to be known as Virgin Trains on the west coast. Note that they want lower case ec and wc) announced that when it launches its new Sunderland-London service, which it did earlier this morning, it would also herald the entry into service of its first refurbished train.
Well thing’s didn’t go quite to plan. As is frequently the case with the first train to be refurbished, the work is taking longer than planned.
So the first Sunderland train was not the refurbished set. I’m sure that Virgin Trains on the east coast is disappointed, but I hear the launch event at Sunderland earlier this morning impressed the train operator. There was even a train naming with HST power car 43274 being named ‘Spirit of Sunderland’, whilst there is a large distinctive ‘Spirit of Sunderland’ graphic on the side of the train (it reminds me of early West Coast attempts at naming graphics with one HST power car named Blackpool Rock!) there is also a traditional cast nameplate. Well done Virgin Trains on the east coast.
Whilst looking through Twitter this morning for coverage of the Virgin Trains on the east coast naming, I stumbled across the following Tweet from Ulverston Town Council:
Dear Virgin Trains. Could we have a Spirit of Cumbria badged locomotive please?
What a great idea. Come on Virgin Trains on the West Coast – engage with the local community and restore the ‘Spirit of Cumbria’ name to one of your trains. I say restore, because in the early days of Virgin’s West Coast operation one of its trains (DVT 82135) was named ‘Spirit of Cumbria’
Last week we had the latest rail franchise announcements. First Group has taken the new TransPennine Express (not sure why a regional train operator deserves the ‘Express’ tag though). The Northern franchise goes to Arriva (or actually DB German State Railways) – no need to expensive brand activity here, they could call it Arriva Trains Northern! Heading into East Anglia, there has been a parting Abellio and Stagecoach. The two had been shortlisted to bid for the franchise on offer but it appears they had fallen out after failing to agree. Now Abellio will go it alone. Such changes in organisations between shortlisting and bid submission is not unknown – DB were part of a Virgin Rail Group consortium for one of its East Coast Bids but pulled out of the partnership and in another Virgin East Coast bid a small percentage of the consortium went to a group of GNER managers.
Whilst on the subject of Virgin, without any real announcement from the Department for Transport or from Virgin the contract to operate the West Coast franchise has been extended through until March 2018. Virgin initially had the franchise until March 2015 with an option for a further 12 months. In July this year the franchise was extended by six months to expire in September 2017. This was half of the possible 12 month extension option. Last month the further six months of the option were added giving a March 2018 expiry. In effect the 12 month option has been exercised but in two six month periods – an expensive way of doing things as I assume the franchise agreement has had to be re-written twice with the resultant legal costs for both DfT and Virgin.
There was something stirring at London King’s Cross station yesterday morning and regular commuters didn’t have long to wait for all to be revealed.
First to break through the gloom of Gasworks Tunnel and head into the iconic trainshed that is King’s Cross was a Virgin Pendolino, but not as we know it. Instead of the well known red and silver that we all recognise, this train was blue. It was the first of two Virgin trains that had been given a Christmas makeover and smart it looked too.
Let’s also not forget that this was only the second time ever that a Pendolino, normally restricted to working out of nearby Euston station, has been allowed into King’s Cross. The last time was on March 12th and 13th 2012 when set 390055 worked overnight from Edinburgh to King’s Cross as part of a trial. Now 390013 was in platform 8 at King’s Cross and the blue background to both driving cars sported a snow scene with penguins. In true Virgin Trains on the West Coast style the train has been dubbed Pengulino.
Then barely 20 minutes later, shortly after 08:00 an East Coast Mk4 set with DVT 82209 and Class 91 91128 rolled into platform 7. The same blue-based snow scene was carried on the DVT and Class 91 with images of Santa, elves and Christmas presents. In a play on words this train was the Claus 91!
The designs on the two trains marked the end of a nationwide competition amongst primary school children for a Christmas Train design. Joint winners, nine year old Amber Maxfield and 11 year old Madeleine Deakin, were there to see their festive drawings come to life.
The competition attracted hundreds of entries and was run in partnership with the Book Trust. The judging panel, which was headed by Jill Murphy, author of the popular Worst Witch and The Large Family series, were so impressed by the entries that two winners were chosen.
Madeleine from Copdock in Suffolk said “I’m so happy to have won and it was incredible to see my drawing on the train – it’s made me even more excited about Christmas!” and Amber from Carlisle added “When I found out I’d won I just couldn’t believe it! Seeing my drawing on a train and coming to London is a dream come true.”
Appropriately each Christmas train bears the name of its young designer.
Patrick McCall, Chairman of Virgin Trains, said: ‘‘We loved the concepts that these two young designers came up with and are proud to have their ideas transform two trains. It’s fantastic that both the East Coast and West Coast services have come together to make our customers’ journeys throughout December extra special - especially on their way home for Christmas.’’
Following the unveiling the Mk4 set worked the 09:00 to Edinburgh, whilst the Pendolino returned to Wembley depot.
What was remarkable about this unveiling was the way it captured the attention of hundreds, no thousands, of commuters arriving at the station with many taking out mobile phones and tablets to get a picture of the trains, before continuing on their journey.
What was even more remarkable was the fact that the Virgin Trains East Coast planning team had been able to work with Network Rail and other train operators, as well as their West Coast colleagues to stage the event at a busy London station in the morning peak. But they did it and Steven Knight Media understands that planning went right to the wire with route clearance for the Pendolino over the North London Line not being signed off and the required paperwork issued until the day before.
The livery competition follows a similar initiative last year on the West Coast route which saw a Pendolino transformed into Traindeer and is indicative of the way that Virgin encourages its businesses to engage with their customers and the wider community.
The Christmas trains will run on the Virgin Trains’ East Coast and West Coast network throughout December. It is unlikely they will meet each other again, but who knows what may happen as both East Coast and West Coast serve Edinburgh!
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.