I was interested to read today that Virgin Trains’ West Coast operation is celebrating a five star rating for reliability in the latest Annual Passenger Survey from Which?. I understand that the report also says that customers of Virgin Trains on the west coast are also experiencing record punctuality as a result of a combined effort between the rail operator and Network Rail to identify and resolve the cause of delays on the route.
Over the last 88.3% of trains arrived on time over the last twelve months, an improvement of eight percentage points since comparable records began just after privatisation, in September 1999.
Virgin Trains shouts about eight months of strong performance - with PPM (punctuality) figures of over 90% - and a significant reduction in ‘bad days’. And it is right to do so.
But it has not always been the case.
In just over seven weeks’ time Virgin will celebrate 20 years at the control of the West Coast route. It is been a rollercoaster since the first trains under the Virgin Trains brand operated on the morning of Sunday March 9th 1997. In those days Virgin was a mere 41% shareholder in Virgin Rail Group with Venture Capitalists owning the remaining 59%.
Perhaps it was naive, or perhaps it was sheer ignorance of the challenge ahead, Virgin immediately hit problems. Set against ageing rolling stock and locomotives, the glossy Virgin brand failed to shine. Virgin was under fire in a way that it was not used to. And there were calls in the early days for it to be stripped of its franchise from politicians, stakeholders and passengers.
A highlight, or lowlight for Virgin, was when a train packed with politicians heading north to the Labour Party Conference failed. There was uproar and John Prescott threatening to take away the keys to the franchise.
Virgin battled on, but by 1999 its launch Chief Executive Brian Barratt had left and Chris Green parachuted in to try and get the operation on an even keel and keep it there whilst the West Coast route was being turned into a building site. Along the way the Venture Capitalists had walked away. Plans for a Stock Market float were scrapped and a joint venture with Stagecoach Group, but with Virgin having the large 51% share had been sealed.
There had been an expectation that the Virgin magic would immediately transform the West Coast route. Old trains, route upgrade and the fall out from the Hatfield derailment in 2000 was taking its toll, exacerbated by the collapse of Railtrack meant this was not to be. Throughout the first decade of the Millenium there were problem after problem for Virgin and I recall days when performance was in single figures.
So what changed?
Virgin Trains and Network Rail first started working together in this way in 2009, leading to a series of improvements being made on the west coast main line each year. However, in the last 18 months, the two companies have shifted their focus to the basics of railway operation and infrastructure maintenance and as a result the benefits of the working group have now been realised.
These combined efforts have seen 100 days with a PPM of 90% or above in the past six months. That compares with 58 days in the same period two years ago. In addition, the last period has seen over 45% of trains arrive at their destinations early.
In the 166 days excluding Christmas Day and Boxing Day (from 24 Jul 2016 – 7 Jan 2017), we had 100 days with a PPM of 90% or above. This compares with 58 days with a PPM of 90% or above during the same timeframe two years ago (20 Jul 2014 – 3 Jan 2015).
Areas of priority have included reducing overhead line and track defects, focussing on speed restrictions and addressing signal failures and cable theft. Monitoring equipment has also been installed onto Virgin Trains’ trains to enable Network Rail to measure and test the infrastructure at speeds of up to 125mph identify defects before they become serious issues.
Additional equipment installed on trains includes:
-Unattended Overhead Line Monitoring System (UOMS)
-Pantograph Cameras; a roof mounted camera that surveys the pantograph and overhead line throughout the trains operation
-Bump Boxes; these are able to identify and record common track faults by measuring the shock and vibration characteristics generated in the carriage of the train
-Improved carbon quality on pantographs; improves the reliability of service and reduces the need for regular maintenance.
Network Rail Engineers regularly ride in the cab of Virgin Trains services to monitor ride quality and additional pantograph cameras, bump boxes along with night vision forward facing CCTV and axle box monitors are also expected to be installed over the next six months.
Peter Broadley, Commercial Operations Director for Virgin Trains on the west coast, said: “We’re really pleased with the improvements that have been made by Network Rail and our own team over the past few years and the latest performance figures on the west coast are testament to how far we’ve come. We know there’s still more to do though and we’re certainly not resting on our laurels. With even more improvements in the pipeline, we’re confident that we will continue to improve on punctuality and reliability whilst delivering the exceptional customer service that we are known for.”
Further information on punctuality on the west coast can be found here: https://www.virgintrains.co.uk/about/punctuality
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.