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.