5 ways that Virgin’s successor can enhance the rail experience

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By James Le Grice

Remember the days when train travel was about more than getting from A to B? When it was an experience, a luxury, and had a sparkle of glamour? No, neither do I. In the age of the high-speed train, there’s a trade-off mentality. You pay to get from city centre to city centre in two hours, not to be pampered. We’re told we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

But rail fares in Britain are the most expensive in Europe, and the Department of Transport announced this week that they are getting even pricier, by an average of 6.2%, starting in January. Surely at these prices we the passengers should be able to eat a little bit of cake?

Well there’s opportunity for change. Virgin Trains, which has operated the services between London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales, and Scotland since privatisation, has lost its franchise. From 9 December, FirstGroup will take over. This is a chance to start afresh, innovate, and set an example for other train companies to follow. Here are five ways that First could spruce up the West Coast service and make its new passengers feel like they’re getting some value for their money.

Number 1: Music

Music has the power to set the right moods, lift peoples’ spirits, and make the mundane seem interesting. Why not play music over the train’s tannoy system while the passengers are boarding? Airlines do it, and it doesn’t cost anything. You could have something up-tempo for the morning rush hour trains, relaxing lounge music in the evening, and Top 40 pop on off peak services.

And when the train is arriving, put on a song thematic to the destination city: ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles for arrival into Liverpool, Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ for London, or ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ while the train’s pulling into Birmingham.

Number 2: Free Wifi

London to Manchester on Megabus costs £4.00 and Wifi is complimentary. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains costs £73.20 and Wifi starts at £4.00 for one hour. You needn’t be an art critic to see there’s something wrong with this picture.

Number 3: Outsourced Catering

Train operating companies are cutting back on catering, ostensibly so they can downsize staff. So why not outsource the catering to restaurants or farm shops from places served on the route? They would provide their own local produce, meats, cheeses, bread, etc, prepare it themselves according to their own menus, serve it themselves, and pay the train operators a percentage of their sales.

The train operating companies save money. The caterers are happy because they get to spread their local brands to a wider national audience. And the passengers would enjoy a regional variety to their train food, something less Tesco Meal Deal and more Borough Market. So everybody wins.

Number 4: The Pub

In yesteryear, trains had a restaurant car. This evolved into the buffet, where passengers are served food to take back to their own carriages, and on Virgin Trains there is The Shop, where passengers serve themselves and pay at the till. Isn’t there a logical missing link here? What about that great British institution called The Pub? Railway stations have them, so why not have pubs on trains themselves?

Tim O’Toole, CEO of First Group, says he plans to ‘completely redo’ the interiors of the Pendolino trainsets that he will inherit from Virgin, so here’s an idea: replace The Shop with more standard class seating, and convert one of the four first class carriages into a pub. It would have a kitchen, a fully stocked bar with beer on tap – not just in bottles and cans-, guest ales, counter space to stand against running up either side of the carriage, a few round tables and stools, a fruit machine, and a TV showing sport or music videos. All the pubs would have their own pubby names to give them that ‘local’ feel, and have a pub sign painted on the doors leading into the carriage.

This could actually solve some of the overcrowding issues, as having a fourth first class carriage usually goes to waste, and pubs are places where people regularly stand for a couple of hours. Judging by how busy station pubs are at peak times, plenty would probably chose to travel pub class altogether, and free up seats in the main carriages.

Number 5: A truly first class First Class

The Virgin Trains first class experience is equivalent to the Virgin Atlantic economy class experience. It’s satisfying – you get complimentary tea/coffee, food, and alcoholic drinks served to you at your seat – but it’s not luxury.

Britain has a legacy of glamorous trains. This is the nation of the Flying Scotsman and the Manchester Pullman, trains whose first class experience was the envy of five star hotels. In modern times, trains have surrendered this prestige to the airlines. So let’s bring some of that back to reward those willing to pay more than the already overpriced tickets.

Resurrect the porter service. When first class passengers check in to the first class lounge, let them leave their bags with a steward to take onto the train for them. Onboard the train, the first class seats should ideally be wide, leather upholstered, and be equipped with electronic massage and lumbar support capabilities.

And the dining must be able to compete with the likes of Gaucho and The Ivy, and come under the radar of The Times food critics. A first class ticket could include a complimentary three course meal and drink from a set menu, plus coffee or tea to follow, but the full menu would include plenty that passengers would have to pay extra for, albeit at lower prices than at a normal restaurant. Perhaps they want to start with a cocktail and olives, or some champagne and caviar. And while the offerings on the free set menu will be good, they will not be as good as the a la carte menu. That’s where you’ll find the vintage wines, the steamed lobster, and the Argentine steak.

First class needs to be gourmet enough to attract celebrities. Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell need to take this train, tweet about it, be photographed stepping off of it. This will bring some glamour back to train travel, and create an atmosphere that will spill over into standard class.

*****

Other major rail franchises will be up for grabs in the next couple of years. If First West Coast institute changes like these, and if they’re a hit, winners of future bids will copy them and passengers will feel like they’re getting something more than an A to B service for their money.

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One Response to 5 ways that Virgin’s successor can enhance the rail experience

  1. Richard says:

    I like these ideas. Virgin has improved over the years, but in general we do need some original thinking to make train travel a better experience. Have to be careful none of these extra services lead to higher costs (ie making it a premium service), but generate income in a way that helps keeps fares down. Coming from Manchester I think I’d be somewhat gleeful if they started playing Oasis as the train pulled into the station – it would probablty compensate for having to listen to Robbie Williams as we went through Stoke.

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