23 October 2011

Both Sides of the Story

I've not blogged for a while, so thought my long overdue contribution ought to be something very impressive. Well, to me, anyway. I suspect this may well be my favourite piece of journalism of the year.

In issue 673, railway magazine RAIL lead with a new service introduced by Chiltern Railways. It forms part of their Evergreen 3 project, to upgrade the main line between London Marylebone and Birmingham Snow Hill for it to enable running at 100mph, as well as seeing extensive remodelling at three main junctions.

As a consequence of the line speed increase, Chiltern is now able to operate certain London-Birmingham trains with an end-to-end journey time of 90 minutes. This rivals Virgin Trains' journey time between London Euston and Birmingham New Street. Chiltern's fares are significantly cheaper, too.

In addition to the upgrade, the increased line speed and the faster journey times, Chiltern has also re-branded everything on the route 'Mainline'. Most trains are the Class 168 Clubman units that have plied their trade along the route with Chiltern for many years. On top of this, there is now the Mainline Silver from which to choose. These trains are generally loco-hauled rakes of Mk3 coaches, which offer more legroom as standard than Virgin offers in any of its trains. The Mainline Silver trains additionally offer a special business class ('Premium Economy') section, which Chiltern goes out of its way to say is not 'first class' but a kind of business class area where travellers can get on with their work and for a fraction of the cost of upgrading to first class with Virgin. Chiltern does not currently offer any First Class travel.

£20 is the supplement for Premium Economy, for which travellers receive a larger seat, a table and at-seat, non-complimentary refreshments.

RAIL's article certainly wasn't gushing in praise, but did cover two pages, detailing the improvements, with quotes from all parties, including Virgin, who now charges £20 more for an equivalent business class anytime return between London-Birmingham than Chiltern (although Virgin's substantial menu in first class is all free - and this includes alcohol).

The new Mainline and Mainline Silver services certainly seem like a step in the right direction, offering choice to passengers who've otherwise only considered another train operating company for 'fast' travel between England's two largest cities. One operator's price is now less than the other's an a 'third way' is offered for those who want to travel in the ambiance afforded in First Class but who do not want to pay the (sometimes) eye-watering prices.

Then, in the following edition of RAIL, I read Barry Doe's thoughts on Chiltern's new Mainline and Mainline Silver services. He didn't pull any punches - even the headline stated: "Casual... vague... probably the worst rail timetable I have ever seen..."And, let's be fair, he has seen quite a few.

Hats off to RAIL for allowing one of their regular columnists to show both sides of the story - especially when the 'other' side is portrayed in such a negative light.

You're probably thinking that Barry's criticism centred around the new services' timetable: it's design, its layout and some small areas of ambiguity that could be straightened out at the next reprint. Sadly not. A summary of criticisms are below:

- The timetable is now in two books, which completely omit a number of train journeys altogether
- The standard Mainline trains offer only a catering trolley until 1437 ex London and until 1155 ex Birmingham
- The Mainline Silver timetable is "ambiguous - indeed contradictory as to whether the kitchen is open or not" for the at-seat, non-complimentary food served in Premium Economy
- Chiltern's website states "On morning trains we will serve freshly cooked... bacon rolls" - the implication that this is for all services (even the Class 168s)
- Business class is officially known as 'Premium Economy', Barry claims this is simply First Class, despite Chiltern's protestations: "You pay extra, have a First Class seat and First Class inter-available tickets and rovers are accepted"
- Upgrade to Premium Economy is £20, yet on two journeys it is only £10 and on two others it is free
- The 0005 Friday-only departure, shown in the timetable, is for a train that actually departs at 0005 on Saturday mornings

While you can easily criticise Barry's views on a number of railway (and bus/coach) related issues, when it comes to tickets, validity and timetables, you simply cannot. In the latest RAIL, Adrian Shooter, Chiltern's chairman, has written to the magazine to address Barry's claims. He addressed but two satisfactorily. One timetable book will replace the current two and the 0005 'FO' train is shown with Friday's late-night departures as passengers still consider this departure as a Friday night journey.

A cracking piece of journalism when you look at both pieces together; RAIL's first piece (by business editor Philip Haigh) was extensive and detailed the main improvements, which the second piece (by Barry Doe) highlighted the problems passengers are likely to encounter. The only disappointment is that both pieces were in one, much larger, article.

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