20 October 2012

My Virgin Trains Farewell Tour (part 2)

The second and final part of my Virgin Trains Farewell Tour took place last Monday (15 October), on the day it was revealed that Sir Richard Branson had received a call the night before from Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlan MP, asking him to continue operating the West Coast Main Line franchise while the DfT sorted itself out. So perhaps my Farewell Tour was a little premature. If nothing else, however, it could mean I'll have to do it all over again in up to 18 months' time!

As with Part 1, I had to get to a station on the WCML first and I didn't have it in me to endure 8 hours travelling overnight in a National Express coach on this occasion, so I left the LEYTR HQ in Lincolnshire and headed south on... a National Express coach, though only for 2:35, from Bourne to Golders Green in north-west London. The coach was Stagecoach in Peterborough's 53710 (AE10 JTX), a Volvo B9R/Plaxton Elite C48Ftl, delivered over two years ago, and now not conforming the claim National Express made in a recent interview with CBW that 50% of its coaches are under 2 years old. It's a figure I struggle to believe.

Stagecoach in Peterborough's 53710 is seen here departing Golders Green bus station bound for Victoria.

From Golders Green (where bus/coach photography is not permitted, so I found myself stood about an inch outside the station to capture the above shot) I headed to the Underground station to catch a Tube to Euston, where I'd be meeting my travelling companion for the Virgin Trains service to Glasgow. And it would not be any old journey, but the company's flagship, record-breaking London-Glasgow in 4:08 service.

Once in Euston we made use of the First Class Lounge (we were travelling in style to sample what FirstGroup would surely downgrade had they been in line to take over from 9 December). It was pretty busy in this rather stylish first-floor location, where complimentary hot and cold drinks are available, plus an unlimited number of biscuits, cake and pretzels. Free wi-fi and 240V sockets are also on offer, as is a television showing the BBC News Channel, on which Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond featured constantly as today was the day that both her and David Cameron revealed the plan for Scotland's independence, taking for the form on a straightforward Yes/No question to be put to Scots by the end of 2014.

At 1615 we headed to Platform 15 to board our 1630 train to Glasgow, calling only at Preston en route. With a headcode of 1S82, the train operating this journey was one of Virgin's 11-car Pendolino sets, recently increased with the addition of two Standard Class coaches lettered F & U towards the centre of the train. 390126 Virgin Enterprise was the set, which had been renumbered from 390026 following the modification and it was the first time I'd travelled on an 11-car Pendolino.

Pendolino 390126 (originally 390026) is named Virgin Enterprise and is loading at London Euston.

We departed on time at 1630 and ran up to 1 minute late at all passing points thereafter up to the infamous Hanslope Junction, for it was here that we sat for around 2 hours the last time I'd travelled on this journey - during the 2011 LEYTR Railrover. What a performance that was, with the train having to be driven backwards to the junction whereupon we headed north via Northampton and terminated at Preston and asked to move onto a following service. We arrived in Glasgow 2 hours late, though were suitably recompensed by the company. On that occasion, the overhead line equipment had been damaged by an item being thrown at it. Today, however, not only was there no problem at Hanslope Junction, but it was from here that we started to travel ahead of ourselves, typically 1-2 minutes early until north of Rugby (Attleborough Junction).

Henceforth we passed through Nuneaton 2 minutes late, Stafford 1 minute late, Crewe 3 minutes late, Warrington Bank Quay 2 minutes late, Wigan North Western 1 minute late and into our first stop, Preston, 2 minutes late at 1832. However, a very speedy driver and guard change took place and in just 1 minute we departed on time at 1833. I'd been told that a problem exists on this service with passengers for Carlisle boarding at Preston, only to find they're on a non-stop service to Glasgow. Occasionally, the guard takes pity on them and arranges an unscheduled stop, but he/she has no obligation to do so and it will mean the arrival time into Glasgow Central wont be attained. So, a number of non-standard announcements were made to inform all passengers that "if you're not travelling to Glasgow you must leave the train here" and to inform new passengers that they must be travelling to Glasgow.

While the guards were changing, one of the catering crew additionally made an announcement to this effect and while the purists out there would cringe at being constantly told, living in the real world I know how people simply do not do what they're told all the time. It would also help ensure we'd do the journey in the advertised 4:08.

From Preston (1833) we ran late at all passing points including Lancaster (1 late - 1846), Oxenholme (4 late - 1859), Penrith (4 late - 1920) and Carlisle (1 late - 1931). At Carstairs we were back on time and ran between up to 1-2 minutes early through to Glasgow Central, where we arrived on time at 2038 (and, by my reckoning, 19 seconds). I'm no expert in train performance, but the Class 390 had been worked very hard indeed to attain its timetable and the crew had played a blinder in Preston. Can two bus drivers swap over in less than 60 seconds?

Coach U is one of the two new Standard Class coaches being inserted into a large number of Virgin's Pendolino train sets, increasing them from 9 to 11 coaches. They stand out, looking very new and shiny.

As for the complimentary food served in First Class, this was not as good as other occasions. Firstly, there were no menus on the tables and although this was read out to us via the public address system, only the main course was offered when a host travelled through the coaches taking down people's orders. I ordered the main course I did through intrigue rather than anything else: fish, chip & pea pie. Surely it wouldn't all be in the same pie? It most certainly was and very tasty too. But it's still a far cry from the 2005 "three-course feast", which included beef bourguignon or red grape and brie sandwiches and with the evening meal came Belgian chocolates. The drinks trolley was as copiously packed, as ever, with cans of London Pride and Gordon's Gin & tonic aplenty. It's all very civilised and still a great way to travel. I prefer it to the hassle of yesteryear where you'd have to leave your seat to sit in the restaurant car and pay a fortune for food you'd never cook at home.

390126 arrives at Glasgow Central and is being unloaded prior to heading to the Polmadie Depot.

And so there it was. Up until the very morning of the trip, this was to almost certainly be my final trip aboard a Virgin Trains service. Living on the opposing side of the country and making considerably more use of their East Coast counterpart, my trips with VT have been for leisure purposes only and I've been told this has caused me to don rose-tinted glasses. That said, I thought their decision to replace loco-hauled trains on their CrossCountry franchise with 4-car Class 220 'Voyagers' was ridiculous. In one fell swoop they cut capacity by an eye-watering amount. I travelled frequently between Birmingham and Oxford with them at the time and saw first-hand how poorly they treated their passengers when a single Voyager set arrived on a run that had hitherto been a seven-coach Class 47-hauled loco service.

But, unlike many 'industry watchers' I quite enjoy travelling in the Voyagers, Super Voyagers (Class 221s which has the ability to tilt, though none do now) and Pendolinos. Yes, the Voyagers are a little noisy but feel sturdy and for me that means comfortable. Yes, the Pendolinos have intermittant problems with their toilets but I've never witnessed this and yes they do have small windows that you most certainly CAN see out of. The interiors are stylish and modern and I understand that a 9-car Pendolino seats the fewest number of passengers of any inter-city express train, so to say that all modern trains are universally cramped isn't necessarily true.

Much of this, of course, FirstGroup would have inherited, had the DfT not made their monumental cock-up, which lead to the franchise awarding to First being stopped and around £40 million given back to the four shortlisted bidders to cover their costs. I think it made eminent sense to ask Virgin Trains to continue operating the service until the second attempt at awarding the franchise takes place (which could be in around 18 months' time). Sir Richard had already said that any profits he and his co-franchisee Stagecoach make will be donated to charity during this period. And the prospect of both Anglo-Scottish inter-city express franchises being operated in government hands for at least a year would have made the country a laughing stock (unless a decision to re-nationalise is subsequently taken).


G. Tingey said...

"From Golders Green (where bus/coach photography is not permitted, so I found myself stood about an inch outside the station to capture the above shot)"

What total rubbish.
What collection of brain-dead morons are trying illegally to enforce this?

You are rminde3d of BTPlod's cheif, Andy Trotter, telling the press that they welcome photography, as it might be useful evidence (!)

Dave H said...

The photograph of coaches F & U for an up train at Preston (Platform 4 - letters reversed) suggests that someone has a sense of humour.

There are subtle differences inside and outside the new carriages, and the 4 new trains are immediately identifiable - worth a check-list/spot the difference competition.

The new carriages, and the fleet which has recently been through the 'C6' with the major running gear refurbishment do have a much improved ride quality. When in the worst state you feel as if you are on a ship in a heavy swell as yaw & pitch combine to a swirling effect - worst in the leading vehicles by most reports. The more complex the suspension linkages, the more wear will affect them and the more important the maintenance regime - one to ponder on.

Dave H said...

A further thought - if the trains did not have the significant slacks at Carlisle, Preston and Stafford, and less but further slacks at Crewe, Wigan, Warrrington, Motherwell (and all the run in from Carstairs, Nuneaton, Penrith, we might deliver a 3h 30 on regular daily service.

With WCML running timings the London-Birmimghan route via Banbury could be down to 60-65 min with 125mph trains and signalling available now. HS2 for the cost of taking the speed up from 100 to 125mph in signalling and track

LEYTR said...

@ G. Tingey - sad but true. Quite a contrast of how photographers are treated at VCS. A few years ago I got screamed at for taking a photo of an EYMS Levante offloading at Golders. And again when I tried to take one on the day of this trip of the Stagecoach Elite.

@ Dave H - the ride was very nice actually, I really enjoyed myself. I've always been a fan of the Pendolino. Comparing it to EMT's HST carriages, with bucket-style seats, the Pendos win every time for me, though I've very aware that others who use them regularly have very different views.

Re timings, is it possible to improve the 4:08 to 3:30? As I said in the blog, I'm no expert on train performance but we seemed to be going like hell for most of the time. I got the GPS out on a number of occasions and we were touching 115+ on most occasions. Never recorded a 125 though so perhaps this is the slack that could be utilised?

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