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LIKE A VIRGIN? NO THANKS

06-10-2006

After The Stirrer's criticism of Virgin Trains last week, Dave Woodhall compares and contrasts their services with local rail rivals Chiltern.

May as well go for an easy target this week, and there's no easier target than Virgin trains, and in particular their services to London.

Just in case you're unaware of what a rail trip to the capital entails, here's what you're likely to expect. A walk-on off-peak fare from New Street is £36.20. This, if you're lucky, entitles you to a seat. It will almost certainly be one of the airline-style combinations, as tables are an endangered species on the new trains Virgin run. Or you might end up standing, because the days when second-class passengers could sit in first have long gone. You pay to be conveyed, not to sit down, say Virgin.

That £36.20 fare is only valid on trains starting from 10am, scheduled to arrive at Euston for 11.35, so if you want to be in the capital for, say, a mid-day meeting, forget it unless your destination is adjacent to the station and you're feeling lucky. If you want to get there any earlier, the standard return fare is an eye-watering £108. Even the Head of the European Commission in the UK, Reijo Kemppinen, was moved to comment at this price last week - and when an EU official complains abut the price of something he can claim back on his exes, you know there's a problem.

On your return, there's a further sting. You can use the 15.10 from Euston, you can use the 18.40, but your ticket isn't valid for any trains departing during the small matter of the three and a half hours in the middle. Get on one of them and you're liable to pay the difference between what you've already paid and what the ‘train manager' feels like charging. Ignorance is no excuse, although it is justified - it's highly unlikely that you'll be told about this particular restriction when you buy your ticket.

Your train will probably be crowded, especially if it's the first off-peaker of the evening, because the days when extra carriages would be added to cope with additional demand are long gone. It'll almost certainly halt for some unfathomable reason in the vicinity of Milton Keynes and there'll be a wait at Proofhouse Junction while a platform is made available, even though they knew three months ago that your train would be arriving at this time. And if you ever make an enquiry about why you're being inconvenienced, you'll either be given a standard complaints form or threatened with arrest, as happened recently to Aston Pride chairman Simon Topham

Fortunately, though, there is an alternative. Chiltern trains run from Kidderminster, via Snow Hill and Solihull, to Marylebone. They're cheaper (£25.50), their off-peak fares begin at 8.00am, and although they take a bit longer (around 2¼ hours as opposed to Virgin's 95 minutes), this is made up for me by being able to drive to Solihull station in ten minutes rather than allowing an hour to get the bus to New Street. I could also drive to the NEC for a Virgin train - this would mean paying £6 to park, as opposed to 60p at Solihull. £16 for half an hour's less travelling time doesn't equate to good value in my book. And they don't have that annoying gap when you can't use the ticket you've already paid for, nor do their train drivers regard punctuality as a happy accident.

But most of all, I like travelling with Chiltern because it's a much friendlier experience. The staff treat me as a customer rather than as a hindrance. You can strike up conversations with fellow passengers. Even the shops at Marylebone seem better and cheaper than their counterparts at Euston. The only drawback is that more customers seem to be discovering Chiltern so their trains are starting to fill up.

If someone from Virgin reads this, please don't tell me about the money you've spent investing in your rolling stock - I still don't like it. Don't bother telling me that I can buy cheaper tickets if I book in advance - I often have to go to London at short notice and don't know which train I'll be returning on, and in any case Chiltern are still much cheaper.

Tell me why your walk-on fares are so expensive that even Eurocrats complain about them. Tell me why it's so difficult to get a seat that I've paid for. Tell me why, five days a week, anyone arriving at Euston in mid-afternoon face a three hour wait if they've unknowingly bought the wrong ticket. Tell me why your trains are incapable of running on time, even with delays built into the timetable. Tell me why your staff are so often incapable of replying to a polite enquiry with courtesy and respect. Tell me why you don't think you can learn anything from a company a fraction of your size, but which gets right something that you so often get so spectacularly, infuriatingly, wrong.
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