Mancunian Blues: The Last Virgin

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The Last Virgin

Having stayed away from London during the Olympics I took advantage of the break between them and the Paralympics to brave the big smoke. One of the joys of never having to be anywhere at the beck and call of others is that I can choose when I travel. And as such, Manchester to London and back cost me a grand total of £24.

But more of that fare later. As I sat down on the train, I realised I would, in most likelihood be doing this journey, by Virgin West Coast, for the last time. It was quite sad really.

The Virgin Group, led by Richard Branson, were outbid for the franchise to run the West Coast Mainline. They’ve been running these services since privatisation, and despite my reservations about splitting up the railway, one can’t deny they have been a success story.

The West Coast Mainline is part major rail line and part antique of the industrial revolution. Built piecemeal from a number of smaller lines, it was one of the first of mainlines in the country. Back then, technology was evolving at such a pace that the ideas of the leading engineers of the time were quickly out of date. Most of the line was built by Joseph Locke, a talented engineer with a knack for building to time and to budget. A key to this was him shunning tunnels and most other major civil engineering and just driving a track over the land where he could, this led to some rather steep climbs, especially in the lakes. The southern section was built by Robert Stephenson who shared his father, George’s, views that steam engines lacked the power to climb hills so he built it flat but very curvy, sticking to the natural contours to the land where possible.

While competitors like the Great Western and the East Coast companies benefited from veritable racetracks, the West Coast has always suffered in that it needed to not only have fast trains, but ones that could cope with the changes of speed needed. Hence the electrification and the aborted Advanced Passenger Train concept.

When they took over the lines, Virgin took on a fleet that was a mix of 1970s coaches hauled by locomotives from either the late 1970s or the late 1980s / early 1990s. Even the newer locomotives were just developments of some of the 1970s electric locomotives. On the promise of a line upgrade, they bought new 140mph Pendolino units. Crucially, these were able to tilt, so could run at high speeds along the wiggly bits of the track. On top of this, they bought in new Voyager diesels for the non-electrified routes and to run on their Cross-Country franchise.

Things didn’t go quite as planned, Railtrack was unable to provide track that would allow these trains to run at full speed., instead going for a cut price 125mph route. Obviously this didn’t go down well with Virgin.

However Virgin did a wonderful job of attracting new customers, perhaps too good a job, as the Friday evening trains from London were apparently so full people were having to be turned away.

That is the problem with the West Coast Main Line, that it is full to bursting. As well as the London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Glasgow services, it has local services in the Home Counties, West Midlands, North West and Scotland. On top of this it also has services from the Cross Country and Transpennine franchises and also it happens to be one of the major freight routes in the country.

New, longer, trains were ordered, and then the government decided they should be stored for a while. In another instance, the insurers told Virgin that they couldn’t allow their two new trains to run on the same route since they didn’t want to risk them crashing into each other! More carriages were added to the existing trains and eventually the new trains arrived, but still Virgin have the trains running at capacity quite often. Well done to them.

At this point we can talk about High Speed Two, the controversial new line that is proposed for Great Britain. It is controversial because lots of people think that there are better alternatives to it. Most of these are people who don’t want HS2 going near their house, and because HS2 won’t have a station outside London until Birmingham, think they won’t get a benefit from it. Obviously less traffic on the roads and more room for local services on the existing railway could be counted as benefits, but hey-ho. Alternative suggestions included running next to an existing motorway and refurbishing the current West Coast Line. The West Coast Route is, as has been mentioned, too wiggly for proper high speed services. Motorways, likewise, tend to be built curved to keep drivers awake, not the best for a railway. Also they’d have to keep bridging whatever roads they were following and all of the junctions.

More of the issue for me is that we are not expecting to reach Manchester until the 2030s. Just for comparison, the act allowing the London and Birmingham Railway to be built was passed in 1833 and the line was finished, as was the northern section, in 1838. Why does it now take 20 odd years to build?

Anyway, I was able to by two single tickets to London, that came to a cost of £24.While I was in London, I wanted to go to London Zoo, and to take advantage of the 2 for 1 tickets, I needed to produce two British Rail bought return tickets to London. I had one set, so went to the local station, New Southgate, only to find the ticket office closed and no sign of a ticket machine. So I hoped on a train to Finsbury Park, a bit nearer into London. In fact, it is less than 3 miles from the terminus at King’s Cross. How much does a return ticket cost? £8.40. For what would be a 6 mile round trip (that I wasn’t even going to make), it costs a third of my 400 mile trip. Despite it being a weekend, I wasn’t allowed to buy a cheap-day return. Eventually I bought a travel card in order to offset the cost (slightly cheaper despite actually covering the route of the return ticket as well as all busses, and most of the rail and tube in London) against my travel back to where I was staying and to the zoo.

The local services on that line were run by First Group. First Group were the winning bidders for the West Coast. Here is more reason to worry for me. First are paying a lot more to the government than Virgin were. How will they make this money? They are going to more destinations once electrification comes online, but the trains are already full, so they can’t actually squeeze more people onto them. They can cut staff, which would be a shame as I’ve always found them rather helpful. Or they can raise fares.

They’ve apparently promised to cut the ‘anytime walk-on fare’. This is somewhere in the region of £150 for a single. This is an often quoted figure in the anti-rail argument, that it is so expensive, but a bit of for planning means that it is currently easy to get a ticket for 10% of this. I wonder how long this will last. Will I soon have to go back to figuring out rail journeys via bizarre destinations to get a cheap trip, or even worse, having to use the coach.

Maybe, just maybe, First will do well, but other companies who have outbid Virgin for franchises have not been able to carry out on their promises, notable National Express who let their East Coast company go bust because it was losing money. Maybe those of us on low incomes will still be able to benefit from London being two hours away, but somehow I doubt it.

So, I write this with Tuesday only an hour or so away. On Wednesday I go to Euston to get on the Virgin Pendolino for what may be the last time. I hope the memories will be good. Hopefully my last Virgin will do itself proud. Thank you Mr. Branson.

As an after note, the train ride up on Wednesday was its normal pleasant punctual service. Part way though, a woman wandered up to me and told me that there is an online petition asking the government to reconsider.

At nearly 60,000 signatories, obviously a lot of people feel strongly about this, see the petition for yourself.

So, till next time

Love, peace and the Blues

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