Private Eye tracks the faults on the Virgin line

Branson battles to keep his train set (Photo: Fred Boniface Photography)

Expert self-publicist Sir Richard Branson may have lost his railway to rivals FirstGroup but he has still managed to persuade some of the British public that he is a victim.

Almost 170,000 people have signed a petition urging the government to reconsider awarding First Group the contract to run trains up Britain’s west coast.

These are some of the same taxpayers and passengers who were ‘stuffed by Virgin during its 15-year sojourn on the west-coast mainline,’ says Private Eye.

In a Branson’s Pickle special, the Eye picks apart the ‘arrogance and revisionism’ of the Virgin boss. His railway is exposed as a promise-breaking, wasteful, competition-crushing enterprise according to the Eye.

Branson’s fight has gained considerable coverage in the August silly season and he has gained more than enough signatures on a petition set up by a Virgin ‘customer‘, for the issue to be considered for debate in Parliament,

But it seems that in the flurry of publicity many of the criticisms fired at Virgin trains have been forgotten.  These include the 12-year-old habit of running near-empty trains says Private Eye. Virgin stopped offering cheap seats at peak-times, which meant it often ran half-empty trains and relied on business travellers on expense accounts, who could pay the full price fair.

A standard seat on a London to Manchester train at peak time now costs £296 reports the Eye. That is 212% more than when Branson’s trains started running in 1997, it is claimed.

And Virgin has squeezed out the off-peak travellers. As of 2010 almost all the London to Liverpool runs were counted as peak-time journeys, the satirical newspaper reports.

The policy has meant Virgin Trains has been generating an average of 6.6% growth in profits per year.

As the Eye points out, Virgin’s legal challenge should be stymied by its past behaviour. The claim against FirstGroup’s winning bid rests on the view that the newcomer will not be able to deliver on its promises.

But both FirstGroup and Virgin have won contracts ‘on the strength of promises they later broke’, the Eye argues.

The difference between the two is one of tact says the Eye. FirstGroup’s executives lobby quietly behind closed doors for their government bailouts. Virgin and its 49% partner Stage Coach get confrontational, demand their government subsidy and get themselves accused of blackmail by a former Rail Minister Tom Harris.

The Eye also points out that Virgin polices have meant some direct train services between the northwest and London have been stopped.

Virgin and Railtrack promised to upgrade the west-coast track to take 140mph trains. In return they won a ban on anyone competing with Virgin on the line.

This meant, however, that services offered by FirstGroup’s First North Western’s franchise from Blackpool and Rochdale to the capital were unable to stop at key stations on the route where Virgin had a monopoly.

Virgin’s lawyers also, reportedly, curbed competition on trains running from Birmingham and Wolverhampton to London. But they could not stop a service running between Wrexham and London. So the company started a loss-making line to compete with this upstart. Their W&S line closed last year, leaving Shrewsbury and Telford without trains to the capital.

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