Richard Branson: his passengers’ own worst enemy

You can’t miss a Virgin train for two reasons. Firstly, the bright red and yellow noses, plus the black and white stripy doors that would make a badger wince mean that they are eye-catching. Secondly, no matter how late you arrive for your train, there’s a good chance that the train will be later still. So, yeah, you can’t miss them.

As you can’t have failed to notice, Virgin lost the franchise to operate the West Coast Mainline (WCML) from December – leading to Sir Beardie Branson and his PR machine going into overdrive. Kicking and screaming (metaphorically), he told any media outlet that would listen that his competitor, and winner of the franchise, Aberdeen-based First Group would be bad for the taxpayer. Their payment schedule, he said, left them liable to defaulting in the later years of their contract – leaving them with a decent profit at the taxpayer. Virgin’s train drivers came out and told the Guardian that First would treat them “like coach drivers.” Tens of thousands of people even signed an online petition urging the government to reverse the decision – they imply that First would not work as well for the taxpayer as Virgin. Remarkable, given the circumstances.

In the end, all of this was for nothing. Justine Greening, the then Westminster Transport Minister said that the decision was sound and wouldn’t be reversed. Weeks later, Greening was replaced and an announcement was made remarkably soon after that the process hadn’t been carried out correctly. Virgin had pushed for a judicial review, meaning the Department for Transport (DfT) had to review the entire process, so that they could defend themselves in court. Remarkably, they found that First’s payment schedule for the later years of the franchise left them liable to defaulting, as the security that the DfT had calculated was far too low.

Sir Richard had shown remarkable foresight, as he has done so many other times. He knew that if he could find a technicality, he could push and push until the decision was at least suspended – this has happened. He’s now set to run the WCML for the next 18 months while DfT runs the whole process again – it’s not official yet, but numerous sources on twitter have already hinted at this, including one who claims that Virgin is the only operator who has time to be accredited to operate trains safely in time. To be fair to him, Branson has said that the west coast will be run for “free” – this is widely translated as “I’ll run it on a not for profit basis” So, he’ll still be receiving hefty subsidy from the taxpayer.

Beardie has a habit of getting his own way at the taxpayers expense. Back in the late nineties he met with Railtrack (now Network Rail) about improving the WCML – among the promises made to him were 140mph speed limits for his shiny new tilting trains. Oh, and it would only take a few years to complete. Branson met with his own people, they told him the plans were unworkable; the completion date unachievable. Naturally, Branson returned to Railtrack and told them he would sign the contracts providing some securities were put forward by Railtrack to ensure everything was delivered on time. Of course, they weren’t, and Sir Richard was a bit richer.

Fares on Virgin Trains are advertised as starting at just £7.50 for a one-way ticket from Birmingham to London, but they don’t tell you that their anytime return prices are over 20 times more expensive – if you just want to turn up and go, you’re not going to have a good time. It really is no wonder then, that the Guardian reports that Virgin Trains made pre-tax profits of £41million last year.

Just to put this in context, according to the TUC, the aforementioned extremely profitable Virgin Trains receives 3.6 pence per passenger mile –  that’s £14.37 for a one-way Glasgow – Euston passenger (401 miles). Meanwhile, the state-owned East Coast gets just 0.5 pence per passenger mile, meaning they get only £1.97 on an equivalent Edinburgh – Kings Cross journey (393 miles). The holding company for East Coast, DfT-owned Directly Operated Railways (DOR), was in the running to take over the franchise, but it seems that Branson’s stalling has once again worked in his favour: it is apparently now too late for DOR to get the accreditation required for a west coast subsidiary to run in time. It shows, however, that it would be complete and utter madness not to do it at nearest possible opportunity.

We’ve seen the DfT rewrite the rules as they go along in this case, so why can’t they do this to allow DOR to take over from Virgin as soon as they can?

We would all see the difference soon enough. Especially those who signed the petition to “save” Virgin in the first place.

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