THE BUYER Mairi Clark, Campaign
Reporter Mairi Clark continues the series in which a Campaign journalist
tests a product or service against the promise of its marketing. This
month, she receives a pleasant surprise as she attempts to get back to
grass roots in her native Glasgow via the much maligned and troubled
When it launched in 1997, Virgin Trains pledged to improve standards and
fares. It has had a rough ride in the press, and everything written
about Virgin Trains shows that those who thought the deregulation of the
railway network was a good thing don’t ever travel by train.
So when I saw a Virgin Trains ad a week before I was planning to return
home to Glasgow, I reasoned that it couldn’t be worse than any other
train company I’d travelled with.
Virgin’s customer service was impressive, right down to the quick
My chosen departure time was available and once I’d worked out my route
with the friendly operator, I only faced the crunch question: price.
’pounds 36?’ I shrieked. ’That’s really cheap - it is return, isn’t it?’
I checked the route and the duration of the journey and it was true,
they’d gazumped even Intercity. I was fully prepared for my tickets to
arrive by pigeon, but no. They arrived, as promised, by first-class post
within a couple of days.
The only problem arose when the train was en route. A signal failure
held it for more than two hours just outside Glasgow, and so it didn’t
arrive until after 3am. The situation was rescued by free hot drinks on
board and complementary cabs on arrival.
My big grumble about Virgin Trains is the website. Why get everything
else working with maximum efficiency and neglect the one thing that
can’t be blamed on the previous Government? It’s too clunky, takes too
long to load and you can’t book online.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the site hadn’t teased me with a
’bookings & reservations’ button. When you click it, you get a message
telling you to ’please call the Virgin Trains line to book’.
However, it is informative, if information is all you want.
THE SELLER Sarah Keogh, Virgin Trains
Virgin Trains has been operating since 1997 when it won the franchise
following the privatisation of British Rail. Sarah Keogh is the
marketing and sales director and has been in the job since the company
Here she gives her response to Mairi Clark’s highly welcome praise.
I’m delighted you had such a positive experience with us. We have found
press criticism over the past 18 months difficult to take as everyone
has been working hard to turn Virgin Trains around. People expected us
to go from BR to Virgin Atlantic overnight but product innovation takes
Virgin’s core values of customer service, quality, flair, innovation,
fun and good value are relevant to the different businesses within the
Virgin Group in varying degrees. For Virgin Trains, they represent
relevant customer benefits.
So, here’s what we have been doing to ’Virginify’ our trains.
Effort has gone into working with our suppliers to improve our
collective performance. And while performance is better since we took
over, there is still room for improvement.
Virgin Trains and Railtrack are spending about pounds 2.2 billion to
replace our fleet with state-of-the-art trains and upgrade the
infrastructure on which they will run. Currently, we’ve refurbished more
than half of our aged fleet at a cost of pounds 1 million per train.
We are also proud of the transformation in customer service we’ve
Independent research shows that the attitude of our staff is the most
improved of any rail company since privatisation. Our new station and
Virgin TrainLine staff, and the product and customer service trial on
some of our routes, are the most tangible evidence of our
With Virgin Value, we have introduced some of the cheapest fares in many
years across much of our network and have massively increased the
availability of these fares.
Finally, fair comment about the website. Its slowness is being addressed
and we’ll have nailed real-time booking by mid-1999.