THE BUYER Mairi Clark, Campaign

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

Virgin Trains.

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

began operating.

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.