End of the line for Virgin as franchise ends
All change – the traditional clarion call of a train reaching the end of the line.
Tomorrow, it's the turn of an entire rail operator to disembark. After 22 years and millions of miles running up and down the west of England and Scotland, Virgin will hand over the franchise to a new operator.
Virgin has already replaced the livery on a number of its trains with a neutral grey/green colour which will ultimately be replaced by the incoming Avanti West Midlands branding.
And the changes that passengers will notice will begin tomorrow. Uniforms of staff will change, the announcements over the tannoy – often a fairly lengthy affair on the main line routes – will no longer mention Richard Branson's famous brand; new apps, leaflets and websites will become the official port of call for passengers planning their journeys.
"We are pleased to be taking over the West Coast franchise," says West Coast Partnership's Edward Funnell.
"Virgin Trains have done a great job, and we are looking to build on that with new trains, new seats and a package of improvements for passengers."
The handover itself is one that has brought about a certain amount of nostalgia for the line, but the reason for the change is more acrimonious.
In April, Sir Richard Branson indicated that the Virgin brand could disappear from the nation's railways after its bidding partner, Stagecoach, was disqualified from bidding over how much of the line's pensions burden it was willing to shoulder.
“I am devastated for the teams who have worked tirelessly to make Virgin Trains one of the best train companies in the UK, if not the world,” Branson wrote at the time.
Since then, for staff at least, the handover has brought about a certain amount of nostalgia, and excitement at the promises being made by Avanti.
"Every person’s contribution to making Virgin Trains number one has been invaluable," Branson wrote recently.
"I’ve been lucky enough to meet many people from the team, from those first train journeys to world record runs, to industry firsts like our work with ex-offenders. Their passion and sense of ‘doing what was right’ has always shone through, and I know that will continue on to the next exciting chapter for the iconic West Coast route."
"We had the news in about May," says train manager Brad Joyce, who is based at the Wolverhampton depot and who grew up watching the Virgin trains zip past him on the platform at Stafford station.
"At first there was a bit of apprehension going through the change, but we have had representatives from First come and introduce themselves and it seems really exciting."
Avanti's, which is owned by First Trenitalia, a partnership between Aberdeen-based transport company FirstGroup and Italian firm Trenitalia, has promised to invest in the line when it takes over.
On Friday the company announced it was to spent £350 million on 23 new 125 mph intercity trains, which will be built in the UK at Hitachi's factory in County Durham.
They are expected to enter service from 2022.
The trains will be a mix of 10-carriage electric trains and 13 five-carriage bi-mode trains, which will switch from electric to diesel power where the railway is not electrified such as in North Wales – so it may be that those trains can be used to bolster the route that links Shrewsbury, Telford and Wolverhampton with London.
That particular route has been one of the great successes of Virgin's time on the line – if you live in Shropshire at least.
Introduced in 2014 after the demise of the Wrexham and Marylebone line, bosses say the route has proved an overwhelming success – and it will shortly be extended beyond Shrewsbury and into Mid Wales, even stopping at Gobowen.
The Wrekin Giant, the diesel train named for the route, has clocked up 1,423,192 miles in service, which as well as the Midlands to London route has pulled trains further north to Cumbria and Scotland.
Ahead of the launch, the operator anticipated that 8,000 people a month would make use of the line. In the five years since – the anniversary is in a few weeks – the number regularly exceeds 11,000, and sometimes tops 12,000.
It's little wonder that it is soon to be expanded, and the bi-mode trains will have 17 per cent more seats than the Voyagers which traverse the route at present.
The numbers for the route as a whole also indicate a great deal of growth on the line.
When Virgin took over the line in 1997, the annual number of users was about 14 million. As it hands it over, that is closer to 40 million.
Its record of innovation has also been striking. Even if you were to overlook the slightly over-familiar messages which are fired at your from the speakers in the toilets, Virgin introduced the tilting train to UK railways, allowing them to travel on bendy stretches of track at higher speeds.
It was the first operator to bring in on-board entertainment and wi-fi, and automatic compensation for delayed trains.
That will be cut from 30 minutes to 15 minutes straight away as one of the first major changes introduced by Avanti – although one would hope that such a promise would not be necessary on the first day of operations.
Many people cite the customer service-led approach espoused by Virgin as being one of the most transformational policies brought in by the operator, and Mr Joyce – who like his colleagues will be automatically transferred to Avanti tomorrow – says that will continue.
"We have a very loyal customer base, and Virgin has totally revolutionised how people travel," says the 33-year-old.
"We have great personal relationships with people who travel from Monday to Friday, regular customers going from Wolverhampton to Euston."
"It will be strange. I'm interested in the railways and wanted to work on the railways when I was a little boy.
"When I was about 13 I was trainspotting at Stafford with my grandad and spotted a Virgin high speed train. I remember saying, I want to work for that company. It has been a great brand to be part of, but everything Avanti has spoken about has been really promising. It's going to be a new start – bring it on."