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Those rather random comments will be explained later, but have summed up some of the laughable experiences that I have had with Virgin trains recently. Virgin trains spawned from Richard Branson's multi-pronged entrepreneurial empire, following the privatisation of the railways. Despite some other companies running nationwide services, such as the economy fares of Silverlink, Virgin is by far the most comprehensive service, covering most areas of England, Wales and Scotland. However this, by no means, makes it the best!! Although at the moment, Virgin is probably the best of a bad, bad bunch which puts our transport sector to shame.
When most other European countries, notably France and Germany, have fabulous railway systems with minimal accidents, its puts our shoddy services into perspective. In Japan, a train with a one minute delay would be deemed unacceptable and totally unentertainable. In this country, we would be mighty pleased if our delays could be kept to this minimum!
Now, the bulk of this opinion will be based on personal experiences and so it may not be totally indicative of the service as a whole. I have probably travelled with Virgin trains a total of 12 times this year, a return journey being 2 in total. Now, upto recently, I had rarely experienced any delays of note. I wasn't sure if this was just the luck o' the Irish (well 1/4 of me hails from the Emerald Isle!) or if Virgin just wasn't as bad as everyone made them out to be. Well, last weeks journeys re-affirmed my faith in word of mouth!
I was travelling to Weston Super Mare for a couple of days "holiday" (see my recent op for the reasons for the inverted commas!), only to find
that "The Virgin Train to Bristol Temple Meads will be approximately 80 minutes delayed due to cows on the line outside Leeds". WHAT A JOKE! It was funny enough that anything could get onto a train line, let alone cows. Have people never heard of fences or anything?! So anyway, a wait in a not too lovely waiting room at Birmingham New Street ensued before the train finally arrived. Now, I am definitely planning on demanding compensation for this calamity, but nowhere does anyone tell you how to go about it, or that this is even possible. I know that you must collect a slip onboard and formally complain to Virgin, but when we forgot to do this and asked again on another journey, we were fobbed off with some excuse that the "standard procedure" is to ask on the journey which is delayed. Total clap-trap in my view, one complain card is the same as another.
If anyone was wondering about the "distressed woman" thing, this pertains to another lame excuse for a delay, as we were on our return journey from Bristol back to Birmingham. We would have to halt the train outside the station while a distressed lady was removed from the line. At this point all we could do was have a good old titter because it was all so ridiculous. Other excuses for delays and/or longer journey times have included speeding restrictions and engineering works. I am waiting for the "we are waiting for some new tracks to be laid, please bear with us" stories coming shortly.
Ok, so punctuality isn't Virgin's strong point, so how about comfort? Well, not great. Because not everyone has pre-booked their tickets, many people can usually be found scrambling about for seats which can make for an uncomfortable and off-putting start to your journey. On all trains there are areas to place your baggage, both in special compartments or in stowages above your seats. But even with this out of the way, "standard" seats are by no means spacious, especially if it's busy. If you're tall like me, you will being to feel cramped and uncomfortable after a long journey. Seats are usually arranged as sets of four around a central table, but you may be unlucky enough to be sitting in a row of seats bus-style. Not good for a long journey!
Going back to pre-booked tickets...TOP TIP: ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS book your tickets in advance!! Not just for ease and peace of mind, but to reduce the colossal train fares which have been making the news of late. I was astounded that you could buy a used car and drive to Newcastle from London in it for less than booking a train ticket on the day! This really is ridiculous, and you can easily minimise your fares by booking over a week in advance. The fare I usually paid from Birmingham to London was approximately £25 or more, which is reasonable, but Virgin have recently started another half price incentive to attract the ever-disillusioned public back onto the trains. Consequently I managed a return fare to London for an excellent £7.50!! I cannot make qualms about pricing in my cases, but it is clear that non-advanced bookings have to be made a whole lot cheaper; after all, you might as well get a plane for the same or a cheaper price in some cases!
On the safety front, we all know of the recent crashes in Selby and Hatfield (I'm not sure if these were Virgin or not, is that supremely ignorant of me?!) and so obviously safety on British trains has not been impeccable of late. However, I have always felt relatively safe on Virgin trains and never in danger. After all, you are probably many times safer travelling via train than in any car. Still, improvements need to be made, but those are Railtrack's priorities, not Virgin Trains'.
Other on board facilties include a toilet at the end of each carriage, although I avoid these unless you literally felt like you are about to explode. They are dirty, small and altogether disgusting. Plus it is nigh on impossible to "direct" while the train is moving anyway! If you are female, this poses no problem, but persuading yourself to sit on the seats may be an even bigger one!
There is also a "buffet" facilty, which is really just a glorified tuck shop, selling hot and cold drinks, chocolate, crisps, sandwiches and some hot snacks. Of course, these are all sold at ludicrously inflated prices and so I would advise to buy your food before you travel. There are also facilties for the disabled and also cats and dogs to travel on board, but I would definitely contact Virgin if you need to utilise these facilities to make sure they apply to your journey.
So, overall, it doesn't look good for the British rail system. It may have been bad in the days of nationalisation and before the wrath of Thatcher, but it is obvious that privatisation was not the answer to its problems. The failings of British Rail are just as prevalent in Virgin Trains and its fellow proprietors, if not more. The British public should be able to have a rail network that they can be proud of, and use as a luxury and not a last resort. Branston, you have been warned.