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When it comes to business in general you canít help but admire the empire that Richard Branson has built up. You only have to enter the word Virgin in the product search on Ciao to see the vast array of products and services he has in his portfolio. But out of all of them the one that seems to come under constant scrutiny is his train company, unsurprisingly called Virgin Trains. Despite being a frequent train user over the years Iíd never used them before but as a reward for completing a postal survey about the company my other half was offered two free day returns to anywhere in the country Ė an offer we were always going to take up.
Purchasing a ticket is very simple, with the choice of booking online, over the phone or at your local station. Even though we had free tickets we were given a code to use and therefore had to book through the same process as a paying customer. To get the cheapest possible deal I would recommend that you book in advance through the Virgin Value Fares offer. Through this offer you get reductions in price, plus a reserved seat, and the earlier you book the less you have to pay. The three options are, with the level of price reduction in relation to the earlier you book, three days, seven days and fourteen days. Note though that these are limited so get in as early as possible - especially on busy routes, weekends and/or if there is a major event that would make the route busier. If you are not in the position to book early and take advantage of this offer then you will have to use the normal booking facility. Either way if you use the online system you will need to register, the information they ask for is pretty normal; name, address, etc Ė nothing that made me wonder what they needed it for. At the end of the process there is a tick box where you can opt in to receive offers and I suggest you do this as this is how my other half received the survey that resulted in our free tickets, plus they donít bombard you with junk every other day. Once you have registered you then will never have to complete this section again when ordering tickets, you simply log in via the site using the username and password you chose during the registration process.
If you book over the phone or online they simply search for the best route and then take your details before payment. To actually book your ticket online you are taken through to what at first appears a confusing page, littered with tick boxes and drop down menus Ė but fear not, if you start at the top and work down the process is actually really simple and, despite its appearance, the page is actually really well set
out. The first section asks where you want to travel to and from, which also includes search options to find out what the nearest station is to certain attractions. The system automatically selects the quickest route, although you have the option to select time slots broken down into fifteen minutes throughout the day. This is then run through timetable and you are given the options available, including saver and open ticket prices, and the option to upgrade to first class. At this point there is also a box to include promotional codes for free tickets or any other Virgin offers. Before paying you are given several other options that include the choice of smoking or non-smoking, saving journey details, etc. You are asked to confirm ticket details and then sent to a page to pay, where all major credit and debit cards are accepted. You also have a choice to be sent the tickets via first class post or collect them from the most convenient train station. Once the process is completed you receive a confirmation email. We requested they were sent via post and received them less than twenty-four hours later, which was pretty impressive. The whole booking process via the internet is simple due to the well designed pages, which includes the use of drop down menus and tick boxes where appropriate to speed it up. Each page also has a link to help pages should you get stuck.
My only problem up to now with virgin was the lack of an easy route to our destination from home. Our nearest station is Derby and having decided to use to tickets to go down to London and meet some friends I expected a simple one train journey from Derby to either London Euston or St. Pancreas. Unfortunately Virgin didnít offer this route, which meant we would have to go via Birmingham New Street, and this would add an extra hour onto our travelling times than if we went with Midland Mainline. Due to the fact that we had to change we also had a problem getting a close transfer as the train from Birmingham not only left just once an hour but also within five minutes of our first trains arrival. Therefore, with no chance of trusting the train to be on time, we had to book the following one leaving us with over an hour wait each way. This wasnít ideal, but I must stress that many other routes donít have this problem and obviously all depends on your journey and frequency of the trains, we were just unlucky in that the arrival and departures were so close together.
So, onto the journey!
When arriving at Derby station we were happy to find that not only was the train on time, but actually arrived in the station fifteen minutes early Ė allowing us to board and get comfy. My first impressions were very good. Each coach was well labelled and once on the train finding out reserved seats was made easier by the overhead screens for each seat, detailing the seat number and whether they were reserved or not Ė not to mention the name they were reserved under. This was a massive improvement on the old ticketing system whereby people could move them around or they could fall out, causing problems when people sat there not knowing they were reserved. I was also impressed with the cleanliness of the train, from the floors to the seats and windows. I should point out at this point that we were in first class, although walking through the carriages I must say that they all appeared to be of the same standard. Our actual seats were not only large and comfortable but the leg room was vast, and I canít think of any plane or train that has been so spacious. The tables were massive and those without had ample thick wooden rests, not like the flimsy ones Iím used to!! The only blemish was a deep engraving on my table that let me know ĎAiyaní had been there, but I canít really fault the train company for this as the only way to get rid of it would be to install a completely new table.
The train left on time and despite struggling to hear the drivers announcements due to muffling over the sound system, it was apparent that he gave out regular information as to where we were, with ample time for us to get our stuff ready before the next stop.
The train arrived in Birmingham on time and meant we could easily have caught the earlier train, so taking a chance I made my way to the platform and when the train arrived located the train manager. After explaining our situation he was happy to grant us permission to board and therefore saved us an hours wait, thus gaining an extra hour of drinking in London!!
The train again left on time, although the standard was not as good as the first leg of our journey. It was obvious that the train was much older and whilst it was still clean, the dťcor was much more worn. The seating didnít have quite as much space but was still adequate. To be honest the standard was much better than the majority of trains but just felt worse due to the high levels achieved on the earlier train.
Due to the fact that we were first class we had the option of free tea or coffee, although this had to be collected ourselves from the buffet coach Ė two carriages away. Also available (for purchasing) was a decent selection of snacks, including sandwiches. The prices were bordering on extortionate but to be fair were in line with other train companiesÖand we all know we should bring our own to avoid the con!
Almost to the minute, we arrived in London Euston and I must say the first half of our journey had gone as well as any other long distance train journey I have ever taken. Despite the obvious flaws in transfer times I must say I was very impressed with every other element of the service. All the staff were polite and helpful whilst the actual journey was made all the better by spacious seating and regular updates from the driver. I was also impressed with the actual interior of all the trains in that all locks on toilets, automatic doors and window latches worked with ease.
The return journey was just as good, not only was the complementary tea brought to us but we also were given cakes, sandwiches and crisps, whilst again due to precision timing from the first train, and help and common sense from the train manager of the second leg, we were granted a place on the earlier train. What was most satisfying about this was that both train managers were more than happy to allow us on board, a simple gesture that Iím sure other companies wouldnít allow or would have created a fuss about.
Even reading through old reviews about Virgin Trains in the Ciao archive the message is mixed with the happy customers easily balanced out by those not so impressed. To be fair this whole journey went without a glitch, and it has to be said that even though they supply online news about railway work and other problems, it isnít always their fault. When booking my next train journey I shall definitely look to book with Virgin, although in reality I wonít be using them for any London trips due to having to go so far out of my way. If I were a director at Virgin Trains my other main concern would be the image that the difference in the age of the trains gives out. Iím pretty sure most people would be happy with the older version which was still clean but years of usage had clearly took its toll. The problem actually lies with someone who after using the high tech newest model EXPECTS the same every time Ė something they are unlikely to get. Iím not even offering a suggestion to how Virgin should tackle this, but it isnít an ideal situation.
On the whole if they are on your route then I would recommend Virgin as they are competitively priced, easy to use and run their trains to a higher standard than most.
For more information, including route details and prices, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk or call 0870 789 1234.
*With far too many options, many of them FAR too rude for ciao, I'll throw the title open to you guys. Any ideas then feel free to leave them as a comment.*
I work for a undiscolsed railway and get a 75 per cent discount on this line but I haven't tried it out yet - now i realy wanna give them a go! x
voyagerdude220 31.12.2005 22:53
& VT value 1st tickets are great value, especially at weekdays, when you get an at seat service on all trains to.from london, and on certain trains which aren't to/from london.
voyagerdude220 31.12.2005 22:51
Sounds like you were travelling at the weekend then for what you got in FC. The first train you got from Derby to Birmingham was a Virgin Voyager service. The second one sounds like it was what us train spotters call MK3 stock (with an electric engine at the north end). The latter has now been replaced by 53 electric, modern Pendolino trains that can tilt, and have a bigger shop than the Voyagers. For more info on them, please look at my review:) Ian