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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Things can happen when you travel on a Virgin train by Mark Steel

No one should be reminded of Virgin Trains at any time, as their one outstanding achievement is attention to detail, because everything is awful. Any train company can make trains late, but Virgin put in that extra effort, so there's an announcement as you leave that there's no tea because the boiler's busted.

As you pass through the doors between carriages they jolt shut to chop you on each side like a wrestler, and there's one toilet working on the whole thing, with passengers hopping back and forward in search of it. And the door is a digital automatic push-button thing that makes you think "Nothing else works on here so I'm not trusting THAT," as there must be at least a 30 per cent chance that mid-session you'll hear "whsssssh" as it opens up again, leaving you bleating "I'm really sorry", to an old woman outside as you yank up your trousers.

Virgin has been rewarded for all this effort with an announcement that this year they've received twice as many complaints as any other rail operator, and more than all the others put together. So they deserve an awards ceremony, with representatives from South-West Trains and Capital Connect saying, "We all try hard to be as appalling as possible, but Richard, once again we're not in your league."

Perfectionist that he is, Virgin also has the worst record for answering complaints, replying to a wonderful 36 per cent within 20 days. I enjoyed some of this service last week, when I rang to reserve a seat but couldn't get through for 26 minutes.

So I said I'd like to complain, and was put on hold for another 15 minutes, then told the complaints department was very busy so could I ring back later. So later I called a customer relations department who told me, "This can happen."

"Is there an explanation?" I asked, and she said: "I've given you one." I said, "What was it?" and she said: "I TOLD you ? this can happen."

Just to make sure, I said, "Are you telling me 'This can happen' is the explanation."

"Yes," she said triumphantly.

So it seems Virgin is being run by philosophers from the 13th century. When someone rings to ask why they were stuck for two hours outside Preston they must get told "Ah, 'tis God's will". The station announcements will soon say: "We apologise for the cancellation of the 2.15 to Coventry. This is due to the fact that this can happen. It's not our place to incur the wrath of our creator by asking why."

And you have to reserve a seat in the first place because everyone crams on to the few trains that aren't "peak service", so until 10am, and then from 3.15 until 6.30 the fares are joyously extortionate. For example, a return from London to Wigan comes to £235, which is to say TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE ******* POUNDS!!!!

And if you try to do anything Bohemian like return by a different route, you send the whole structure into panic. Ask if you can go to Manchester and come back from Sheffield, and you might as well have said: "Can I have a carriage to myself as I like to masturbate as we're going through Stafford?"

And last year they made £73m profit, but their cleaners have been told there's no money for a pay rise, and 10 per cent of ticket staff are being replaced with machines, and he's the 261st richest person in Britain and cool with no tie and worth £1.5bn.

So there he was in this advert, in which a businessman in first class perfects a presentation, which hopefully was successful as he'd need to secure the world's oil rights for 15 years to afford his ticket back again.

Maybe Branson could do a more realistic advert, similar to the one for his airline, in which you see passengers get on a Virgin Train amidst a huge fanfare in 1996 when his company began, then a scene from now in which the thing's just arriving in Glasgow.

And as the poor sods clamber off, a stewardess smiles and says "This can happen."

First published in The Independent on 2nd December 2009

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