The CrossCountry Voyager trains referred to in this article are no longer run by Virgin, and despite the words of Richard Branson, Virgin Trains (or any other UK train firm) is still not the best rail network in Europe.
No one could accuse Sir Richard Branson of lacking ambition. In 1997, along with Stagecoach, his company took over the UK’s two busiest rail franchises: West Coast, which runs from London Euston to Birmingham, the north west, north Wales and Scotland; and CrossCountry, which runs from Cornwall and the south coast to the north and Scotland.
At a launch party for the company’s new trains at Branson’s house in Holland Park, I asked him whether he wasn’t stretching his all-important brand a little thinly.
“There’s always a risk in it, and Virgin Trains was our biggest risk,” he explained. “But our feeling is that if you don’t take any risks, you don’t get anything.
“In three years, we’ll have the best rail network in Europe. Sometimes you have to go through a little bit of hell to get to the end of the tunnel.”
The launch party, which also marked the opening of Virgin Trains’ advance ticket sales website at www.thetrainline.com, was held in February 1999. Three years later, the UK’s rail passengers are still in that tunnel.
But the new trains are arriving. It’s a sunny day in December, and Virgin Trains chief executive Chris Green is travelling on one of the new Voyager CrossCountry trains between Birmingham and Reading.
The train comes smoothly to a halt just outside Leamington Spa, but not because of a fault. “Until September, this will beat the timetable,” said Green.
This autumn, with a larger fleet of faster trains in place, CrossCountry will introduce shorter journey times and far more services, most running at the same time every hour, seven days a week.
This summer, West Coast will bring 55 tilting Pendolino trains into service costing £2bn, and by June 2003, track work permitting, these will cut the London to Manchester journey time by 45 minutes (or 30 minutes, compared with British Rail’s best) to two hours flat.
Virgin Trains’ business plan relies on doubling its 31 million annual passengers by 2012. As with airlines, online sales, which cost very little and allow greater control over pricing and numbers, are an important part of that plan.
Thetrainline.com was the UK’s first website to sell train tickets. Many journeys cannot be made using just one company, so it sells tickets for all UK operators but highlights the Virgin Value series of restricted-use, bargain basement tickets. The company is selling 25 per cent of its tickets through websites and call centres.
“Thetrainline.com has gone from strength to strength. We have seen a substantial growth of this internet channel, which continues to grow at 100 per cent per year,” said Virgin Trains head of IT Jeremy Acklam.
Advance bookings are growing at five per cent annually compared with overall business down five per cent, said Green.
But there are limits. Budget airline EasyJet sells more than 90 per cent of its tickets online and can cut prices as a result, but it has to close bookings before its planes depart. Train firms don’t have to do this.
“I’m always conscious that railways are different to airlines,” explained Green. “The ability to walk onto a train is a big plus.” Passengers who have not booked are welcome. “I’m happy to encourage them,” he said. “If you want to get people out of cars, you have to be flexible.”
But Virgin can make advance booking a better proposition. Until now, reserved seats were marked with printed cards slotted into the seat-backs.
Acklam, who co-ordinated Thetrainline.com’s launch, pointed out that it can take 20 minutes to place a train’s reservation cards. If a train is late, or has to take a different service, or if someone just decides they want to pinch a reserved seat, the system goes awry.
So every pair of seats on the new trains has a small screen above it, displaying the seat numbers, reserved passengers’ names, and where their reservations begin and end. “We’ve reduced 20 minutes to a few seconds, plus about three minutes to download the data,” said Acklam.
Virgin Trains’ reservation data is kept in the legacy National Reservations and Timetable systems shared by all train companies. It is extracted by Virgin Middleware System 2000 (VMS 2000), a system built by AEA Technology using an Oracle database running on Sun Solaris 8.
The new trains are equipped with a management system which, when prompted by the train manager, dials VMS 2000 through Vodafone’s GSM network and downloads the data.
Each element of the system is duplicated, and the backups have already been tested. Days before this interview, a bomb forced Virgin Trains to evacuate its Birmingham headquarters. “We’ve fully tested our disaster recovery,” Acklam grinned ruefully.
Virgin Trains’ IT support for advance bookings has gone beyond 1999’s website launch. If tickets are booked too late they cannot be posted and have to be picked up at a station. With the growth in advance booking, the ticket office handing them out has grown busier and busier.
So, through Tribute, a company used by the major train operators to collaborate on ticketing, Acklam helped set up FastTicket machines.
Passengers put in their credit cards, tap in their booking numbers, and get their tickets, reservation cards and credit card receipts printed in less than half a minute.
Acklam has also been working on a real-time online train information system, using the arrival and departure screen data from 300 main stations. The prototype can be seen here.
Future projects include a government-supported integrated transport smartcard, with a rollout of 2.4 million such cards planned for teenagers this autumn.
“My view is that in seven to 10 years’ time about 50 per cent of tickets bought will be smartcard-based, although credit card-sized tickets and smartcards will be run in parallel for a very considerable period,” said Acklam.
By next year, Virgin Trains will have all-new high-speed trains, more services and online booking providing bargain advance tickets which can be automatically printed at stations and on-train screens to confirm the reservations. Standard 240-volt sockets will be laid on in First Class, so that Computing readers can plug in their laptops.
But the second part of the West Coast mainline upgrade, due in 2005 and allowing Pendolinos to run at their 140mph top speed, looks increasingly uncertain since the confusion following Railtrack’s commercial collapse.
Clever IT can help passengers buy tickets for less, and check when their trains leave, but it can’t make sure the trains get there on time.