Virgin East Coast, reneging on its franchise, is not in anyone’s good books at the moment, but since it is the only direct service available from Newcastle upon Tyne to London, many in the north-east have no option but to use it. The service in my experience is pretty good, and even better when it is possible to book well ahead and thereby, with use of the Old Gits’ railcard, treat oneself to a seriously cheap first-class advanced ticket. This offers excellent value for money, the food and drink far better than that on the West Coast equivalent.
But the icing on the cherry is the quiet coach. Occasionally top executives, incapable of reading ‘quiet coach’, will phone the exhilarating details of their latest go-getting initiatives across the carriage, but a word to one of the staff will usually shut them up, and sometimes they even apologise. I have never seen any of them subsequently move to the carriages where they can honk away without let or hindrance.
The other week, a menacing email appeared from VEC, headed ‘We’re making some changes in First Class’. This is code for ‘Sod the customer’. It read, in all its mocking illiteracy:
‘From 20th May 2018, we’re removing the Quiet Coach seating option in First Class. We’re doing this to create a more flexible space and greater freedom for more customers travelling in First Class. As a regular Quiet Coach customer we appreciate that this may not be ideal for you. However, research has told us that while most of our customers love the chilled out ambience of First Class, only 9 per cent really value the Quiet Coach offering. So by creating more flexible seating options in First Class, we feel we can offer a better experience for more of our customers. Finally, we wanted to let you know any reservations made now for First Class travel on our trains from 20 May 2018 will be in the new seating arrangements. And we look forward to welcoming you on board again. Best wishes, The Virgin Trains East Coast Team.’
VEC has my email. They never made me a part of their ‘research’. One wonders how many other passengers were similarly ignored. Likewise, ‘really value’ is meaningless: most of the time the coach is as full as anywhere else in the train. And what does ‘chilled out ambience’ mean? Happily, VEC’s website tells us: ‘First Class will remain an oasis of calm, as will our Standard Quiet Coaches.’ This is transparent balderdash. Standard quiet coaches will remain ‘an oasis of calm’ because all mobiles and ‘music’ are banned. But that ban will not apply anywhere in First, where the merry screech of mobile phones, the agonising accompanying monologues and ‘music’ will echo through all carriages.
This reveals the vapidity of VEC’s claim that the change will produce a ‘better experience for more of our customers’. For those not in the old quiet coach, the experience will be exactly the same. There will just be another coach in which they can bark dynamically away at each other. So there is no ‘better experience’ awaiting them. But for those once in the quiet coach, it will be a disastrously worse experience. Result: the ‘better experience’ will be not for more, but fewer, of the ‘customers’.
And all to what end (bar that of sodding the customer)? Apparently ‘to create a more flexible space and greater freedom for more customers’. But in what precise sense will this space be ‘more flexible’? Since there will be no difference between any of the First carriages, it will have no flexibility. As for ‘greater freedom’, no one who wants to clinch her electrifying deals is prevented from sitting in the quiet coach. She just has to move temporarily out of the carriage to do so. Now that is ‘flexible’, serving both mobile-user and peace-loving passenger alike.
If VEC were honest, its notice would read: ‘Two carriages are not enough for the many businessmen broadcasting their achievements to the world in “an oasis of calm”.’ They will therefore be given a third carriage, so that they can bawl away in another oasis of calm. And sod everyone else.’
Off then to the Standard quiet coach. But surely that too ought to be a ‘more flexible space’, offering ‘greater freedom’ and a ‘better experience’? After all, if it’s good enough for those vibrant go-getters in First, it should not be denied to those poor relations hunched shivering in Standard.