Twelve minutes till the train. That had seemed like quite enough time as I approached the Virgin ticket machine. Two tickets, London King’s Cross to Durham: a 40-second job, then perhaps a coffee. I had felt, as I so often don’t, like a responsible mother and wife, comfortably in charge of logistics. Screen one set me back a bit. Virgin had changed the layout. Where was Durham? On screen two I felt the first rising bubbles of panic. Where was the option to buy an open return? The minutes floated by. Nothing became clearer. I felt the sort of lonely despair the old must feel when technology overtakes them. I said to my husband: ‘You do it.’ But after a while he said: ‘I can’t!’ We both looked hopefully at the man by the neighbouring machine who just shrugged. ‘I can’t work it out either,’ he said, ‘and I’m a website designer.’
On the train, tickets selected at random, I opened the Virgin East Coast Twitter feed to check for delays. It said: ‘So… how do you guys like your eggs in the morning? Code: Sunny side up? Cracking job!’
By chance, waiting for me in my email inbox was a more personalised message from Virgin: ‘Agent Wakefield,’ it said, ‘it’s your final mission: unlock the keys to the Kasbah. Enter your secret code, check the websites, especially ours HINT HINT. Spy on Richard Branson!’
Wedged on a ledge outside the train’s toilet, I sent a silent plea to the members of the watchdog group currently deciding whether Virgin can break its contract and abandon the East Coast line earlier than it promised. ‘Let them go,’ I begged silently. ‘It’s not fair, but just let them leave.’
On the one hand, allowing Virgin to escape its debts seems near criminal. Branson signed up, in partnership with Stagecoach, to run the East Coast line until 2023. They promised the government £3.3 billion and if they leave early in 2020, as Chris Grayling has announced he’ll allow them to do, they’ll have paid (it is estimated) less than £2 billion. It’s the sort of bailout of private enterprise that corrodes confidence in capitalism and makes a voter wonder whether Corbyn might not have a point about re-nationalisation.
I’m a regular on the East Coast line and I simply can’t take Virgin any more. In the 21st century, marketing is increasingly surreal. Every brand, every product these days has a personality and a point of view: ‘Please recycle me’; ‘I taste delicious and I’m healthy too!’ ‘We’re passionate about making custard.’ Even in this hectic environment, the voice of Virgin stands out as psychotic. Should you venture into its appalling toilets, stare up at your face, you’ll see the word, ‘SMILE!’ scrawled across the mirror. The Virgin cups say: ‘Hey there, hot stuff! Fancy a brew?’ Its paper bags: ‘Here’s to a tasty journey!’ The Virgin East Coast Twitter feed, which could and should be an invaluable way of updating passengers about delays, is plain unhinged.
There was a suicide on the line quite recently just outside Doncaster. Back in the day, a voice would say: ‘Fatality on the line. Apologies for the short delay.’ And we’d sigh or tut, depending. After the Doncaster jumper, Virgin’s Twitter feed said: ‘My heart is broken for all involved in this tragic incident. Services are returning to normal but so much pain will remain. If you’ve been affected by tonight’s events, please talk to the Samaritans. #ItsOkayToTalk.’
The Spectator’s Peter Jones wrote a column recently about Virgin’s decision to scrap the quiet coach in first class. ‘While most customers love the chilled-out ambience of first class, only 9 per cent really value the quiet coach offering,’ they told him. The real reason, I suspect, is that for Virgin, silence is heresy.
My objections to Virgin are not just aesthetic. My deeper worry is that the crazed branding goes hand-in-hand with other errors of judgment: financial, perhaps even mechanical. If you misjudge your passengers so profoundly — Agent Wakefield! — why would you get the other elements of running a train company right? And it’s true, the more you examine the design of a Virgin train, the less it really makes sense.
Why would you hide a flush button behind a loo seat? A train loo seat must be one of the most profoundly disgusting surfaces in the world. What sort of passenger wants to grapple with that? And how could they fail to clock the implications of swapping the traditional reserved seat ‘ticket’ for a hard-to-read digital display?
East Coast trains still have seat-back paper tickets but on the vomitus West Coast Virgin Pendolino I’ve seen the digital reservations in action.
Because you can’t see which seats are reserved by peering into the windows, there’s no shortcut to finding a spare seat. Because the words scroll slowly across a tiny screen above each seat, great jammed masses are kettled in the corridors while one by painful one the passengers read the screens. I’m sure it’s just a way of saving on the staff needed to put out tickets. If they explained it that way, I’d mind less.
Virgin’s new high-speed Hitachi-built Azuma (complete with digital reservations) has been advertised on the East Coast line for a year now, in the excitable manner of a circus coming to town. Those of us who spend time squashed into the corridors know the posters by heart. ‘Not just a train, AZUMA! Azuma means “East” in Japan and “Wow” in English. The Wow gets even bigger in 2018! Looks like waiting for a train just got exciting!’ Even more excitingly, the wow has been mostly delayed until 2019 because of unforeseen difficulties with the power supply.
Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, Chris Grayling has just rewarded Virgin with a lucrative new contract to run more trains.