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  1. ITV Report

From talking toilets to speed records: How Virgin Trains changed British railway travel

Sir Richard Branson celebrates the launch of a Voyager train in 2000. Credit: PA

Shortly before midnight on Saturday, the last ever Virgin Trains service will roll into Wolverhampton station.

Much has changed in the two decades the operator has run services, but the brand's red emblazoned carriages have remained stoic.

Running its first service in 1997, the brand inherited rolling stock originally built in the 1960s. It had pledged to update the trains.

And it did: in 2001 it delivered the Voyager, capable of 125mph; it had an onboard shop to replace trolley service and airline style entertainment system built in to the seats.

A year later, bringing in a new delivery of tilting rolling stock in the form of the Pendolino, which brought British train transport on par with the likes of other European nations.

The company broke a speed record on the London to Manchester route in 2004, arriving in the northern industrial city in less than two hours, shaving off 15 minutes. The prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, was one of the passengers on board and hailed it "a great day for the whole of the rail network".

Five years, the Grayrigg rail disaster saw a Glasgow-bound service derail in Cumbria, killing one and injuring more than 80 people.

One of Virgin's Pendolino services, used on long distance routes. Credit: PA

Then there was the toilets.

In their early days, plumbing issues on its Pendolino sets caused the company to threaten to take Alstom, which built the carriages, to court if the issue was not resolved.

Virgin tried to bring humour to the mundane, with passengers being greeted by a slightly unnerving voice-over announcing: "Hello, it's me the toilet" when entering the cubicle.

Opinions on the operator have been mixed; for some it's a byword for excellent customer service, for others it's enough to summon emotions strong enough to turn their faces the hue of Virgin's scarlet paintwork.

Its punctuality record, a source of exasperation for some customers, has dropped by almost 15% in the last few years, with fewer services on time today than they had in 1997 when Virgin took on the franchise.

Virgin Trains' Sir Richard Branson at the launch of a Voyager service in 2001. Credit: PA

Passengers seem to have either grown to tolerate delays or the company found other ways to impress, as they achieved a 91% passenger satisfaction score earlier this year.

Industry commentators say the railway has been "transformed" by the provider.

More than 500 million journeys have been made with Virgin during its tenure on the railways. Now that era is coming to an end.

The trains will stay the same, the staff too - but the brand that so many have known to come to love - and hate - is set to disappear from Britain's platforms for good.

Avanti's takeover from Sunday morning will see new services introduced, a refurbishment of rolling stock in a huge shake-up in British rail.

'Losing Virgin is like losing an old friend'

Sir Richard Branson next to one of the Virgin branded trains. Credit: PA

"Blue is the new red," says Jason, a familiar face for those travelling on the Pendolino services between Manchester Piccadilly and London Euston.

Having worked in the onboard shop - "find it in Coach C for choo-choo" he tells passengers over the tannoy - for almost a year and a half, he told ITV News: "losing the Virgin brand is like losing an old friend."

Typically working two return trips between Piccadilly and the capital each day, he says his favourite stock to work is a nine-car Pendolino.

"You walk four or five miles each day, so having nine-cars instead of eleven is much preferable. You really get to know your route, I don't get much time to look at the scenery but when you do get a chance, it's beautiful. Plus you find you know where each bump and curve is on the routes you work."

"What sets Virgin aside is its attitude. There's an energy about it. It's not corporate, it's personal. It's all about the value and going the extra mile to help customers out. I try and bring personality to my announcements, try to make people laugh on long journeys."

"I have Aspergers and ADHD, Virgin gave me six-weeks additional training to help me in my role. As an employer, that's amazing.

"With Avanti there's a promise of great progress, we're all excited to see what's ahead and forward into the future."