Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has defended his company against the growing storm of complaints about the hopeless West Coast Main Line service, which has been beset with delays and cancellations during the last few months. In a letter to the FT, the bearded one lumped all the blame on Network Rail, which is responsible for the current upgrade programme – and asked the government to extend their deadline to try and ease the pain.
Branson admitted there had been a 'sharp drop in the reliability and availability of track' this year (‘after two years of improved performance’, he hastened to add) but blamed it on the proposed timetable changes. With train frequencies due to increase from December, Network Rail needs to get through a major track upgrade in advance of this date – which means that pretty much every weekend between now and then will be affected by closures and delays. Oh joy.
What’s more, he can’t see Network Rail getting the job done, given the over-run of the New Year engineering works and the recent signalling cock-ups around Milton Keynes. ‘My Virgin Trains team [are] increasingly worried about the ability of Network Rail to meet its timetable and deliver an upgraded railway that is reliable and can be maintained,’ said Branson today. Besides, even if it does hit the deadline, what are the chances of it managing to keep ahead of the game when the trains increase in frequency? It’s about as likely as Sir Richard giving up cheap publicity stunts.
The answer, says Branson, is to push back the December deadline to give them more time to do the upgrade work. ‘We raised our serious concerns with Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation and with the government before they embarked on this timetable’, the bearded one I-told-you-soed today.
The irony is that Virgin’s train business is apparently raking in bookings at the moment - as a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternative to car and air travel, customers actually want to use the train instead. However, this is likely to wear off pretty quickly when you’re spending two hours every weekend sitting in a siding just outside Milton Keynes...