Andy Milne looks back at 20 years of Virgin’s involvement with the rail industry
Well, my dear, how does it feel to be a Virgin again?’ 20 years ago, when Virgin first took to the metals, you could get away with such humour. Cue hearty gales of laughter down the line from Birmingham. Broken-hearted Miriam had returned to work for InterCity in her hometown the year before. Despite a failed love affair, that morning saw her riding a wave of enthusiasm as Virgin swept into town. Back in 1997, Branson and his fabled buccaneers won two franchises: West Coast and Cross Country. It marked the start of a rail fightback that persists to this day.
Miriam – not her real name – and I had worked for BR’s international rail freight company. Back then it was considered cool to join a passenger train company. This was in the days before Freightliner staged its management buyout and companies like GBRf made it cooler still to work for rail freight.
NO HOLIDAY IN THE SUN
Virgin took to the metals 20 years ago in a rush of fresh thinking and enthusiasm that found a ready reflection in people like Miriam. Other staff were envious. ‘I mean, Virgin? And what do we get? A bus company!’ said the marketing manager at Gatwick Express, a career woman, kicking a filing cabinet with derailing-ferocity. That was the point – Virgin always had charisma – a rock and rebel approach. That said, there were redundancies, pain and dramatic change.
Branson himself came across as affable, unfazed and curiously reticent at interviews. What would he do about Railtrack. Sir Richard shrugged. What about new stock? On its way! And RailStaff’s first question – I couldn’t help myself – how did it feel to sign the Sex Pistols? Not as difficult as negotiating a railway franchise. Branson murmured encouragement to staff and public alike. Good luck with the paper, he said, rolling up a copy of RailStaff.
Branson himself needed more than luck with the west coast. Europe’s most heavily trafficked railway was in real trouble by the mid-nineties. Starved of investment, it really was the crumbling edge of the railway. This was no holiday in the sun. Performance plummeted.
VALUED, APPRECIATED, LOVED
Unfazed, Branson hired Chris Green, rail legend and erstwhile head of InterCity, ScotRail and Network SouthEast. Chris spent the first few weeks talking to staff. The Spice Girls dominated the charts at the time and it’s whimsical to imagine him humming: Tell me what you want, what you really, really want, as he stumped his new patch. Green told me, ‘Staff face a challenge not of their own making.’ His singular achievement – and that of his direct reports – was to get people to accept their new employer. Performance climbed. Branson chimed in by throwing massive parties for staff at his home in Oxfordshire. Miriam reported back with a string of gushing superlatives. ‘If your staff feel valued, appreciated and loved, they are more likely to enjoy their work and perform even better,’ Branson argued.
Back in the office Chris Green was no pushover to work with. He insisted on appointing Brenda Klug to head up marketing. Klug was a careerist at British Airways, now working for a medical company. ‘She’s part of the cure,’ Green argued and got his way. Branson has a catchphrase – ‘Screw it, just do it…..’ Startled railway managers found they had the freedom to do just that. Staff ideas were encouraged. Klug put bemused managers through a motivational course run by Mindstore’s Jack Black in Glasgow.
FIGHTING RAIL’S CORNER
Quick off the mark in 1997, Virgin had painted an entire HST in the famous red and white livery. The press were invited for a mega-grice from Scotland to Cornwall. Virgin has always paid great attention to the press – railway and local. Almost alone among emerging railway organisations, Virgin fought rail’s corner in the media. In a laudable attempt to make sure it knew what it was talking about, VT at Euston hired old railway stalwarts like Steve Knight, one time editor of Rail magazine, and Dennis Lovett, walking encyclopaedia of railways. In Glasgow, the genial Allan McLean orchestrated a similar charm offensive with the Scottish press liberally fuelled by Scotland’s emerging micro-brewery scene.
The media continued to pour scorn on Virgin Trains every chance it got but the railway fought back – heartily encouraged by RailStaff. Even politicians were routed. This still continues. Quite recently Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed he couldn’t get a seat on an East Coast service. Flunkeys created a photo-op of him sitting on the floor. Virgin wasn’t having any of it and roundly disputed the ruse – using CCTV images to demonstrate there were spare seats on the trains.
Right from the start it was never plain sailing. The WCML upgrade ran into deep trouble with Railtrack, which couldn’t deliver what it had promised – 140mph running. There was a lesson here for the lamplighters at the DfT. But they ignored it. One consultant told me of Railtrack’s lawyers staggering ashen faced out of meetings with Virgin. Lesson – Branson believes in first rate legal advice. ‘Don’t let the pullovers fool you,’ one city analyst warned.
The Blair administration never quite knew what to make of all this. Government involvement has always been treated with deep suspicion by the industry. As with the media, Virgin was happy to take it on.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The best episode for railway staff came with the awarding of the West Coast franchise to FirstGroup. Initially this was greeted equably. FirstGroup enjoys a certain affection amongst rail circles as it was set up by a management buy out staged by congenial fitter Moir Lockhead. I must record a conflict of interest here: Lockhead comes from a nearby village to me in County Durham. The lamplighters at Marsham Street, so legend has it, coined the phrase ABB – Anyone But Branson.
On the evening before the announcement, the lamplighters went home quite gleeful. The wonder kid and his rag-tag army of enthusiasts, rock stars and rail wonks had been stopped in its tracks. They laughed too soon. Branson wouldn’t accept it and challenged the decision in the courts.
Rail franchising was already under intense scrutiny after a rash of over bidding. Branson insisted he had a realistic bid that his teams would deliver. In the end, Virgin kept the West Coast and added the East Coast – in a partnership with Stagecoach. The story demonstrates that railway companies needn’t put up with being pushed around. Companies and the rail staff who work for them should be treated with respect.
FORGET THE PAST
Like him or loathe him, Branson would be the first to point out Virgin is an idea that gives normal people the chance to out perform their background and their constraints. Whilst the boss was drifting haphazardly across the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, railway staff were taking out new trains and smashing punctuality records with similar curved- horizon aplomb. The new fleet of Italian tilting trains was an immediate success. Rail writer Roger Ford dubbed them ‘Pendolinos Britannico.’
Virgin staff continue to perform near miracles daily – they form a regular proportion of nominees and winners at the RailStaff Awards. The Virgin Azuma will be put to good use by them, depend on it.
What of Miriam? Story goes she did well and then met a lad of Italian extraction in a poetic reflection of Branson’s success with the Pendolinos Britannico. The couple made a solid and enduring marriage, blessed with several children. Her story, like Virgin’s, proves you can forget the past and create a truly compelling future – if, of course, it’s what you really, really want.
Photos courtesy of Virgin Trains