Some describe the change as ‘saddest times’ for rail travel since the 1970s, while others are thrilled to get direct mainline services
The news of the loss of Virgin Trains’ west coast franchise has been greeted with a mixed response from commuters and rail groups, their viewpoint tempered by where they live.
Darren Parkin, a journalist from Warwickshire, described it as “one of the saddest times” for rail travel since the 1970s. But commuters in Blackpool and Shrewsbury, Shropshire, who will get direct mainline rail services, are thrilled.
Parkin, who spent almost two years commuting on Virgin’s west coast line between the Midlands and Chester, said: “Almost every journey you undertook, you could see how much Virgin were putting into that service. I very rarely felt let down. The only downside was not being able to travel further afield than the routes that they had – I would jump in the car for the eastern journeys because it wasn’t Virgin. Someone, somewhere, is making a massive mistake.
“Perhaps it has something to do with HS2 – which Virgin have opposed and countered with pledges to improve stations and services.”
The passenger director at Passenger Focus, David Sidebottom, said it is too early to say what the likely impact will be, but value for money should remain a priority. “For the passengers making their way from London to Manchester or Glasgow, the important thing is not the name on the side of the train, but the experience of the journey, the availability of staff when you need them and, of course, value for money,” he said.
He said that with another above-inflation fare rise on the horizon, now, more than ever, passengers will be looking for value, especially in terms of getting a seat and being on time.
But rail passengers in Shrewsbury are delighted at the direct link for rail services. “We’re very pleased,” said Roger Goodhew of the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth Rail Passenger Association. “There have been two previous attempts at a through service, the first of which was Virgin themselves at the turn of the century – that didn’t work out.”
“We had a second open access company, Wrexham and Shropshire, and that ran a popular service which was hampered by monopoly rights that Virgin have enjoyed. We have links with Birmingham already. But it’s a long journey to London, because we have to change and it takes over four hours.”
He said a direct service should make a big difference. “It will make possible things in London in one day because at the moment we have to leave very early and get back very late. It’s not an easy journey.”
In the popular northern seaside resort of Blackpool, Sarah Bellamy, a nursery owner, who used to regularly commute by train to London, said: “I think it’s great news. The service from Preston to London has become more congested and more expensive over the last 10 years. The ticket pricing system is complex and not very transparent and. Only main routes benefit from low fares, such as Manchester and Birmingham to London.”
She says she has friends who can’t come to visit as they work full-time and tickets at peak times are more expensive than flights. “The announcement of direct services to Blackpool is also great news. This will reduce journey times and make it more convenient for people wishing to visit Blackpool and make it more accessible to visitors from the south. It’s a long journey if you have to change at Preston will all your luggage [as rail travellers currently have to do] and is bound to put some people off.”
Meanwhile, Virgin train drivers are not looking forward to the change. One driver said with Virgin they were treated like pilots but were likely to be treated “like coach drivers” under the new franchise.
Passengers boarding FirstGroup’s First Great Western trains at Paddington were broadly positive about the service – despite the franchise being the subject of 237 complaints to Passenger Focus in 2011 and achieved a satisfaction rate of just 82% in the watchdog’s spring survey.
Tom Pothecary, 22, from Carmarthen, who regularly uses First Great Western to get to and from Wales, said it was “good and reliable” on the whole, and “definitely better” than the Arriva service he used at the other end of the journey. One weekly commuter from Cheltenham said the service “used to be dreadful” but had improved.
However, readers commenting on the Guardian website were less enthusiastic about their experiences of FirstGroup. “I used to commute using FirstGroup – dreadful,” said one. “I used the same route recently and there were some small improvements that have taken five years to put in place.” Another described First Great Western as “the worst commuter line I’ve ever had to endure“: “Not only is it the most expensive train line in Europe, it was never on time. I would sometimes have to stand from Bath to London Paddington and as prices were increased year on year we were promised a better service; but all we got was more apologies.”