The number of passengers using Virgin Trains' services has soared by 40% in three years, giving the company a head start in the race to meet ambitious commercial targets agreed with government. To succeed, Virgin Trains Chief Executive Chris Green must deliver top-of-the-range inter-city services with high speed tilting trains on heavily rebuilt infrastructure, starting in May 2002. Murray Hughes asked him just how tough the challenges were

FROM 2005 Virgin Trains will operate the world's most intensive long-distance inter-city service outside Japan. 'There will be a Pendolino in or out of London Euston every 21/2min', says Chris Green, who as Chief Executive of Virgin Trains owns the responsibility for delivering the awesome commitments in Virgin's InterCity West Coast franchise.

Enthusing in his Euston headquarters about the transformation of Britain's West Coast Main Line that links London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, Green clearly sees the 2005 departure board in his mind's eye: 'trains will leave Euston every 5min, four an hour to Birmingham - you won't need a timetable - three an hour to Manchester, two an hour to Preston, with one continuing to Glasgow, one to Liverpool, plus one every two hours to Holyhead.'

Mountains must be moved for this vision to become reality, but Green believes it can be done. The task is largely in the hands of Railtrack and its teams of contractors who share the work of upgrading track, catenary and signalling in a huge programme of works - covered in later sections of this special report.

The scale of the job is vast, and history shows that extensive upgrading projects on this scale, such as the Northeast Corridor in the USA, are all too easily derailed by the complexities of getting the physical job done while keeping the trains running. The West Coast Main Line is an interlinking network of lines totalling 885 route-km (map p737), and the complexity of the work is exacerbated by a web of legally binding contracts between the various companies. Last year Railtrack's estimate for the cost of infrastructure upgrading nearly trebled from £2·1bn to £5·8bn. Did Green think that the cost could rise further?

'Railtrack has learnt a huge lesson', came the reply - a reference to the decision taken at the end of last year to drop unproven moving-block signalling technology (p731). 'Railtrack is now getting a good grip on the cost of the infrastructure upgrade, and is very unwilling to take on new work until it has been professionally costed', said Green. He felt this was a good sign, and he cited delays to Virgin CrossCountry's next track access agreement caused by Railtrack's new realism. 'They are no longer making false promises', he affirmed.

At London Euston the station throat has been remodelled in a £155m programme of work. Although there were serious problems - contractors succeeded in accidentally cutting through signalling cables on no less than five occasions - Green was delighted with the final result: 'Railtrack extended the timescale, with our agreement, but it is very high quality work.' Tracks have now been relaid in all but four platforms, and these will be finished on November 10.

At Proof House Junction, east of Birmingham New Street, a £55m programme of track remodelling, resignalling and rewiring that culminated in a 19-day blockade was completed 'on time and on budget' on August 29, although work on bridges and other structures is still in hand. A major blockade is scheduled over the coming Christmas and New Year holiday for the Wembley area in North London, and several blockades are planned for resignalling work to be carried out next year at Manchester South. These and work at other major junctions mean planned disruption to Virgin and several other operators.

In addition to the junction remodelling programme, around 1000 km of plain track have to be relaid. On September 3 there were 600 days to go to the completion deadline for Phase 1 of the West Coast Route Modernisation in May 2002. Despite the problems that inevitably lie ahead, Green is now confident 'it will happen on time'.

There have been significant changes to the work plans in the last year, with much of what was in the second stage of work, previously known as Passenger Upgrade 2, now forming part of the Phase 1 programme. Phase 2, covering May 2002 to 2005, will be largely concerned with capacity improvement.

Electrified at 25 kV 50Hz in the 1960s and 1970s, the West Coast is in Green's view 'a sleeping giant'. Two previous attempts to waken it from its slumbers ended in failure. The first, in the 1970s, would have used a squadron of 60 tilting Advanced Passenger Trains that in the event never progressed beyond the prototype stage. The second, in 1990-92, foundered because of economic slump and the upheaval caused by the Conservative government's decision to privatise Britain's railways. 'Here in 2000 we are just physically starting work - 20 years after it should have happened', remarks Green.

Difficult start

When Virgin took over the West Coast franchise in March 1997, 'there was an expectation by the public of instant change'. This reflected experience with arrival of the Virgin Atlantic airline, but Green points out that 'you can lease a standard plane instantly, but with trains it takes at least five years to design and build new vehicles'.

Virgin's venture into the rail business inevitably gave it a high profile. In the event, it was often negative because the new management team did not have the right structures in place. When Green arrived at the helm in February last year, he made it his business to put things right.

Looking back, Green considers that the Virgin vision of 'creating a world class railway' from the run-down WCML by 2003 with 225 km/h tilting trains is proving correct - 'BR would never have dared to think of doubling the business! In fact we're half way there already.'

'People also expect Virgin Atlantic service', and here too Green believes 'we are halfway there'. Service standards are not yet consistent, but Virgin's feedback suggests that real progress is being made.

One of the company's problems was that 'there was no Customer Service department, and no Operations Manager for the West Coast.' These were basic mistakes that Green quickly addressed, not least by appointing Brenda Klug as Executive Director, Customer Service. Green described her as 'an inspired leader who has introduced a new professionalism' in her team that includes 35 customer service managers and 400 train managers.

But Virgin did not get everything wrong in the early days. Far from it. Green was quick to highlight that 'there was a generous supply of capital investment', reflecting Virgin's long-sighted view, and its 'willingness to put money in'. He cites plans for audio entertainment at every seat, and a 'free breakfast' for every first-class passenger plus drinks and snacks throughout the day - 'all this would have been unthinkable in BR days.'

To achieve its customer service objectives, Virgin last year developed six 'strategies for delivery' that the company aims to apply throughout the business. Among them are achieving 'Japanese safety and reliability' and offering 'memorable customer service'. Green sums this up by saying that what it really means is 'minute attention to detail and being boringly efficient - the aim is to have a boring day when everything runs right.'

Unquenched demand

Questioned about the extremely ambitious commercial targets set in Virgin's franchise (Fig 1), Green shows few qualms: 'demand is huge at the moment. We are running out of seats on Friday evenings and on most of Sunday, with every coach we possess in use, and still there is overcrowding.' Noting that traffic on Virgin's two franchises is up from 25 million passengers in 1996 to an expected 35 million this year, he suggests that sustained passenger growth on this scale has never been seen before. 'It really is happening in our lifetime', he enthuses. On the West Coast, traffic is up by 40% since 1996.

Despite the problems with track remodelling at Euston, which required the number of trains in and out of the terminus to be reduced while groups of platforms were taken out of use, Green said that 'we are achieving all our forecasts' in terms of revenue. He insisted that this was 'not being done at the expense of passengers as fares have never been lower if you are willing to pick and choose in advance.'

Higher walk-on fares, however, have attracted adverse criticism, perhaps suggesting a policy that all seats on the Pendolinos will be reserved. 'No', countered Green, 'there will always be walk-on tickets, as it is one of the inate advantages of rail that you can get on at the last minute.' But in commercial terms 'you cannot have trains leaving with a big chunk of empty seats, so we shall encourage people to book in advance and make it cheaper.'

Virgin's room for manoeuvre is in fact dictated by the competition. 'With business fares the air fare decides the rail price', said Green, 'with coaches deciding book-in-advance fares, while the Saver fare in-between is regulated by government. So I think we really can have our cake and eat it', he concluded.

Green put the surge in rail travel down to three factors. First, 'the rail industry is getting its act together, and it is a very lively industry now.' Second, 'the government is delivering a strong economy, and has been since 1995', and third 'the motorways are living hell, and the government is quite rightly not building any more'. He felt that 'rail has got everything going for it now; it's just a pity that investment is so slow to come through.'

Longer trains needed

There are suggestions that the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority wishes to renegotiate the long-term franchises. Were this to happen, what would Green want under a new deal?

The question drew out Green's concern that not enough is being done to meet demand in the long term. 'I worry we shall have such a huge increase in demand that there will not be enough seats on the trains. We shall want to have longer trains in the same slots, and at £1m a coach that means someone has to make a big investment in the ninth and tenth coaches for each set.'

Green admitted that Virgin admired how Midland Main Line, which operates inter-city services from London St Pancras to Sheffield and Derby, had 'hypothecated' its premium payments to government into new trains (RG 9.00 p541) as part of a franchise extension deal. He suggested that 'when we start to take £1·5bn from the passenger and give it back to the Treasury, it would be more acceptable if this premium payment were spent on paying for the ninth and tenth coaches in the Pendolinos.'

Train delivery commitments

The Pendolino trains are technically complex, and Virgin is already putting considerable pressure on Alstom because of fears of a logjam of work leading to late delivery (p724).

At a meeting on September 4, Virgin insisted that the gap be preserved between the start of test running with the pre-series trains and delivery of the first production unit. Second, it demanded a high-level public commitment to have a minimum number of trains in service in time for the summer 2002 timetable. Deputy President of Alstom Transport Dr Mike Lloyd promised to have 29 trains commissioned in time, with the remaining 27 following by October.

Green points out that Britain is the ninth country to choose Pendolino, so 'we are buying off-the-shelf in terms of the basic design'. Once Virgin is confident with the first two trains, Alstom will 'have to build at a world record speed of one inter-city train a week, but even then quality comes before speed.' Green said that he now has a weekly conference with Mike Lloyd to check on progress, and the current expectation is that the first train will be on the specially upgraded test track at Old Dalby for running trials in February.

For its part, Virgin is 'cutting over completely to use of a simulator for driver training'. This has been installed at Crewe, where there will also be simulators to train drivers for the Voyager and Super Voyager trains for Virgin CrossCountry.

Commercial strategy

When the Pendolinos enter service, there is clearly scope for changes to commercial policy. What had Virgin in mind? 'One aim is to upgrade more people to first class and give them better service', said Green, adding that passengers would receive personal service as 'you will have your name over your seat thanks to electronic reservations - no-one will be able to pinch your seat. And you will be able to book at the last moment'.'

Once on board, passengers would enjoy '10 audio channels at each seat, which will reduce the boredom factor, especially in standard class'. There will be a shop that will 'generate more activity instead of a buffet, and you will be able to recharge your mobile.'

Most of all, passengers will notice the intensity of the timetable, said Green. But he is extremely conscious of the need for everything to work smoothly. 'With so many trains, we've got to have Japanese reliability', as with a failure there would be 'a horrific domino effect. On board the train, everything is duplicated to keep the train running.'

Railway Gazette International has always seen the West Coast modernisation as the ultimate test for privatisation. If the project succeeds, it will have done so where British Rail had failed. What was Green's view?

'Without doubt privatisation has brought more capital into the industry and also greater certainty. The government cannot just whip away funding, so that's a win for the railway industry.'

On the other hand, there has been 'unnecessary fragmentation that has made it much harder to manage the business'. Green estimates it is three times harder than before, and he cites the Virgin CrossCountry timetable as 'the ultimate example'. 'It has taken 2 1/2 years to get 17 TOCs and seven Railtrack zones to agree so far, and it is still not finished. And there have been big legal costs and regulatory costs. It would have taken the old railway six months.'

Less significant but just as poignant was the delay experienced in installing three clocks at London Euston. 'It took us a year', said Green.

Virgin West Coast in profile (1999)

Train-km 17·2 million

Passenger-km 3 360 million

Passenger journeys 15·9 million

Total route-km operated 1163

Franchise began March 9 1997 and runs for 15 years

Source: Shadow Strategic Rail Authority

  • CAPTION: Virgin Trains Chief Executive Chris Green (left) says 'we are halfway there' in terms of customer service. Passengers expect 'similar standards to those on the Virgin Atlantic airline'
  • Photos top and below: Virgin Trains/Milepost 92 1/2
  • CAPTION: A 25-year-old Class 87 electric loco leaves Coventry propelling a London-bound train from Birmingham
  • CAPTION: Virgin is workingto cut queues at booking offices, with internet bookings through thetrainline.com, and 'FastTicket' machines at principal stations
  • CAPTION: Fig 1. West Coast is the more ambitious of Virgin's two 15-year franchises, with a commitment to pay back to government a premium of £232·7m in the final year. Green hopes that the premium payments may be hypothecated back to fund more investment in the rail business

Making the Virgin vision happen

When Virgin Trains took on Britain's InterCity West Coast business in March 1997, it agreed to pay back to government premiums totalling £1·25bn over the 15-year life of the franchise. Chris Green, Chief Executive of Virgin Trains, believes this ambitious goal is within reach once Railtrack has completed its infrastructure upgrade and Virgin's fleet of 53 Pendolino Britannico tilting trains is in squadron service. Traffic on Virgin's two franchises is already up by 40% in three years, and in 2005 Green plans to launch the most frequent inter-city service in the world outside Japan with 225 km/h trains leaving London Euston at 5min intervals for destinations in the West Midlands, the northwest and Scotland

Pour que la vision de Virgin se réalise

En mars 1997, lorsque Virgin Trains a repris l'unité d'affaires britannique InterCity West Coast, il a accepté de rembourser au gouvernement des primes totalisant 1,25 milliard de livres sur les 15 années d'existence de la franchise. Chris Green, directeur exécutif de Virgin Trains, pense que cet objectif ambitieux est à sa portée, une fois que Railtrack aura achevé l'amélioration de l'infrastructure et que le parc des 53 rames pendulaires Pendolino Britannico sera entièrement en service. Sur les deux unités franchisées de Virgin, le trafic a déjà augmenté de 40% en trois ans, et en 2005, M Green projette de lancer le service inter-city le plus fréquent au monde, Japon mis à part, avec des trains à 225 km/h quittant London Euston toutes les cinq minutes, à destination des West Midlands, du nord-ouest et de l'Ecosse

Umsetzen der Virgin-Vision

Als Virgin Trains im März 1997 den britischen InterCity West Coast- Geschäftszweig übernahm, verpflichtete sie sich, während der 15-jährigen Laufzeit der Konzession 1·25 Milliarden Pfund an die Regierung zurückzuzahlen. Chris Green, Geschäftsleiter von Virgin Trains, glaubt diese hochgesteckten Ziele erreichen zu k?€?nnen, sobald Railtrack die Infrastrukturerneuerungen abgeschlossen hat und die 53 Einheiten starke Flotte von Pendolino Britannico-Neigezügen im Betrieb ist. Der Verkehr auf den beiden Konzessionen von Virgin hat sich bereits in den letzten drei Jahren um 40% erh?€?ht, und für 2005 plant Green den dichtesten Intercity- Verkehr ausserhalb Japans mit 225 km/h schnellen Zügen, welche London im 5-Minuten-Takt mit Zielen in den westlichen Midlands, dem Nordwesten und Schottland verlassen

Haciendo realidad la visión de Virgin

Cuando Virgin Trains se hizo dueño del negocio brit? nico InterCity West Coast en marzo de 1997, acordó pagar al gobierno unas primas que totalizaban los 1250 millones de libras durante los 15 años de duración de la franquicia. Chris Green, Director Ejecutivo de Virgin Trains, cree que este ambicioso objetivo estar? al alcance una vez que Railtrack haya completado la modernización de su infraestructura y de que entre en servicio la flota completa de 53 trenes basculantes Pendolino Britannico de Virgin. El tr? fico en las dos franquicias de Virgin ya ha aumentado en un 40% en tres años, y en 2005 Green tiene planificado lanzar el servicio entre ciudades m? s frecuente del mundo fuera del Japón, con trenes de 225 km/h saliendo de London Euston a intervalos de cinco minutos con destinos en las West Midlands, el noroeste de Inglaterra y Escocia