Virgin Trains vs First Great Western in numbers

Who wins the smackdown of the sub-par train operating companies?

Virgin Trains is to lose its West Coast franchise to First Group, which currently operates the First Great Western high-speed line, as well as many other transport concessions. People who regularly use Virgin are celebrating the news, while people who regularly use FGW are warning them that the grass is always greener on the other side.

The short version of the difference appears to be that Virgin trains, when they show up, are better. Marred by a slight whiff of poo and little room for luggage, they are proof that investment can pay off in passenger experience. But that "when they turn up" is crucial; FGW beats Virgin hands down on performance metrics.

Networks

Virgin Trains: 8.79m timetabled train kilometres.

First Great Western: 10.5m timetabled train kilometres.

Performance

Virgin Trains: 86.6 per cent of trains arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled times in financial year 2011.

First Great Western: 90.3 per cent of trains arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled times in financial year 2011.

Satisfaction

Virgin Trains: 266 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2011, 53 per cent responded to within 20 working days. One per cent of contacts were praise.

In passenger surveys, 87 per cent of respondents were satisfied or better with the company's performance. In every category given, more than half of passengers were satisfied or better, with the least popular aspects being how Virgin deals with delays, the toilets on their trains, and the amount of space for luggage on the trains. 88 per cent of people were satisfied with the speed of the journey.

First Great Western: 86 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2011, 100 per cent responded to within 20 working days. Five per cent of contacts were praise.

In passenger surveys, 83 per cent of respondents were satisfied or better with the company's performance. The least popular aspects of FGW were how well it deals with delays, value for money of its tickets, and the toilets on its trains; none of them satisfied more than 40 per cent of passengers. The most popular was the speed of the journeys, satisfying over 80 per cent.

Accidents

Virgin Trains: Virgin's worst accident was in 2007, when a set of faulty points near Grayrigg in Cumbria caused a train to leave derail. Of the 109 people on board, just one was killed, although another 88 were injured, which was accredited to the crashworthiness of the Pendolino trains.

First Great Western: FGW's worst crash was the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. A Thames Trains train leaving Paddington stations jumped a signal at Ladbroke Grove Junction in West London and ploughed headfirst into an FGW train from Cheltenham; the combined speed of the two trains was 130mph, and 31 people were killed, with 520 more injured.

Trains

Virgin Trains: The average Virgin train was 8 years old in 2011. The majority of its trains are electric Alstom Pendolinos, built between 2001 and 2004, with a second set delivered between 2009 and 2012. They can run up to 140mph, but only travel at 125mph on the West Coast Main Line.

To replace the Pendolino lost in the Grayrigg derailment, Virgin leased a freight train, which was then painted in their colours and referred to as the "Pretendolino" by maintenance staff.

First Great Western: The average FGW train was 29 years old in 2011. On its high-speed route, it runs 54 "Intercity 125" trains, built between 1975 and 1982. Although the fastest diesel trains in the world, the line is stymied by the lack of electrification. When the project to electrify the track is completed, it plans to get new trains, which are currently being developed by the Department of Transport and Hitachi; the first 57 trains, to be delivered in 2017, will cost £2.4bn.

In numbers

Virgin Trains: 2,913 employees, 17 stations, 1,190km of routes.

First Great Western: 4,431 employees, 211 stations, 2090km of routes.

Richard Branson fills a Virgin train with Biodiesel in 2007. Because he can, that's why. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder