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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories