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.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage