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.


Virgin Trains: 8.79m timetabled train kilometres.

First Great Western: 10.5m timetabled train kilometres.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Show Hide image

Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.