It's almost been a month since LNER started, initial impressions do seem like it's business as usual, everything (good and bad) continues as before except for things that were tied to the Virgin brand (BEAM, Flying Club and Virgin Red). LNER had the misfortune to start operations at the beginning of a heatwave which meant a number of air conditioning failures which put extra pressure on the maintenance team.
The rebranding from VTEC to LNER has been quite successful with LNER managed stations already having the branding in place prior to the switchover although some non-LNER managed stations (such as Stevenage as of 15 July) still had some VTEC branded signage (platform markers and instructions for cyclists in the case of Stevenage). The new branding looks good and apart from some silly posters where they make up some odd three letter codes it has worked well. The LNER has arrived message has also made it on the side of London buses (and probably other cities) and billboards in the places they serve. This is not bad considering the short notice between the announcement and going live.
The LNER brand team and marketing teams have a new challenge. They have to establish LNER with its own identity and build on it to make it a success. I have confidence that LNER can become a popular respected brand. The challenges will be different to Virgin, that was developing a well known brand, working together with the west coast to create a brand identity, although I know some at VTEC were sad at the end of the franchise hopefully they're optimistic for the new challenges ahead and make LNER a household name along the East Coast.
Not everything is yet in LNER style, the website is still using Virgin fonts and the wording on the website is still very much in the Virgin style. I don't think they need to swing the dial completely in the other direction, they can still use a friendly tone rather than being too formal, but it's important to not be too familiar. A few people said that they thought some of the emails from VTEC were acting like their best friend rather than a train company. It might take a while to go through all the copy on the website and change the tone so there'll still be a 'wahey' when you book for a bit longer.
I can see lots of brand evolution over the next few months. If you think they're going in the right direction give praise when due and feedback if you think they're taking the wrong direction. One thing that will be interesting is how much they will draw on the history of the LNER brand in the future, they could choose to avoid the historical connection altogether or we may see some hints of LNER history. Brands change with time, if LNER hadn't been nationalised and was still the original company today most likely it would not be using the same colour schemes as they used in the 30's and their logo would have been updated through the years. So they could go for a totally modern approach to branding in future or they might take the approach of GNER (and GWR to an extent) and have a nod back to history.
A few days after LNER had started the franchise I had a meeting with their Customer Experience Director, Head of Customer Contact and the Head of Social Media. It was mainly a clear the air type of meeting as tensions had developed over the last year at VTEC. The key issue for me is improving the information presented to the public if there's an issue with the train such as issues with accessible toilets. I do believe that this information should be available to the public and I will be pushing for them to make it available, after all it's much easier if you know ahead of time if there's issues so you can work out alternative plans. Passengers would also like to know if there's other faults on the trains that they're booked on such as air conditioning or catering failures this will allow passengers with flexible tickets make alternative plans if they choose to and allow those travelling on that service to be prepared (e.g. bring their own food).
The hope is that a two way dialogue will develop, then hopefully important issues can be addressed and although there might be disagreement as to how it's done it will be good to see progress being made. As with any big company progress can be slow so it's too early to say whether things on the communications front will improve but it's best to remain optimistic.
The new menu launched the same time as LNER started service but the menu would have been the same even if it was still VTEC, after all the catering team is still the same. The main change is in future the menu will be updated more frequently but not everything will change at the same time, this means we've still got some items from the old menu and some new ones. I like the idea of the menu changing more frequently but keeping popular items on the menu for longer, hopefully this will work as well in theory as it sounds, currently we don't know how often (my guess is quarterly).
One other change is instead of a choice of two sandwiches/wraps there'll be a sandwich or a salad, one week the sandwich will be meat and the salad vegetarian and the other week it'll be reversed. I've tried the new menu options and in my opinion both menu rotations offer decent options.
There's still an issue with reliability with catering. I've had a 100% success rate so far but on Twitter there's people who are still suffering from catering shortages. Whether the issues are caused by staffing or maintenance hopefully these are being addressed and also in future passengers are notified if there's any known issues.
One of the things I was tracking in the last few months of VTEC was maintenance issues, particularly ones which meant trains were running without accessible toilets. I'm still keeping an eye on this and although there's no signs of improvement just yet hopefully work is ongoing to identify ways of improving the maintenance processes and minimise the sets that go into service with known faults. With an aging fleet it'll be impossible to get perfection but there must be improvements that can be made.
I've noticed a number of prominent disability campaigners have started to notice the regular issues with accessible toilets which could generate bad press if the issues are not resolved. Hopefully I can find out what LNER plan to do to address the issue.
Under new management?
Although nearly everyone from the MD, David Horne, down is the same as VTEC their power to make improvements rests with those above them. They've gone from being a majority Stagecoach operation (who had to pay high premiums to the government to run the franchise) to an organisation owned by the Department for Transport. In between the government and LNER management is a consortium of private consultants and at the moment I have absolutely no idea what they do! Will they have a hands off approach and let the LNER team run their company or will they try and make changes which may be unpopular? Will LNER be given a bigger budget to spend on staffing and maintenance or will they be expected to operate on a similar budget to Stagecoach? Will they be expected to deliver the franchise commitments VTEC made or will these be reviewed?
It makes sense for the government to invest in the franchise and build a strong brand for LNER. The current plan is to take it back under private ownership in 2020 as part of the East Coast Partnership franchise but it's also intended to keep the LNER brand so the government would be shooting themselves in the foot if they don't use this opportunity to build a strong brand known for quality service.