Those who follow us on Twitter might recall that I (^DH) did quite a lot of travelling on the East Coast route when the announcement was made that Virgin Trains East Coast were having their franchise terminated and replaced with a (sort of) government run operation which would be branded LNER. One of the guards I spoke to was very keen on sharing his thoughts on the LNER announcement and promised to email me these once he had some time.
More recently it has been announced that most of the VTEC senior management team will be staying on with LNER.
I've attached the email unedited below. I will then follow up with my own thoughts below that.
The moment I heard the news about the franchise being taken away from the incumbent TOC I was ecstatic. The sheer elation of knowing that VTEC were finally going was like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders after being burdened with their gimmicky nonsense for three years, stations being plastered in a vile sea of red graffiti and an ever increasing number of managers being recruited while front line staff continued to be ruthlessly cut.
Since the news broke I have spoken to hundreds of colleagues from all parts of the business and not one of them is unhappy about VTEC going. It's quite the opposite, with stories of staff bringing in party poppers, going out for drinks to celebrate and just being incredibly happy that this three year farce is over.
The Key Tasks for LNER
So what do I think are the key tasks ahead for LNER when they take over on June 24 2018?
The first and by far the most important task is the restoration of confidence in the East Coast Main Line. This comes in two parts (staff and passengers) neither of which is more important than the other but when both are at their optimum they will get the ECML back to the high standards GNER and East Coast maintained and hopefully LNER will at the very least be equal to.
Staff Morale, Belief and Trust
Under VTEC staff morale has declined to previously unheard of levels.
LNER have to reverse the ludicrous decisions made by VTEC to cut the numbers of staff in stations, in ticket offices and onboard. To counter that a complete overhaul and reduction of the management structure is required. VTEC have employed hundreds more managers than any other operator of the ECML.
LNER have to regain passenger trust and confidence.
Passengers are fed up with a service that over-promises and under-delivers.
Passengers need to feel and see they are getting value for money.
A complete reversal of the flawed VTEC marketing strategy has got to be implemented.
Get rid of the idiotic language that the VTEC marketing lot seem to think is how people should be spoken to.
LNER need just a simple basic marketing strategy that offers the best value for the price being paid, if beating a budget airline on price alone is not viable then beat them on value and quality combined instead.
Cease sponsoring all events and concentrate on running a successful railway company.
Cease all celeb endorsed promotions, LNER should be aiming to be recognised as a quality company on it's own merits and not rely on celeb endorsed gimmicky promotions.
Get the onboard crew levels back to what they need to be for Standard Class to have both a trolley and buffet service at all times.
Ditch the celeb endorsed products onboard.
The retail products are priced too high.
A sandwich in a box does not belong in 1st Class.
Include catering vouchers as an option when tickets are purchased online.
Get rid of the valueless Nectar as a rewards scheme and introduce a new LNER branded Rewards Scheme that has real value along the same lines as the old East Coast Rewards Scheme.
Why are regular travellers and season ticket holders treated so disgracefully by VTEC?
Maintenance of train and station facilities also needs a complete rethink because the current system simply does not work.
It's disgraceful that trains are being run with faults like accessible toilets that have been faulty for months. These toilets are not just for wheelchair users they are also baby change facilities, I have witnessed parents having to change their babies diapers in the vestibules.
There have been recent examples of lifts in stations becoming faulty and not being repaired for days. The provision of step free access at stations is a fundamental requirement for wheelchair users, parents with buggies, passengers with heavy luggage, elderly passengers etc.
Ticket Price Structure
The ticket pricing structure needs a total overhaul. Some of the upper tier priced advance tickets are not value for money.
Ditch the top two or three most expensive tiers.
1st Class upgrades:
All Off Peak trains should have a flat fee £25/£15 (like weekends) upgrade available. These should only be available to be sold onboard by the Train Guard and only at their discretion.
Get rid of SeatFrog.
The ticket machines need a simpler user experience and need to be kept in working order at all times.
Ticket Office staff levels need to be increased back to the levels they were before the VTEC cuts.
Delay/Repay and Seat Guarantee
An automated system for Delay/Repay has got to be introduced. This will drastically cut the backlog of delay/repay claims.
Seat Guarantee is a little more involved but can be simplified too.
Bank Holidays/School Holidays
Run night services like East Coast did during the 2012 Olympics.
As an example when the Edinburgh Fringe is on run direct services from Kings Cross to Edinburgh and Edinburgh to Kings Cross stopping at either Newcastle or York for crew change only.
Management need to be a whole lot more visible at all times but especially during Bank Holiday weekends, School Holidays and other traditionally busier periods.
Make sure no trace of VTEC is left.
Get rid of the Azuma name.
Every coach needs the LNER website address on it in the same way that East Coast used to have. It's yards of free advertising space that is currently not used.
I wrote this before the announcement that David Horne and the majority of the directors and managers appear to be being retained by LNER. I now believe that nothing will change as LNER are simply VTEC under a different name. So expect exactly the same levels of incompetence, under-achievement and broken promises.
To say I'm deflated over the announcement regarding the intended retaining of certain directors and managers is an understatement. It's my belief that these directors and managers are being retained as LNER will end up being run by Virgin/StageCoach from 2020.
I agree with most of what has been said here and they're all valid points. It shows the value of listening to both passengers and staff, particularly the front line staff who deal with us everyday. I know some staff who are critical of the current direction the company is taking are too worried to speak out but I think it's very important the management try and get the views of the front line staff. Many have been there for years, they've been through many highs and lows and have a good idea what works and what makes passengers happy. Don't dismiss experience, new ideas are important too but forgetting the past is a mistake. Regular travellers on the East Coast service have different expectations than those on other similar InterCity franchises - a lot of this was down to the quality service offered by GNER and later on by East Coast.
The main thing I disagree with would be about sponsoring events. I think sponsoring events has value, particularly ones that benefit the community. It's important that the sponsorship doesn't seem hypocritical such as sponsoring cycle events while launching a booking engine that removes the ability to book bike spaces. Sponsorship doesn't always have to be about giving organisations cash either. Some charities and other groups may benefit from complimentary tickets which will help keep their running costs down. It's also good to encourage staff to get involved with causes that mean a lot to them, to use a recent example supporting York Pride and a lot of staff have contributed their spare time in supporting mental health charities such as CALM.
On the subject of celeb endorsements I think the James Martin partnership was damaging to both VTEC and the chefs reputation. It was a big mistake branding everything as James Martin, whether it was a sandwich in a box in first class or a microwave bacon roll in standard the products had his name on them. Recently some of the products have been lacking in quality too, for example the chicken wrap contains very little chicken, presumably because VTEC have asked the suppliers to cut costs. I bought a chicken wrap from Tesco for £2 and it was full of chicken! I'm sure James didn't want to be associated with food worse than a supermarket offers. That said the evening meal services are excellent (but they were before the James Martin partnership anyway) so perhaps they should have just endorsed the chef prepared evening meals and the breakfasts if they were to endorse anything at all.
I was contacted anonymously by someone on Twitter yesterday who said they were VTEC management. With permission, I'll be sharing an outline of that discussion and my views on that. Keep a look out for this.