Features

New Virgin train

1 Nov 2004 by business traveller

A new Commuter-stylefrequency to Manchester, faster services to all destinations, Pendolino trains, and a direct link from Euston to Edinburgh ? these are all highlights of Virgin Trains' winter timetable.
The new schedules provide 38% more trains than before, on key routes linking London with Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham. The state-of-the-art, 125mph "tilting" Pendolino trains operate on almost all the services except the busy London-Birmingham route, which will receive them at the end of this year.
Manchester is now linked to London every 30 minutes, with typical journeys taking just over 2 hrs 15 mins ? 20 minutes faster than before.
London to Birmingham now takes 1 hr 21 mins (20 minutes faster), London to Liverpool is 2 hrs 20 mins (30 minutes saved), and London to Glasgow is 4 hrs 41 mins (25 minutes better).
There are problems, however. Ongoing track engineering improvements ? which won't be complete until December next year ? promise delays to some services, while the complex Pendolino trains may be dogged by technical issues in the early days. Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson admits: "We're not 100% there yet. We expect teething problems during the first three months. But we should be there by January 1."
Neither is it clear whether enough passengers will come forward to fill all the extra seats. London-Manchester trains are faster and more frequent, but will they appeal to many more business travellers? Business Traveller spoke to one banker at the launch who said: "I'm based at Canary Wharf. It's easier for me to access City Airport [for VLM's Manchester service] than trek across town to Euston." So whether you use the new trains could depend on where you start and where you finish your journey.
Recently the airlines have eaten into the market share of Virgin Trains, because of the latter's perceived unreliability. Flemish airline VLM now operates 10 flights a day from City Airport to Manchester and five to Liverpool ? yet two years ago, these routes didn't even exist.
And then there's the issue of the trains themselves. The Pendolinos are swish, smooth and quiet. Unfortunately, their interiors aren't very spacious because, in order to maximise revenue, the designers have fitted as many seats as possible.
Says rail expert Christian Wolmar: "What strikes me is how poky these trains are. Of course, they have to be a bit narrower than normal trains because of the tilt, but the whole feel is like being in an aircraft rather than on a train."
The seating is fine in first class, but in standard class it is cramped and akin to being on a low-cost airline. This is bearable on short trips but, as Wolmar points out:
"Who is going to want to spend four-and-a-half hours travelling down from Scotland in airline-style conditions when it would probably be cheaper by air and you would only spend an hour in your seat?"

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