Last week the government ‘delivered’ on its plan to privatise the successful East Coast main line. Stagecoach and Virgin now co-own it. My first experience of the new regime came while buying a ticket for my daughter, when I saw that the old East Coast booking site has been cosmetically Virginised. I was charged £6.45 for ‘special delivery next day’. Five days later, the travel time booked for had come and gone. Two messages of complaint, no reply, and Virgin still has my cash safely trousered.
The flog-off went through with little fanfare. It’s a good example of ideological privatisation, rushed through by the government ahead of the election. Since returning to public ownership in 2009, East Coast brought in more than £1 billion to the Treasury, with record passenger satisfaction ratings, increased profits and numerous industry awards. In 2013-14, East Coast made a net contribution of £23 million to the government, while Virgin drew a net subsidy of £225 million. Virgin’s and other operators’ dependence on subsidies is underplayed by figures that exclude the government hand-outs to offset track usage charges levied by Network Rail.
For Richard Branson, the move signals a further sagging of the Virgin brand. Now bleached and straggly-whiskered, Branson looks like a Guy Fawkes that’s spent too long outside. Pushing 65, he’s sneakered, with it, and still up for sexist marketing gimmicks that were already cheesy in the 1970s. He seems to have hit on the elixir of eternal juvenility.
Branson piled up his airline zillions by tweaking British Airways’ tail. Having conquered the skies, he decided he needed a train set. For the past 18 years, Virgin has visited airline-standard grub and fares on West Coast travellers, as well as its Pendolinos, with their signature fecal bouquet. Implacably anti-union and anti-competition, Branson’s coined it both from direct and indirect public subsidies. The East Coast takeover exploits the now familiar brand-franchising formula – talk up customer benefits, chuck a pot of red paint over deadbeat rolling stock and plaster the white Virgin logo on top. Not that the logo isn’t looking a bit tired: in keeping with Branson’s eternal-youth shtick, perhaps Virgin should merge its brand with that of another raptor mega-corp, Pfizer, the patent-holders for Viagra. Meanwhile, Survation’s poll on the East Coast sell-off indicates that only 21 per cent of people want Virgin trains in their tunnels.