What began as an excited flutter within my impressionably febrile sixteen-year-old imagination has become now, at the age of twenty-five, a piquant distopia come to pass. I am become lost in a morass of deathly ennui. This is no existential crisis – in any case, professional therapy is very expensive, and I question its value to someone with my mind – but instead a wholly rational response to the privatisation of Britain’s railways. If it permissible to do so, I have largely deleted from my mind the horrors of the train disasters that have ended lives and maimed and disabled many passengers on the rail network in the period since British Rail was liquidated and sold – Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar amongst the roll call of place names now inextricably linked with the tragic and entirely avoidable failures of management that caused such carnage. Having not been directly affected by these events, they have lapsed into the rear of my thoughts like an angry rumble or an acidic bodily humour, gnawing away at my peace of mind.
These, then, are the thoughts that provide the background to my disquiet, a disquiet centred firmly on the everyday, superficially obvious shambles that the railways have become. The theft of my childish optimism, that private capital could make the railways great again, is the insult that stings most vividly. As that sixteen-year-old I had dared to dream that new money (or, I reasoned, any sort of new start for the railways) would bring untold levels of inventiveness and flair in design (of the graphic, engineering and interior types), technical innovation, glossy marketing and a more convincingly sophisticated range of food and drink (this was the basis of my vision, although I’m sure that the overall fantasy stretched into an altogether more labyrinthine affair including characters, subplots, accidental meetings with intellectually refreshing eccentrics and, that most potent of train-based clichés, an indefinable whiff of glamour). This was 1996, and although I’d lapped up every new mile of motorway and, indeed, souped-up A-road ‘expressway’ that had been constructed in the course of my lifetime, ensconced in a car-less family, trains provided my main form of long distance travel and demonstrated to me on a regular basis just how little investment they had received over the years. Ageing, dilapidated carriages, stations which, even on mainlines, looked as though their maintenance budget for the entirety of the previous quarter century had been a small grant in 1983 used to paint a wheelbarrow red, tug it to the end of the platform and plant garish winter pansies in it – these were the signs of a network unloved and not trusted to perform any modern use. And so, when the Conservative Party finally got around to privatising their unwanted toy, it seemed a reasonable enough time to get excited. What was more, the company selected to run the major intercity service out of Liverpool down to London was no less than Virgin. At the time, I bought my CDs at Virgin Megastores, had a curious admiration for the Virgin Cola that decided that the world was simply not being offered a fulsome choice with Coca Cola and Pepsi, and hoped one day to fly to America on Virgin Atlantic, that plucky upstart of an airline that could show BA a thing or two about value and service. Virgin was British, successful, entrepreneurial, youthful, and cared about customers. The elements of my fantasy were now ready to come trooping into my head one by one like so many chorus girls in a revival of a major Broadway musical, the shimmy of sequins keeping the rhythm of an über-camp show tune.
The space between the fantasy and immediate reality was cataclysmically large. In the early part of 1997 I travelled to London for the first time since privatisation to find no new trains, a restricted timetable, an overheated carriage and a pretty surly member of Virgin Trains staff who, amazingly, was not alive to the fact that I was a sensitive dreamer of a boy who demanded something experiential from his journeys. I barely got a smile at the buffet. There were Virgin brand antimacassars on the headrests. Yes, there were those. The bare facts behind this disappointing reality were easy enough to understand. This had been a privatisation too far; a scheme that had been rushed through the policy-making machine with apparently no regard for the chromic underinvestment at the heart of the crumbling network or for the huge amounts of money and hard work that was needed to correct the flaws. Just at the point the network needed urgent attention and a considerable amount of cash to bring it up to a basic standard, the government decided to create a private company, Railtrack, to do the job. What should have been a centrally focussed, publicly funded project to create a 21st Century railway became a sub-contracted, shareholder friendly, piecemeal morass of missed targets, cost cutting, poor standards and no obvious progress. Meanwhile, companies like Virgin understandably found it very difficult indeed to make money, let alone create a positive reputation for themselves as competent operators – how could they when the very basics of tracks and stations were in an inert mess?
In the intervening eight years, enough has happened on the railways to fill the contents of several long-winded reports, a slew of journalism, novels and even a few plays. For Virgin Trains, the most significant change has been the eventual completion, in 2004, of the West Coast Mainline modernisation project. Making that crucial stretch of railway safe and up to modern standards has allowed Virgin to complete the rollout of its Pendolino and Voyager fleets of trains, the Pendolino being the more deluxe version and capable of tilting on bends to achieve a consistent top speed of 125mph. This would be impressive if it wasn’t twenty-year-old technology at work. British Rail developed the Advanced Passenger Train (or APT) between 1982 and 1984, capable of tackling corners at a tilt with more efficiency built into them than the current Pendolinos – indeed, the expertise from this project eventually migrated to the Italian engineering company that Virgin has purchased the trains from. Further humiliation can be sought when a brief scanning of railway history shows that British Rail introduced conventional trains with a top speed of 125mph – the eponymous Intercity 125 – in 1976. Thirty years of lack of faith in the railways from the Tory government followed by an unsubstantiated faith that private capital would salve the scars of neglect had delivered the railway system to the technological cutting edge of, well, thirty years ago.
In September 2004 I travelled to London at 125mph on a Virgin Pendolino for the first time. I’ll admit that the sight of the passing landscape swaying vertiginously as we tilted with due tribute to the technological breakthrough now achieved was a mildly arresting experience. This did feel like speed, it felt modern; as though a scientific application was helping me, in a very palpable sense, get me to my destination more quickly. But oh so many more were the applications (scientific and otherwise) featured in the train that hung in suspended uselessness, a veritable baublery of fixtures and fittings to festoon the horizontal totem of futuristic fun that Virgin so clearly hoped its new train would be. Now, after all those years of making do with marginally refurbished 125s, Virgin Trains had the opportunity to show the travelling public what their version of the ideal modern train would look like and so, in a stunningly audacious stroke, it decided that it would look pretty much like a low grade Hollywood set of some form of spacecraft – probably the good guy’s spacecraft, because of the bright colours and such.
The airlock-inspired pneumatic hatch doors are diagonally striped in two tones of metallic grey and silver, presumably to emphasise the fact that these are, indeed, the gateways to the wonderland within. The spaceship theme is quickly – hurriedly, one might say – followed up in the entrance lobbies that are inexplicably furnished with backlit wall panels, an electric blue neon hue creating a mood of futuristic expectation. Once settled in your seat there are all the usual accoutrements that feature as the grim facts of modern interiors; those subtly pulsating patterns on the corporate carpets, upholstery and uniforms, blandly under-designed to the point of invisibility, and a depressing selection of high grade plastics used where renewable, recyclable and natural materials would have lifted the spirits and the aesthetic bar rather higher than has otherwise been achieved. There is, in other words, an institutional impermanence to the look of these trains, for this is the aesthetic of the supermarket ready meal. Seductively modern in their packaging, both train and, let’s say, shepherd’s pie (for category E 800W, cook on full power for 3 mins, remove film, then cook for a further 2mins 30secs. Allow 1 min for the pie to stand) want you to buy them, and indeed buy into them, by selling you that cheap buzz of sexy, modern convenience, after which you must ingest the product (get to London, eat the pie), discard the packaging and be left with the feeling that, although you are now in London and the pie has filled your stomach, something seriously important is still missing. The answer, for shame, is not hard to find. You could have crafted a much healthier, wholesome pie yourself using fresh ingredients, far less salt and your own personally tailored additions of herbs – and you have not, in fact, travelled to London on a spaceship but a plastically engineered train provided by a company which imagines that the addition of ‘at seat’ digital displays of customer names (which, at my seat at least, have never been operational), push button toilet doors (that are, rather famously and embarrassingly, temperamental in their operation) and a garishly coloured, early 1990s version of ‘futuristic’ graphic and fittings design actually constitutes a modern railway experience. It conclusively does not.
The Virgin Trains experience is, in fact, a travesty of modernity. The Pendolinos are the bastard product of an illusory modernisation programme on Britain’s railways that have seen the network grapple back to the technological point it really could have launched itself forward from – the early 1980s. Whilst British Rail had money and political impetus stealthily withdraw from it by successive Conservative administrations, the French authorities were investing in their TGV inter-city network, so that by the 1981 it was possible to travel from Paris to Lyon at a top speed of 236mph. The fakery of all the ‘modernisation’ and ‘upgrading’ of the lines, much of it achieved with smoke and mirrors private funding via Railtrack (though, of course, heavily subsidised by the government for the benefit of Railtrack shareholders) is matched and complemented in the fakery of Virgin Trains. Just as we are meant to be grateful that a major piece of public infrastructure is receiving the investment it required twenty years ago, so too are we meant to be impressed by the showbiz techniques of Richard Branson’s Virgin brand in providing us with safe passage and a bag of spicy mix.
The Virgin Trains First Class Lounge at London Euston encapsulates the superficiality at the heart of the company’s approach. Cocking a snoop at the understated serenity of the 1960s Euston building (designed and constructed by British Rail in the course of the electrification of the London to Scotland mainline in the 1960s), the familiar livery of reds, yellows, plums and russets has been applied rather meanly to an aged room that required a complete reordering rather than a lick of paint. Corporate reception armchairs of various shades gather around low tables in front of an arbitrarily shaped bookcase. Some reading matter for long waiting times (whether planned or not) is indeed a sterling idea for the chaps in the lounge to have concocted, and customers are welcome to peruse the titles which are on offer. The Virgin book of film history, of music blockbusters – yes, they’re all there, those tomes of popular culture we all treasure. Just books published by Virgin, you understand. None-vetted literature might spark off ideas in the customers’ heads and lead to who knows what sort of chaos! This is company that has been granted the privilege to run a crucial public service and, to an extent it is doing it well with its heart in the right place. As a business it has been close to the borderline of philanthropy in terms of what it has had to contend with since being granted its license in 1996. And yet, there are multiple failures; Virgin has provided the travelling public with a morose shadow of the intercity train service it could have had. A service in which trains and stations were designed in tandem, and with a cultured passion for quality, where customer service was about substantial improvements and not stylistically superficial changes based on dot matrix displays and “have a nice day”, where technology was utilised and not played with. These are the train services you will find in France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and elsewhere; they are possible and work well. Britain had a railway it decided to ignore and then sell, decisions which have led either directly or indirectly to the cacophonous mess the network still finds itself in today. Virgin Trains, through its Crystal Maze-inspired designs, chummy corporate attitude, superficially obsequious customer service and all the elements of its bells and whistles approach is attempting desperately to shout above the din.