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Review of Virgin Trains service between Manchester, Oxford and Southampton

What is the standard of service like on Virgin Trains? In February 2007 I needed to get to various UK cities to take photos for a client, and decided to take the train. Would it be the usual story: endless delays, leaves on the line, overcrowding, and horrible tea, coupled with expensive fares? An excuse for a good old British-style moan about everything, including the weather? Read my Virgin Trains travelogue and decide whether you'd prefer to fly, drive, take the coach or maybe cycle!
Since I wrote this article, Virgin Trains lost the franchise to operate the service between Manchester and Southampton. Most Cross Country services have been transferred to a new franchise, named CrossCountry, part of the Arriva Group.

In February 2007 I needed to get to various UK cities at short notice to take photos for a client,

On the 20th I needed to get to Portsmouth and maybe Oxford. There is a direct service on Virgin Trains from Manchester to Southampton, stopping at Oxford, with a connection Portsmouth.

My train is the 7.24am departure from Manchester Piccadilly to Southampton. I drive to the station and arrive at the multi-storey car park around 6.55, rice 12 for 24 hours. The station seems surprisingly crowded for this time of the morning.

I pick up breakfast at Bagel Factory, consisting of bagel, crisps, Smoothie and tea for a not exactly very cheap 7.24.

I proceed to Platform 5 where the train is being prepared, and soon the doors are open. My tickets, bought the previous night at the ticket office, don't have a seat reservation and I chose a seat in the quiet coach, Coach F. The electronic display says 'Manchester Piccadilly to Southampton' but it's not clear whether this seat is reserved. I am ready to give it up but no one comes. It's fairly crowded.

Punctual departure from Manchester Piccadilly at 7.24

The Virgin Voyager train moves off at 7.24 precisely. The train manager makes his long and often rambling announcement but thankfully refers to us as 'passengers' not 'customers'. I gaze out at Ardwick, Levenshulme, familiar territory for me. Soon we are in Stockport, where a large crowd of passengers get on. A man in a suit, obviously a daily commuter, glares at my rucksack which I was just about to remove anyway, and takes the seat next to me.

And here is a minus point: Your quality of journey can depend on your fellow passengers' behaviour and how many of them there are around you.

At least the woman opposite is pleasant and polite. I overhear that this train was usually crowded, so maybe he struggles for a seat every day, but there is still no need for managerial grumpiness at this time in the morning.

I slip my PowerBook G4 carefully out of my rucksack, which is now sandwiched between my legs, and concentrate on the changing views of Cheshire.There's a little hazy sunehine. I try to connect to the internet via my Vodafone datacard but it can find no signal. I also give up on the mobile phone FM radio due to bad reception.

The train speeds ahead on its meandering course down through Cheshire, over the Bollin, past The Cloud, a prominent hill near Congleton, and into Staffordshire, heading south towards Wolverhampton.

Stafford 8.24

At 8.24 we are one hour into the journey and have stopped at Stafford. A man in a shirt and dark blue tie gestures to the woman opposite to vacate her seat as he's reserved it. She gathers her laptop and papers and now has to stand in the aisle. The man sits down and gazes out the window, enjoying his seat. Where is chivalry?

Many people have to stand. If I had got on at Stockport I might have had to stand too. 84.50 to stand in the aisle is not a reason to travel by train.

And here's another point: On planes and longer distance buses, you always get a seat. Virgin Trains: You need to provide more seats and/or trains.

The verdict so far: Cramped but comfortable, if you're lucky enough to have a seat.

Wolverhampton 8.42

It's 8.40, the train passes the shattered remains of Michells and Butlers Springfield Brewery outside Wolverhampton, and into Wolverhampton Station. The man next to me gets off to complete the journey to his workplace Wolverhampton Town Hall. There are no fond farewells. The polite woman takes the seat he left. Wolverhampton, seen through the window of the train, is all industrial plots, many abandoned, with a modern distribution centre or two slotted in here or there.

We are now moving towards Birmingham. The hazy sunshine is ceding to cloudy and misty weather. As well as innumerable canals and railway tracks, we pass over the road carrying the Midland Metro tramlines. I was there just a few days earlier on an earlier shoot.

More crumbling factories, canalside warehouses and disused railway lines, juxtaposed with a few new factories and many obviously well-used railway lines, another murky canal, blocks of flats and then the BT communications tower - 'Why can't it have a viewing platform?', I always ask myself.

'The train will shortly arrive at Birmingham New Street..." says the train manager over the PA.

I notice that that he has again used the word 'passengers'. This is a great thing. Use of 'customers' has always been a symbolic reminder of all the failures of Britain's privatised train service. Maybe the tide has finally turned.

Birmingham New Street 8.58

At Birmingham New Street, the assembled 'customers' get off and more get on, but these are daytrippers in casuals, not office workers in suits. As we exit beneath Birmingham's Rotunda building, currently being refurbished, there are now seats for everyone. The time is 9.05.

We continue in a straight line across the more presentable, though perhaps less photographically interesting side of Birmingham with its pleasant suburbs, open spaces and not much industry. Soon we are at Birmingham International Station. The polite lady gets off, I have a double seat to myself again.

I try to sleep but I can't, so I go for a cup of tea and visit the universally accessible toilet with its curved sliding door. Apart from the worry that you'll press the wrong button and the door will open wide mid-use, and then the problem of the hand dryer going off as you're trying to wash your hands, the visit to the toilet passes off smoothly.

I purchase a cup of tea from the cheerful onboard retail and refreshments manager - we used to call them tea ladies - at 1.30 and take it back to my seat.

Now the space situation has eased off considerably and the atmosphere is more relaxed but...

Those fellow 'customers' are at it again: This time someone is using mini-headphones at full volume. This is supposed to be the QuietZone. Also, a mobile phone goes off. Staff in red coats pass up and down but don't seem to be enforcing the rules.

Now I feel sleepy. Keeping my hands on my PowerBook, lulled by the train noise and reassuring 'clackety clack', I dream about some of the things on the Virgin Trains animated advert.

Some time later, somewhere in Oxfordshire, I wake up and decide to do some work.

Plus point: For me, long train journeys are ideal for getting lots of work done, whether beavering away on the PowerBook G4 or scribbling with a pen or pencil in my black notebook.

Oxford 10.14

We make a brief stop at Oxford

I had originally intended to get off here and continue the journey later, but I found out that it isn't possible to break the journey on the outward leg. My plan at the moment is to make another journey to Oxford tomorrow, but maybe I'll stop here on the way back.

Reading 10.35

We are now in Reading, It's 10.35.

I can't believe how much ground we have covered in the three hours since boarding the train. We are now in that place I refer to as a foreign country: The South Of England. So much easier to get to than via the M6 and M40.

The train starts to move and oops, we are going backwards. I'm not a fan of sitting with my back to the engine, but I'll stay where I am as I can't be bothered to move my PowerBook and other stuff.

The French-sounding train manager has trouble with the announcement, but comes across as affable, and it's very nice to have a reminder of SNCF French Railways.

But my main thought is that this Virgin Trains service is every bit as good as the superlative service offered by SNCF, if not better. I never thought I'd say that about train travel in the UK.

The train takes the branch line towards the south west and gathers speed, passing through the flat landscape of Berkshire. I am heading backwards towards Basingstoke.

Basingstoke 11.08

I work on some more writing, and once past Basingstoke and we are nearly in Southampton. I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed and how easy the 4 hour journey has been - apart from the initial bit.

Southampton Central 11.40

As we approach Southampton Central I follow the train manager's advice to check I haven't left anything, and step onto the platform.

It's time to say goodbye to Virgin Trains for now. Main complaint: Journey not long enough!

Arrive Portsmouth 13.07

I take the 12.02 train, operated by First Great Western, to Portsmouth, arriving at Portsmouth and Southsea at 13.07. Total journey time from Manchester: 5 hours 27 minutes.

For various reasons I decide I'd like to make it a quick stay in Portsmouth, and take the next available train to Oxford so I can stop off and take photos there.

Plus point: Changing your plans is easy on the train but difficult when you're flying. With numerous trains and connection possibilities, your options are open. With the plane you are tied down. If I'd flown from Manchester to Southampton, it would be pretty difficult to stop off in Oxford, at least not without a parachute!

I go online using the PowerBook and datacard. I check the timetable on the German Federal Railways website www.bahn.de - it's quicker and gives more information than virgintrains.co.uk or theTrainline.com. The next available departure is 14.27. My stay in Portsmouth will be a scandalously short 1 hour and 20 minutes.

I walk from Portsmouth city centre to the Harbour, and soon I have taken the photos I need.

Depart Portsmouth 14.27

I take the 14.27 from Portsmouth Harbour to Cardiff, operated by First Great Western, and immediately get out the computer and start work on my Portsmouth photos. Soon I have to pause as the train is about to arrive in Southampton.

Depart Southampton 15.15

My connectijng train is the one to Edinburgh, departing Southampton Central at 15.15. There are lots of people on the platform, but inside, there's plenty of room.

It's now a journey of one hour and nineteen minutes to Oxford.

Out comes the PowerBook and I continue to work on the Portsmouth photos. As we pass the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station, near Oxford, I'm all done.

Point: The train really is a great place to work. I can take photos, work on them and have them all ready before I arrive home. There are no interruptions, unlike travelling by plane, with all the security checks and safety precautions. On Virgin Voyager's trains there are power sockets so you need never run out of power.

Arrive Oxford 16.34

At 16.34 I am stepping onto the platform at Oxford Station. From there it's just a short walk into the centre, where I have more photos to take. No airport bus needed, this is the ultimate in pedestrian-friendly tourism.

Three hours later, photos all taken and after a meal at the Lebanese restaurant whose name I'v forgotten, I'm walking back towards Oxford Station. As there are direct trains to Manchester every hour, and every half hour to Birmingham the last train isn't for some hours yet, no need to rush.

Depart Oxford 20.18

The 20.07 departure is delayed and expected around 20.20. With no more connections to make, and with the car waiting for me at Piccadilly, this delay makes no difference to me. The train pulls in before 20.20 and again, there's plenty of room on board. I pick a seat with a table and I can plug in and continue working.

At 20.50, ahead and to the left, I can see the dim illuminated form of Selfridges store. We are nearly at Birmingham New Street. No need to get out as this train is direct to Piccadilly.

A youth of mixed parents, head shaved like a Buddhist monk, sits opposite and plays music on his headphones. The sound spills over but it's OK, this isn't the quiet carriage. He's cool with very good 'karma'.

Point: If you like people-watching, the train is great. It can also be good for meeting people, but I don't find British trains as sociable as those on the continent, due to the seating arrangement.

It all seems to be going so smoothly, but then a bunch of youths get on, start talking loud, and use some very bad language. There should be zero tolerance to any type of anti-social behaviour, but most passengers are unwilling to tell them to shut up, myself included. There are no staff around to challenge them, so I decide to move to Coach D.

Point: The quality of the journey is dependent on the behaviour of your fellow travellers. Anti-social behaviour, whether from a middle manager or a mid-teen, shouldn't be tolerated. Maybe as well as the Quiet Zone there should be the 'Nice Peoples Zone' where bad language and loud, cackling laughter are not allowed.

Arrive Manchester 23.06

The train arrives at Manchester Piccadilly at six minute past eleven, 16 hours and 42 minutes after my departure early this morning.

Anything else to report? No, that's it.

I have covered well over 600 miles or 1000km today, but it has been mostly like sitting in an armchair. Imagine if I'd been in the car. It would have been impossible to do what I've done today.

The verdict:

Virgin Trains offers an exceptionally good service, making distant places like Glasgow, Bournemouth, Newcastle Southampton and London no more difficult to get to than a local destination and often easier.

The trains are modern, very comfortable, have power sockets, the staff are friendly. They are on time, most of the time.

The fares aren't necessarily cheap - it can cost less to fly to many destinations - but if you book well in advance you can get good fares. It would be great if the fares could be brought down, but generally they seem to be comparable, if not lower, than equivalent fares on the continent.

My only other wish would be for train operators to stop using that word symbolic of failure and misconceived ideas: 'customers' and call us by what we are - passengers

A note of cricicism on the Virgin Trains website design: I really wish I didn't have to enter the date manually every time I want to make a booking. Often I am looking for the next available train, but have to select the date, month, hours and minutes, for both outward and return.

A different page, available once you've registered, provides an improved design, but there is still room for improvement here.

For timetable enquiries I prefer to use the website of German Federal Railways, which gives access to the entire European train network. It gives greater detail than the Train Line or Virgin Trains websites, such as which stations the train stops at, but it doesn't give the fares.

For all information about Virgin Trains bookings, visit the website www.virgintrains.co.uk.

You can also use thetrainline.com.

For anyone in the UK, or thinking of visiting the UK, my advice would be, if you can, use Virgin Trains. They are in my opinion the best train operator in thc ountry. I hope to make many more journeys with them in the future, and in particular, I'd like to take the longest journey on the Virgin Trains network, which I believe is from Penzance to Dundee.

In fact I'd love to have a network season ticket - if such a thing exists - so I could flit around the UK whenever I want, but that will have to wait....

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-03-24

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