Travel: Was Richard Branson just unfortunate in the rail privatisation raffle? Not exactly...

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The Independent Culture
SHOULD YOU ever decide to apply for a rail franchise, this is how it works. You look at the services that the Government requires you to run; consider the rolling stock available to you; and offer a deal that enables you to make a healthy profit. What you do not do is take part in a lottery with all the other would-be train operators and cross your fingers, hoping for one of the better franchises.

Yet anyone listening to Allan McLean of Virgin Trains on Radio 5 Live on Thursday morning would be forgiven for thinking that Richard Branson had been most unfortunate in picking the booby prizes in the privatisation raffle. Mr McLean was seeking to justify his company's dismal performance in the latest reliability statistics.

"What you've got to remember," he said, "is that Virgin Cross Country runs the longest routes in Britain, such as Aberdeen to Plymouth, and we have to operate them using locomotives that date back to the early Sixties."

And what you've got to remember, Mr McLean, is that all this was painfully apparent when Virgin decided to tender for the franchise. Your company looked at the woefully underfunded railway industry and successfully bid for two of its most neglected components, in the hope of making lots of money. So don't express surprise at the difficulty of providing a decent service.

LIKE MILLIONS of other travellers, I often book with Britain's biggest holiday company, Thomson. A fortnight ago I explained how the tour operator had wrote urging me to change my travel agent from the local branch of Going Places to a Thomson "Preferred Agent". The one suggested was Miss Ellie's International, located beside the A6 in Stockport; I live in London, which as the road sign shows is nearly 200 miles away.

That really puts the "travel" in travel agency, I thought as I battled through the wintry wastes to this week to book my May Day holiday to Greece, of Stockport. To be fair, Thomson says: "It is not our intention to send our customers all over the country to book a holiday; in fact, one of the main criteria used to suggest their nearest Thomson Preferred Agent shop was for it to be in their post code area or within 15 miles of their home. However, with a substantial mailing such as this there are bound to be teething problems."

But why should I change agents anyway? Thomson says: "For those who have travelled with us in the past and want their next holiday to be with Thomson, a Preferred Agent is the best place to visit."

After a three-hour journey through sub-zero temperatures, Miss Ellie's International was definitely the best place to warm up. My enquiry was dealt with promptly, politely and without bias. There are relatively few operators offering holidays in the Ionian Islands over the first May bank holiday, but the agent recommended First Choice and Priceright as two that do. That is a virtue of an independent travel agent; big, vertically integrated chains such as Thomson (owner of Lunn Poly) and Airtours (Going Places) make no secret of their aim to sell "in-house" holidays. But how independent is your agent? You should be aware that the Travelworld chain is now part of Airtours, and that 350 members of the Advantage consortium have signed up for a marketing push with Airtours. Be careful out there - or make the long hike to Stockport.

MISS ELLIE'S International is handy for Manchester airport, so I called in there, too. On Wednesday delays and cancellations were the order of the day. The explanations were baffling, though: passengers waiting for the BA flight to Milan were told, "This service is currently technical". I should jolly well hope it is, like every modern aircraft, thoroughly technical. And British Midland explained the delay of the London flight by saying it was "Because of Heathrow", as though that were explanation enough. My Virgin Train, meanwhile, was right on time.