So it's better trains and a Virgin birth

There was a time when we saw that walking logo Richard Branson – key features a Viking beard and a woolly pully – on a daily basis. He'd be flying around in balloons, or dragging up for Virgin Bride, he'd be tsar of this for the Tories or that for New Labour. He'd be fighting for the lottery gig or telling young entrepreneurs that they should be turning Japanese. Insiders reckoned that RB's profile saved Virgin tens of millions in paid-for advertising and "communications" and helped it go on looking distinctive even when it was a middle-sized, middle-aged corporation.

But over the last two years Virgin has known sorrow, and there's been less of RB around. And it all started with trains. Where was the Virgin-ness on those trains? What single "hard" or "soft" factor distinguished them from the other operators or would lure a single passenger into travelling with them? Punctuality and price aside, the worst thing was the rolling stock. Like all the operators, it had bought a job lot of clapped-out old trains that made Virgin-watchers think it had stretched the brand into a sector where it was going to struggle to create that Virgin-added value. The one Virginish thing it did was to say the trains weren't its fault and it was ordering lovely new ones with all mod cons.

Years passed and nothing happened because everything in railway land was hell. But now here's a steward, a Patrick Kielty lookalike in burgundy H-list celebrity tone-on-tone kit, striding through white carriages past happy shiny people; no seat without an aircraft business-class range of buttons and read-outs, no passenger without a laptop or palm pilot. And as he goes it's action-movie music. We're on Air-Force One. Then we've got another purposeful steward grabbing the public address phone: "Is there a doctor on board?" There're a dozen, of course; this is a very nice class of train. Soon they're all clustered round the woman in labour, plugging this year's model of home delivery kit at the usefully available power point.

So there's light at the end of the tunnel and this is the age of the super-fast train. It's new beginnings, they say, new trains are rolling out across the country. It's a high-glam expensive-looking production, with 60-second slots, targeted at the macho managerials, the airport business-book crowd. But something's missing: you're expecting that lady passenger with the strangely bearded vulpine grin.

peter@sru.co.uk

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