Four Virgin Trains directors go after criticism of tilting train

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Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains underwent a "night of the long knives" yesterday as four senior directors left the company.

The purge is expected to affect dozens of other managers in the coming weeks as part of the heavily subsidised company's drive to cut costs.

The job losses among key employees emerged after criticism of the performance of Virgin's new Pendolino tilting trains on the flagship West Coast Main Line.

While industry sources argued that disappointing performance was the main reason for the cull, a spokesman for Virgin Trains said it was because the business was trying to "refocus".

The directors who left yesterday were Jackie Townsend, the operations director for the West Coast operation; Andrew Holl, her counterpart at Virgin CrossCountry; Debbie Younger, the director of on-board services for both franchises; and Charlene Kane, in charge of the group's stations. Other senior departures are expected soon.

One source said a list of people to be axed had been stolen from Virgin Trains' personnel department, but the company said it was unaware of any such theft.

The group has been under intense pressure from the Department for Transport to cut costs. Performance on the West Coast, London-Glasgow route has deteriorated largely because of "teething problems" with the Pendolinos. The latest industry figures show the number of delays caused by Virgin West Coast has increased by 17.5 per cent over the year.

A spokesman for Virgin Trains said now that new trains had been delivered, it was refocusing on passenger services. He said it was not a question of the quality of the personnel involved, but was because there was to be a change of emphasis. It would be entirely unfair to suggest anything else, he said, adding that the cost-cutting exercise would not affect any front-line staff.

On the Pendolinos, he said: "These are the most sophisticated trains ever to operate in this country. We and our passengers are bearing the brunt of the problems inherent in introducing technology which in 40 years' time many other operators will be using."

Pendolinos have been found to be between 14 and 20 times more likely to break down than similar express locomotives on the Continent.