GNER boss call's Virgin trains 'cheap and nasty'

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Sir Richard Branson's new Voyager trains which operate throughout Britain are "cheap and nasty", according to a rival rail chief.

Christopher Garnett, who runs the mainline route between London and Edinburgh, said that the Virgin trains on the sprawling Crosscountry routes, had "taken the fun out of train travel".

His assertion not only angered Sir Richard, they infuriated Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, who during his time as a senior director at Virgin was responsible for commissioning the Voyagers. Mr Bowker has the power to strip Mr Garnett's company of its franchise which comes up for renewal in April next year.

Mr Garnett, the chief executive of Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), is keen to replace his ageing high speed trains, but rejects any suggestion that the Voyager might fit the bill.

Any new long distance train should have a locomotive at the front rather than noisy under floor engines which are known to irritate passengers over the longer Crosscountry journeys.

Customers have also complained about a lack of luggage space and lavatories and the limited and expensive nature of the food available in the train "shops".

The network was severely disrupted last year when voyagers travelling near the sea at Dawlish in Devon broke down because the engines were unable to cope with the spray at high tide. Similar breakdowns were suffered last week, although changes to the rolling stock meant that delays were less severe.

In the latest issue of Railnews, the industry's newspaper, Mr Garnett registers his concern that the SRA will duck the issue of replacing the old high-speed trains "and go for something cheap and nasty such as the voyagers."

He added: "These are not a comfortable train for long journeys over three hours. They have taken the fun out of train travel."

Train builders were not stepping forward with new designs for high quality long distance trains, he complained.

A Virgin spokesman said, however, that since 2002 when the company began "Operation Princess" which increased service on the Crosscountry network with voyager cars, the number of passengers had increased by 40 per cent and satisfaction rates among customers were in excess of 85 per cent. Punctuality and reliability were improving and seats had been taken out to improve luggage space. "We totally refute any suggestion that they are cheap and nasty."

A spokesman for the authority said: "These are triple award-winning trains and Richard Bowker is proud of procuring them."

A spokesman for Mr Garnett sought to minimise the damage created by the remarks. The GNER chief executive had briefed trade journalists and had spoken "passionately" about the network's need for a new high speed train. "He believes that rather than have our fleet undergoing refurbishment after refurbishment, passengers deserve a new train."

The spokesman, who was present at the briefing, said he could not recall the "cheap and nasty" quote. Mr Garnett "was not casting aspersions on the voyager as such. He believes they have made a major contribution to raising standards in the industry. It is just that we believe we need a more appropriate journey experience from trains operating for three or four hours."