GNER boss: Virgin trains are better

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The Independent Online

The rail chief who denounced Sir Richard Branson's new Voyager train as "cheap and nasty'' has been forced to eat his words in a highly embarrassing internal memorandum.

The rail chief who denounced Sir Richard Branson's new Voyager train as "cheap and nasty'' has been forced to eat his words in a highly embarrassing internal memorandum.

Christopher Garnett, head of Great North Eastern Railways (GNER), has admitted that the much-criticised Virgin rolling stock which he claimed has "taken the fun out of train travel'' is rated much higher by passengers than his own trains.

Virgin's Voyagers operates on the sprawling CrossCountry network which has hitherto attracted rock-bottom ratings by passengers, while Mr Garnett's ageing vehicles run between London and Edinburgh in an operation which had been regarded as Britain's best long-distance service.

For the first time in its history GNER has been knocked off its perch at a time when Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, is about to put the franchise out to tender.

What makes matters worse for GNER is that Mr Bowker was responsible for commissioning the Voyagers while he was a senior director at Virgin.

In a startling admission Mr Garnett said that even with extra cleaning and refurbishment his rolling stock will "struggle'' against the allegedly cheap and nasty Voyagers.

In a letter to employees the GNER chief executive admits that his "greatest shock'' was that Virgin crews - battle-hardened by years of coping with irate passengers - were rated as more helpful and friendly that those employed by his company.

"Personally I don't believe this and personally my experience tells me otherwise from the feedback we receive," Mr Garnett wrote. "However, what is probably happening is that there is a halo effect from the Virgin new trains which affect the passengers' total perception of the journey.

"The sad truth is, however, that the perception really is reality and, therefore, we all need to pick up this mantle with vigour and take even greater responsibility for 'owning' our passengers' experiences when they are with us to reverse the perception that has been created.''

He admitted that his unexpected memorandum was a "real shout for help'' to his employees to help the company to regain its top spot.

He conceded that it was "unfortunate'' that news of his company's flagging performance was emerging at a time when his franchise was up for grabs.

"The fact that Virgin CrossCountry have now received higher scores than us sets us a big challenge and one that we have to rise to in the coming months,'' he said.

Mr Garnett is keen to replace his ageing high-speed trains, but has rejected any suggestion that the Voyager might fit the bill. He believes that 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 longer journeys.

Customers had complained that there was a lack of luggage space and toilet facilities on the Voyagers and that the food available in the train "shops'' was limited and expensive.

A spokesman for GNER said the letter was written to staff in an attempt to boost performance: "It was a mixture of encouragement and exhortation. We are confident of our record since GNER was established eight years ago, but certainly not complacent and that was reflected in the letter."

He pointed out that a possible bid for the GNER, tabled by Virgin, and Deutsche Bahn collapsed on Thursday.

A spokesman for Virgin said: "Mr Garnett's letter simply confirms what we have been saying for many months. We see Virgin CrossCountry becoming one of the pre-eminent long distance operators."