Please explain yourself, Sir Richard

'The Independent on Sunday' invites the Virgin rail boss to answer our angry readers' many complaints
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The Independent Online

Hundreds of readers have written to our Passenger Power campaign in the four months since it began giving voice to their anger about the shoddy treatment they receive from all sectors of the British transport industry.

Hundreds of readers have written to our Passenger Power campaign in the four months since it began giving voice to their anger about the shoddy treatment they receive from all sectors of the British transport industry.

But one subject dominates: Sir Richard Branson has attracted an astonishing mailbag of complaints about poor time-keeping, overcrowded and filthy carriages, and the quite extraordinary cost of many journeys on his West Coast Mainline and Cross Country rail franchises.

The editor of The Independent on Sunday, Janet Street-Porter, last week personally invited Sir Richard to meet our readers and answer their many criticisms.

He has already suffered from some very public disasters, such as the occasion when a Virgin train delayed Labour's cabinet ministers on their way to the 1997 victory conference in Blackpool.

But Sir Richard must also tackle something more damaging still: the everyday experience of ordinary readers and travellers who now associate Virgin with incompetence and failure.

If Sir Richard accepts the challenge, he could start with an explanation of his prices for early morning travel, prices so high they exclude thousands of ordinary people from key routes every day.

There was a huge response when Passenger Power highlighted the case of pensioner Valerie Evans, who needs regular hospital treatment in London for a degenerative condition. But, as we explained, she can no longer afford to pay the £82 that Sir Richard Branson charges for her journeys from Warwickshire.

There are plenty more in her position. Roy Bowden immediately wrote to explain that he, too, was struggling to pay Sir Richard's prices. Mr Bowden needs to accompany his son to Royal Brompton Hospital in west London where, twice a year, he has a morning appointment for a chronic lung complaint. But, because Virgin charges each of them £150 return for an early-morning trip from Stockport, they are obliged to travel the night before and stay in a London hotel, missing school and work in the process.

Sir Richard's early -morning tickets are the most expensive in Britain and, arguably, in Europe. Carl Hodgkinson from Grimsargh, near Preston, made the point succinctly. "Unfortunately Virgin have a monopoly of the West Coast Main Line which is surely against the basic principles of privatisation," he wrote. "In my experience there are some excellent bargains around if you are prepared to hunt them down, but the disgraceful service offered by Virgin is one I will not be taking up again."

The complaints do not stop there as, despite Virgin's promise to produce a railway of the future, there are few aspects of its services which have so far emerged with credit.

Why, for example, are disappointed passengers denied proper cash compensation when, yet again, Sir Richard has let them down? Linda Holdridge from Chorlton-cum-Hardy, near Manchester, was angered not only by the high cost of her trip, but also by the "paltry" £17 in vouchers she received after a terrible journey that ruined an emotional family visit to war graves in Flanders. Vouchers, she pointed out, are no use to her elderly mother and aunt, who are unlikely to try Virgin trains again.

And why are heartfelt complaints to the Virgin "customer services" department met with nothing more personal than a computer-generated mail-out?

"They refuse to answer specific questions and instead send form letters which thank you for contacting them in terms which assume that your sole reason for writing to assist them with their marketing strategy," wrote the Rev Michael Ainsworth from Manchester.

Tony Baldwinson, also from Manchester, complained about the lack of specially adapted lavatories for the disabled on Virgin services - toilets that, though once common, now are seldom in place.

Even Sir Richard's internet booking service, Trainline, is causing headaches. Rachel Jones from Exeter, for example, wrote to complain about the poor service she received when she tried to travel to London. Trainline failed to send tickets to her home, then failed to have them ready at Exeter station. They also failed to send replacements to Waterloo station for her return journey, and finally took six weeks to give her a refund.

There is no doubt that delays and breakdowns, once synonymous with Virgin, are much reduced in comparison with previous years, but not enough to satisfy our readers.

Geoff Poole from Prescot, Merseyside, had no worries about the cost of his group trip - an impressive £36 return for four people from Warrington to Edinburgh. But after a wait of two hours and 40 minutes with no lights or air conditioning on his return, he doubted the wisdom of that particular bargain.

Sara Gill from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, suffered a morale-sapping five-hour delay thanks to Sir Richard when, with Virgin Cross Country, she travelled from Bristol to Leeds.

"Throughout our standstill the air conditioning did not function," she wrote. "The few litter bins, which were small and well hidden, were overflowing; therefore there were pieces of rubbish heaped up everywhere. I also had the unfortunate experience of sampling your 'Ham and tomato chutney sandwich' - an experience I would gladly have missed. All in all this is the worst train journey I have ever been on."

Sir Richard and his spokesman, Chris Green, have produced many excuses and explanations, ranging from the poor state of the infrastructure they inherited to the fact that, by 2002, Virgin has to make enough money to start paying the government for the privilege of running the West Coast Line.

The evidence, however, is that our readers have remained resolutely unimpressed. Perhaps Sir Richard will be more convincing in person.