Lean machine: Sir Richard at Euston / Casey Gutteridge/CPG
The man who pays his way

As a career choice, close personal protection – the bodyguard business – had not occurred to me until Wednesday morning, when, unwittingly, I was assumed to be Sir Richard Branson's minder. The bearded billionaire was due at Euston station in London for a 9am briefing about a £50m boost for Virgin Trains: everything from better Wi-Fi to a "Teddy Tracking" service for re-uniting children with lost toys. Direct trains to the capital from Blackpool and Shrewsbury are also about to be restored. But I was keen to talk to him about planes and spaceships as well as trains.

At 8.59 precisely, Sir Richard and I converged on the concourse, and walked down the ramp to platform 16 together. The looks and body language from passengers seemed to read: ooh, there's that Richard Branson, and why didn't his minder choose to wear a better-fitting suit?

As the Virgin boss chooses not to surround himself with heavies, train company staff could freely approach to shake Sir Richard's hand. One of them looked old enough to have been with the firm since 9 March 1997, when Virgin Trains began the post-privatisation franchise on the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

In the intervening 17 years, the business end of Euston station has remained bleak: a gloomy example of what happens when you mix one million tons of concrete with zero imagination. But much else has improved, starting with the fleet of tilting trains – an engineering fix to enable 21st-century rolling stock to travel at high speed along a track configured by Victorians.

"British Rail had had Pendolinos and they hadn't worked out," says Sir Richard, recalling the Advanced Passenger Train that introduced Cape Horn-levels of travel sickness to the London-Glasgow line before being unceremoniously shunted into the sunset in 1984.

"Our team had been brave enough to say, 'Even though they failed, doesn't mean they won't work for us'." Some passengers still find the tilting mechanism makes them a bit wobbly, especially if they have enjoyed a couple of on-board Tilting Ciders. But the rail referendum has proved positive, with a four-fold increase in passenger numbers during the Virgin tenure.

The surge in popularity is the result of many improvements, including billions of pounds of public investment in the West Coast Main Line that has cut the London-Manchester journey time to as little as two hours. The time advantage, combined with sophisticated pricing that rewards flexibility and advance planning, has made the train the natural way to travel between the North West and the South East.

Virgin's Tilting Cider happens to be made on the opposite shore: at the Thistly Cross Cidershed in Dunbar. The Scottish town is astride the East Coast Main Line, Virgin's rail rival from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The last franchisee on the route, National Express, handed back the keys in 2009, and the government was forced to step in. Since then, services on the line from Edinburgh, Newcastle, and York to London have thrived in the hands of nimble and visionary management and a dedicated workforce. But Sir Richard rejects calls to bring the railways back into public ownership: "There are certainly people who forget what British Rail was like. That's slightly worrying when you see talk of bringing back nationalisation. Nationalised companies, by and large, do not work. If there's any good example of that, it's the old British Rail and Virgin Trains on the West Coast – the radical difference that's been made. If you talk to people of that age, they do remember. And if they don't remember, I remind them."

Let me remind you that Virgin Trains is one of the shortlisted candidates for the East Coast line.

It is rocket science

Virgin's transport adventures have never been price-led, which helps to explain why Branson's intercontinental airline, Virgin Atlantic, is still flying when many low-cost rivals are not.

"When we started 30 years ago, we were competing with 18 different American carriers," says Sir Richard. "People like Air Florida, Pan Am, TWA, People Express. It's fascinating that they've all disappeared. If you're going to take on a big guy, just make sure you're much better than them, and then you'll survive."

With rivalry on the ground and in the skies so intense, it must have been a relief 10 years ago to find that the market for sending tourists into orbit at $250,000 a pop was not exactly saturated with competition for Virgin Galactic. But the journey into space has proved short of heavenly.

"It's been tough. The thing that's proved really difficult is rocket science. It's taken three or four years longer than we thought. But between now and Christmas we'll be doing test flights, then by the spring of next year I hope to be up and away."

Senior service

This year Sir Richard celebrates half a century in business, making a difference at the same time as making a fortune. Four years ago, he qualified for a Senior Railcard. He's ahead, so will he quit? No.

"I've been 50 years in business, somehow survived, still enjoying every minute of it. I'll continue till I drop, I love what I do, love creating things. Virgin is in the strongest position it's ever been. You and I will still be talking in 20 years time." By then, perhaps I will have acquired the physique, demeanour and wardrobe of a real bodyguard.

Watch Simon Calder's full conversation with Sir Richard Branson online at bit.ly/Branson50

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