Can Virgin’s East Coast comms strategy continue to build momentum or will it hit the buffers?
“We will try to make it sing.” That was Richard Branson’s promise when Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) took over Britain’s flagship network in March.
The tycoon promised to revolutionise the East Coast mainline after a five-year spell under public ownership, delivering new jobs and better services.
Using Virgin and Stagecoach’s experience of operating the West Coast Main Line as a template for the franchise, the Inter City Railways consortium of Stagecoach Group and Virgin Holdings promised to replace the old rolling stock and take on more customer-facing people, ensuring both services “have the same sparkle”.
Despite PR activity including chocolates being handed out at stations, free massages, shoe-shining and Richard Branson serving drinks on-board to mark the launch, weekend engineering works meant that the first official service, the 7.45am from Leeds, was actually a bus replacement service.
The inaugural service proved what many in the rail comms industry know. No matter how good your PR, operationally you are at the mercy of influences outside of your control – in this case Network Rail.
This is illustrative of the myriad challenges VTEC is facing with any attempts to make the East Coast ‘sing’.
In terms of its next steps and developing a successful comms strategy there are a number of things it needs to consider.
VTEC is operating in a largely negative media environment where many are looking for it to fail. Anti-privatisation and anti–Virgin media have already carried pieces highlighting passengers claiming they are struggling to find low enough prices and questioning Virgin’s running of the East Coast line, particularly when it comes to the changes made to the East Coast reward scheme.
But for the vast majority of passengers it’s been business as usual. Besides a raft of red posters marking the start of Virgin’s £10m above-the-line marketing activity, new livery and new staff uniforms, I don’t think the majority of passengers will have noticed a lot of change.
The first two months has been a period of bedding in, with the new operator implementing services, getting up to speed and getting to know staff.
The new custodians of the franchise did a lot of shouting before they won the contract and, after a low key start, it will be interesting to see what they have planned.
As well as the day-to-day running of the services and the general comms, there are a number of big issues that the marketing and stakeholder teams are going to have to tackle.
Over the coming months, people will start to hear more about the infrastructure improvement plans across the northern rail network, including HS2, HS3, electrification and IEP. This will invariably lead people to start asking what’s happening on the East Coast Main Line.
A lot will have been going on behind the scenes for the East Coast team in terms of planning, but the operators will need to start developing and delivering an engagement strategy for communicating their vision, not only to customers but also to stakeholders.
And given the infrastructure improvements in the pipeline, there may well be some competition on the horizon for East Coast with a potential threat from open access operators (OAA).
Virgin’s bitter rivals First Group have lodged an application with the ORR for permission to operate five services between Edinburgh and London along the East Coast line from 2018.
Alliance Rail, which operates Grand Central, also has plans to resurrect the much loved Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) brand. The rail group has applied to introduce a new direct express train service on the East Coast Main Line between London King’s Cross and stations in West Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to commence in December 2017.
More operators could mean more choice of services and tough competition when it comes to communicating brand, price and customer service to win consumers over. And it will be something First Group will not shy away from in any PR campaign.
The Government has never been a big fan of OAAs but they score highly in Passenger Focus reports when it comes to consumers’ satisfaction. A previous application in 2008 was rejected by the DfT on the principle that it would interfere with the available paths on the line and there have been no substantial infrastructure changes since then or reduction in paths currently being used by operators.
Virgin has a reputation for PR “sparkle” and, with a raft of improvements for passengers promised under its eight-year deal with the Government, it isn’t short of positive plans and campaign content to woo passengers and influence positive customer relations.
I can’t wait to see what tunes they choose to sing their strategy songs to!