Sunday, 28 December 2014

An open letter to Virgin Trains

Dear Virgin Trains

Many thanks for your sweet email last night, in which you asked what I thought of my journey with you yesterday. On a scale of 0-10, you wanted to know how likely I am to recommend your company to my friends, family or colleagues.

I replied 0, and when you asked why, my reply began with the words: "You must be joking …" I thought you might like a fuller explanation, because so far, amid the chaos and recriminations surrounding yesterday's rail fiasco, you've got off undeservedly lightly.

We booked our tickets to Cumbria in October. Then, just a few weeks later, you sent me an ominous-sounding email, entitled, insultingly, I thought, "Don't be a pudding."

You said that because of essential engineering work over the Christmas period (work that you had somehow forgotten to mention when I bought our tickets), you advised me to postpone my return journey. (Question: if I book a rented cottage in the Lake District, why do you think postponing my journey is even an option?)

There was an alternative: you said I could travel back to London via Preston, Manchester and Sheffield. Call me clairvoyant if you like, but that didn't sound to me like such a great idea. But I phoned you anyway, and a very helpful person at your call centre somewhere in India took me through the timetable to see how it might work.

Could I make seat reservations? Ah, that would require four separate phone calls, to four separate train companies. That's when we decided to rent a car instead. Yes, as it turned out, it was the right decision, although 10 hours for a journey of just under 300 miles is not the best testament to the health of the UK's motorway network. (Nothing to do with bad weather, by the way, just the usual lane closures.)

So, Virgin Trains, here's what you should have done. First, you should have warned me when I booked our tickets of the likelihood of major disruption. If Network Rail delayed telling you of their plans (and, by the way, I feel for the thousands of rail engineers who slaved away over Christmas -- I do understand the need for track maintenance and upgrades), you should have said so, threatened to sue them, and offered me a full refund.

Second, you should not -- definitely not -- have sent out that crass, automated email last night. It was plain insulting.

As it happens, I love travelling by train. Earlier this year, I crossed Europe almost entirely by rail, with no trouble at all. The UK's railway system is a disgrace. I know it's not all your fault, but you really shouldn't have sent me that email last night. And yes, I do want that refund.

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