Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from Virgin Trains (AWC 30)


1 Virgin Trains operates services on the West Coast Mainline, serving London, the West Midlands, North West, Scotland and North Wales. In 2009/10 were carried 26 million passengers.


2 The second period of severe weather in December was without precedent during Virgin Trains tenure of the West Coast mainline (1997 to date).

3 As an operator where many customers reserve seats we believe that adhering as far a possible to the standard published timetable during severe weather avoids confusion.

4 Our approach maintains the usual day-to-day baseline against which punctuality is measured, rather than recording punctuality against a slimmer emergency timetable.

5 Virgin Trains operates a learning culture: lessons were learned from previous periods of severe weather and we have identified new actions to take forward.

Our general approach during severe weather

6 As the biggest operator of long-distance services in Britain, Virgin Trains has markedly increased the number of customers booking in advance and reserving seats. Half our customers now reserve a seat when buying a ticket and this has a significant influence on operational decisions taken at times of disruption.

7 Our starting point during the extended period of bad weather is that ‘emergency’ timetables should be introduced on the West Coast Mainline only when there is no alternative, as such a timetable can make it very difficult for customers to understand the correct train for their reserved seats.

8 Maintaining advertised services is also important as we need to connect to local services. These local services are planned around our timetable in many instances, and a change to our core timings has significant impact on the customers of other train operators, such as Transpennine Express, Northern Trains, London Midland and ScotRail.

Our approach during December’s severe weather

9 Virgin Trains therefore ran a standard advertised timetable throughout most of the bad weather, although this inevitably had a detrimental impact on performance statistics, as shown below. Other train operators had differing issues to contend with but, in the case of Virgin Trains, we are clear that while running an emergency timetable would undoubtedly have improved those statistics, it would have led to a poorer and more confusing service for our customers.

10 Despite the severe weather, Virgin Trains sold record numbers of seats in the run-up to Christmas and it was essential to put the customer first in planning any changes to timetables.

11 A key issue during the second spell of bad weather from December 18-24 was to ensure that sufficient services were available for two of the busiest travel days of the year, December 23 and 24, when many customers travel for their Christmas breaks.

12 Therefore on three days (December 20-22) Virgin Trains made some pre-planned cancellations - on the most frequently-served routes to minimise waiting times – to ensure that repairs to trains damaged by ice could be made ahead of the pre-Christmas rush. These changes reduced services from three services each hour to two each hour on the Birmingham and Manchester routes, but less frequent services to other destinations were protected.

13 This contingency plan meant that the large numbers of customers travelling immediately before Christmas on December 23 and 24 were accommodated, including many additional customers who had transferred from airlines.

14 On many occasions, staff assisted customers stranded by airport closures and major disruption on other rail and road services. Virgin Trains worked closely with the Scottish Government to add services to ensure that customers unable to fly were able to reach Scotland for Christmas. In addition, almost 300 airline customers diverted to Edinburgh airport from Gatwick travelled by train to London free of charge. Some train services were altered to enable extra trains to serve those destinations most affected by airport closures ie Glasgow and Holyhead (for ferry travel to and from Ireland).

15 During the two periods of heavy snow, we faced varying weather conditions on different sections of our route. While conditions in Scotland and northern England were poor throughout most of the period, conditions elsewhere were less predictable. For instance, especially severe weather affected services in Anglesey, Lanarkshire and London on successive days, making advance planning difficult.

16 In such fluctuating circumstances, creating an emergency timetable was not the best solution for Virgin Trains and our core aim was to maintain services as close to the advertised service as possible. This approach also minimised the risk of conflicting information appearing through different information channels.

17 Our services were supported by a wide variety of customer communications via National Rail Enquiry Service and through our own website, customer relations department, calls centres and stations, as well as through social media, as described below.

18 Overwhelmingly, customer reaction to the fact that our staff maintained services to all destinations remained positive, and Virgin Trains is proud that its staff and partners in the rail industry ensured that services were operated to all destinations throughout the period in very difficult conditions.

Maintaining services

19 As explained above, Virgin Trains did not introduce emergency timetables, despite the beneficial effect that this step could have had on our Public Performance Measure (PPM) statistics.

20 There were two periods of heavy disruption caused by the snow.

21 From 29 November to 8 December inclusive there were 204 full cancellations1[1] – 6.4% of the 3170 trains that should have run under the standard timetable. There were 131 trains (4.1%) which were part-cancelled2[2]. The Public Performance Measure (PPM) was 52.1%.

22 From 18 December to 24 December inclusive there were 419 full cancellations3[1] – 19.8% of the 2120 trains that should have run under the standard timetable. There were 126 trains (5.9%) which were part-cancelled4[2]. PPM was 13.3%.

23 The full cancellations were largely the structured reductions to two trains per hour on the London to Birmingham and Manchester routes, on three days. These days were chosen as days of lower passenger demand, to enable repairs to trains to be completed to run a full service on the busiest days immediately before Christmas.  

Customer communications

24 Following previous experience, we have subjected our website to some severe testing – up to five times the level of the peak experienced during previous bad weather. We were therefore confident that our website was robust, and this proved to be the case.

25 During the periods of disruption there was a significant increase in visits to, with site performance unaffected by this additional traffic. From 29 November – 8 December, visits rose by 16% and between 18 – 24 December by 35% on previous weeks. Monday 20 December was the busiest day, with 104,347 visits to the site, an increase of 103% on the previous week.

26 Due to the significant increase (749%) in visits to the ‘Updates’ page providing travel information, it is clear that customers were using the website to gather information. The website was regularly updated throughout these periods with a prominent alert message on the homepage.


27 The Virgin Trains Facebook page, launched in May last year, proved an invaluable tool for communicating with customers in real-time, through a number of regular ‘status post’ updates on travel information. The page recorded a 66% increase in logged-in users, being checked over 28,000 times, demonstrating that customers have turned to social media channels for information in times of disruption.


28 We used twitter updates at regular intervals.

29 All available station staff provided updated information to customers, and posters were produced detailing services.

30 Train Managers have been issued with blackberry handsets. This has significantly improved our ability to disseminate information to train crews, allowing better reception than pagers and the ability to send more detailed messages.

31 Our customer relations team tend to deal with more complex enquiries but there was a much lower volume of calls than during the bad weather of 2009/10, suggesting that the provision of easily accessible information had answered many queries.

Preparation for severe weather

32 Informed by lessons learned during disruption during the winter of 2009/10, Virgin Trains and its rail industry partners took specific action to minimise disruption during the recent poor weather. Close attention was paid to particular incidents that had occurred the previous winter, in particular the events surrounding the suspension of Eurostar services. The following items are examples of this learning:

Contingency equipment supplies

33 Additional supplies of windscreens and side windows were ordered in advance to ensure full supply during extended bad weather.

Overhead wire performance

34 During the summer a programme of overhead wire inspection was carried out by Network Rail, identifying equipment at risk of failure in low temperatures, and these were replaced.

35 Network Rail and Virgin Trains jointly invented an overhead wire monitoring system, which was attached to the pantographs of two Pendolino trains to ensure the wire remained in good condition.

36 Only one incident of overhead wire failure occurred, in stark contrast to the winter of 2009/10. Network Rail also ran locomotives during the night to prevent build-up of ice on wires, which had not been done before. In addition, we used rear pantograph operation on Pendolino trains, which reduced the amount of ice from overhead wires damaging train windows; this was also a new approach.

Depot/station clearing

37 Round-the-clock work was carried out to ensure all paths and at-risk areas of depots were kept clear for easy access to trains overnight when temperatures were at their lowest. Similar overnight attention was paid to station platforms and approaches and to station car parks to prevent customer accidents.

Evacuation preparation

38 Learning from the investigation into problems experienced on Eurostar trains in 2009/2010, Virgin Trains spent considerable time training and preparing for the risk of evacuation in poor weather. A new training vehicle based at Crewe enables staff to be trained in evacuation procedures. The result was that a train stranded in a remote part of Cumbria was evacuated in less than an hour.

Fuel supplies

39 Close work with Network Rail and local authorities ensured that roads serving depots were kept clear to enable fuel supplies

40 Additional fuel storage tanks were provided at the Polmadie depot in Glasgow to ensure that supplies of diesel could be obtained for more than 48 hours.

Additional staff

41 Members of staff worked overtime and on days off to ensure spare cover for drivers and train managers unable to reach work. Hotel accommodation was also provided for train managers and catering staff to help them start early shifts.

Christmas working

42 Virgin Trains covered the cost of additional staffing at major depots so that the backlog of train repair work could be carried out on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. This ensured a rapid recovery in January this year, when services quickly operated at 90% punctuality.

Track preparation

43 Network Rail worked tirelessly to ensure that the northern part of the network remained open in extremely difficult circumstances. In addition, ballast height was kept low to prevent widespread damage to trains caused by ice and ballast.

Future improvements

44 The weather conditions during December 2010 were unprecedented during the period that Virgin Trains has operated and inevitably they showed up areas that require further improvement.

45 Virgin Trains is reviewing its performance during the period, and working closely with partners in the industry to established improved procedures.

46 Some initial ideas for improvement are listed below, but we will also take account of the findings of reviews such as the inquiry by the Commons Transport Committee.

a) Network Rail recently created an Integrated Train Planning System (ITPS) which is central to ensuring that timetable changes are made the day prior to any changes. However, there were mixed experiences and some information could not be loaded onto the system, or in some cases both the original timetable and amended timetable were shown to the public, causing confusion. Virgin Trains believes this system does need to improved urgently in order to ensure that there is clear and reliable information available to customers at times of disruption. There is a need for more regular uploading of information so that decisions on amended timetables can be made to take into account late changes in weather conditions.

The integration of timetable information systems needs to be brought under the auspices of ATOC and enhanced so that all systems use the same timetable data which can be uploaded smoothly.

b) Additional miniature snow ploughs would be useful in future to help cope with the threat of drifting snow in high winds. It would also help to have more Network Rail ‘snowmen’ stationed near vulnerable parts of the network to deal quickly with points failures, rather than be dependent on reaching remote spots by roads which became impassable.

c) The vulnerability of Heathrow airport was again clear, and a contingency plan involving train companies and other public transport operators could be developed by the Department for Transport, for use in the event of future closures.

d) Virgin Trains will continue to work closely with our train manufacturers, Alstom and Bombardier, and learn from their global experience of working in harsh weather conditions.

February 2011



[3] [1] Trains which ran for less than 50% of scheduled route mileage.

[4] [2] Trains which ran for less than their full scheduled mileage, but more than 50% of it.