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Friday 26 May 2017

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A sad day for UK rail travel as Virgin prepares to bow out

The majestic Virgin Pendolino

Nige Burton remembers fondly the great days of Virgin Trains on the good old West Coast mainline

I love traveling on trains. In my many years of global adventures, some of my most memorable have involved railways. After a wonderful trip from Kiev to Yalta on Ukrainian overnight trains, I started to explore similar journeys in Russia, eventually braving the TransSiberian/TransMongolian from Moscow to Beijing. I adored every minute of it, from lazing in my cabin, reading or listening to music while taking ‘enforced rest’, to meandering along to the bar or restaurant car, exchanging pleasantries with the indigenous.

These agreeable experiences, coupled with a latent fear of flying, led me to experiment further, resulting in a pan-European odyssey commencing in London and winding up in Romania some eight countries later. And all within two and a half weeks.

Now this may sound very romantic, especially the bit where I got to wine and dine whilst whistling past a setting sun in the Transylvanian Alps, and so far removed from traveling on the Virgin West Coast line as to defy comparison. But the simple fact is that all this European wayfaring involves taking the Eurostar to either Paris or Brussels, and that means nothing wonderful could ever have really happened without my trusty Virgin Pendolino whisking me from Lancashire to Euston. And I’m not talking first class – most of my journeys were undertaken in standard, with the yummy offering of the buffet car being part of the staple; good honest grub at a fairly reasonable price, served at least by a character if not always with a smile. But, mostly, actually with the smile. Add to that the comfy seats, toilets that don’t aggravate my claustrophobia and comparatively rapid journey times, and it seems apparent to me that we have taken Mr Branson’s necessarily gradual improvements very much for granted these days – it’s a bit like not noticing your kids grow up because you’re there every day. If we look back at UK rail travel fifteen years ago, the present, much maligned, Virgin service is fantastic. Ok, it may not be perfect, but what is? And we’d all soon be very bored in a perfect world, I’m sure.

So when I heard that Virgin were losing the franchise, I shed a very real tear. These trains and their staff have been woven indelibly into my nomadic tapestry, they are the starting point of all my peripatetic magic. I shudder with every fibre of my being at the thought of losing this very important part of my life; my experience of FirstGroup to date only fills me with a toothachey dread. I’ve grown very accustomed to that comforting red and all that it means to me: the quality, the fun, the value (most of the time) and – yes, I’m going to say it – the reliability.

In a message to customers, Branson says “I would like to thank you personally for all your valuable support in the last 15 (years) as we prepare to say goodbye to Britain’s best-known train company, Virgin Trains.”

Well, if you’re listening Sir Richard, I’d just like to say the feeling’s mutual.

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