An open letter to Virgin Trains on behalf of someone who travels with a bike.
Welcome to my first open letter. I’m not really sure what an open letter really is. I think it’s basically some words masquerading as a letter but there’s no way it was ever going to get put in an envelope and mailed. It’s not even got any addresses on it. I reckon I should save my thoughts on open letters for my second open letter, you lot are here to hear me get stuck into Virgin Trains.
I expect some of you reading this, the ones puffing on giant cigars in a bath of money, are owners of Train operating companies. You’re probably just here to hear Richard Branson take a good kicking. You probably plan on ribbing him about it at the next annual Train Operators Gala Dinner. I’m fine with you getting some material out of this, but it’d also be great if you could listen too. I’ve not used your trains but I imagine they’re just as bad as Virgin’s for bike travellers. If they were any good I’d be reading open letters about them wouldn’t I?
So here’s how it came to be that I chose to write my first open letter, to a train company. I’ll never be able to give that honour to anyone else. Mr Branson, you will always be my first.
I lived in London for 7 years and finally got priced out. I’m never going to have much money due to being a bit lazy and not very evil. I now live up in the Peak District which is a wonderful place to be, even if it doesn’t have a single cereal café.
London and I refuse to let each other go, though. I still have work down there which means I have to travel to Capital City at least once a week. Either side of that journey I choose to ride my bike, and rather than keep a bike in each location, I take the radical step of bringing my bike with me.
I travel down from Manchester and there are some good things about the journey. Virgin have some really fast trains and I’m happy to trade off a bit of travel sickness for a tilty train that gets to London in just over 2 hours. I also can’t complain about the price, but that’s only because I travel at rubbish hours on weekends. Everyone who travels at convenient times really should think about complaining. Have you thought about writing an open letter?
It’s probably about time that I got to my actual complaints. I’m guessing that’s why you’re all still reading. Well this is how it goes.
The first thing that really fucks me off hard is the time it takes to book your bike onto the train. What, you mean it takes extra time? Yes it bloody does. Loads of it. This is the 21st century and I can send anyone in the world a picture of my genitals and have it disappear in seconds, yet when it comes to booking my bike on a Virgin Train I have to buy my ticket online and then phone someone in a call centre to ask for a bike reservation. On average this takes about 11 minutes. I know this because whenever I look at my phone as I silently scream “FOR FUCK’S SAKE” the phone’s screen shows me the duration of the call. It’s always 11 minutes. Apparently I have 11 minutes of patience. I think that is per week too. I can’t waist them all on this one phone call.
When you’ve finally confirmed your booking you get to write down a reference number which you can then exchange for an actual ticket for your bike. It’s a wonderful system. To save time you can just try and reserve a spot for your ride when you get to the station, but then you run the risk of the train being full up with bikes. On a Virgin train that means 3 bikes. Yup, on a train the length of most streets, there’s only room for 3 bikes.
Room for 3 bikes would be fine in a place where the bike is an anomaly, an exotic machine from another world, but this is Britain in 2016 and Bradley Wiggins has happened. Everyone’s on a bike these days, in London they even have specially created roads for them. I think that means that bikes are part of an integrated travel network. I can only presume that that network also includes trains. Trains and Bikes, you guys should really try and get along better. Trains, you need to stop listening to what cars say about bikes and just get to know them for yourself. They’re really nice if you give them time. Pretentious, yes, but they mean well. Bikes, you need to stop being so superior and jumping through red lights, then everyone will be a lot nicer to you.
Once you’ve reserved a place for your bike on a Virgin train you’d think that the people running that train would be expecting you, right? Wrong. They have absolutely no idea you’re coming and even less of an idea of where you’re going. Here’s how this plays out. You go through the barriers.
“You got a reservation for that bike mate?’
“Yes. Here it is.”
“Where you going to?”
You reply and then walk further down the platform where another red coated train guardian accosts you.
“Where you going, mate?”
You reply once again and then arrive at the carriage where you can deposit your bike. If you’re lucky there will be someone to unlock the door and let you on. Can you guess what they’re going to ask you?
“Where you going, mate?”
By this time you just want to scream MANCHESTER or LONDON of wherever it is you’re going. You only have 11 minutes of patience per week and you wasted those on a phone call.
Now I’ve been a little unfair here as there’s another way that this can play out. This one is very different to the previous scenario.
In this scenario you take your bike to the relevant carriage without meeting any train staff whatsoever. Everyone else boards the train and there are still 20 minutes until departure. They’ll be relaxing hard but you won’t.
10 minutes to go and no one has shown up to unlock the door.
5 minutes and still no one.
Remember you reserved your bike on this journey. You’d think someone would be expecting you.
2 minutes to go and you’re let on. Virgin trains have wasted all your patience and replaced it with a big does of anxiety. What a shitty trade.
The space for the 3 bikes is a pretty dark place too. You wouldn’t choose to go there. There are some straps and occasionally a box of train tools. It can kind of fit 3 bikes but you need to supervise as otherwise someone with a hybrid that weighs a ton will lean his pedal on your rear mech. If you’re really unlucky someone with a mountain bike got to the space first. It’s handlebars are wider than most roads and have used up all the space in the most inefficient way possible.
Back to the journey. You’ve already reserved your bike on the train, you’ve got no patience, and possibly a heightened feeling of anxiety, but you’re on board now. Time for a nap, in my case this is essential as I’m normally on the 5.25am train.
“Where you going, mate?”
I was deep there. Totally napping hard and this Bozo has woken me up with a question I’ve already answered, quite often several times.
It seems despite your bike reservation and the million people you’ve already answered, still no one knows where you’re going.
Even when you finally think they’ve grasped it you’re in for another treat when you reach the end of your journey. Remember your bike is locked in a special carriage. A situation that the staff will do their best to forget. 4 times now I’ve reached the end of my journey and no one has come to release me from the train. I’m not a passenger, I’m a prisoner.
I wonder if I’m really expecting too much from my travels on Virgin trains, but I’ve been on a Virgin plane before and they were definitely expecting me, and they were pretty happy for me to bring a load of heavy luggage with me. They even gave me a glass of wine. On top of that I’m pretty sure Richard Branson is building spaceships. I’m sure he’s not going to be happy when he finds out that I’m holding off on booking a trip until I can be sure I’m not going to be treated like a monster.
After all of this it’s only right that you offer Virgin Trains some feedback. What normally happens here is that you complain via the relevant page on the Virgin Trains website and then nothing happens. Then you tweet them about your complaint and miraculously your original complaint suddenly gets a reply.
If your complaint is strong enough then you’ll get a £25 travel voucher through the post. I’ve got four of them. Can you make it rain with four £25 vouchers? No you can’t. I’ve tried.
Having built up my vouchers I decided to use them to buy an actual ticket. Here’s where Virgin’s scam really fleeces you. This is the prestige of the whole magic trick.
You can’t use the vouchers online.
You can use them at the station ticket office.
But at the station ticket office you can’t get the discounted early-bird tickets that you get online.
So you can only use your vouchers to buy part of a full price ticket. The remainder costs about the same as a discounted online ticket.
The vouchers are meaningless.
At this point all you can do is applaud. Well played Virgin, Sir. Bloody well played.
I’d love for Virgin to improve their service for travellers with bikes and I’ve even offered to help them out. They’ve never taken me up on my offer.
Unfortunately I have no other choice but to continue to travel with Virgin and I’ll still be on the 5.25am train out of Manchester on Saturday, with my bike.
“Where you going, mate?”