Brands can be powerful vehicles of value and expectation, and when the brand is Virgin, we expect a lot. Virgin is the brand that takes old, uncompetitive, stodgy industries like pensions, air travel and rock music and re-invents them as we would like them to be, inspired by the company’s intuitive founder Richard Branson.
Virgin is an emotion, a signpost to what is normally the cutting edge in personal quality and choice. But if the experience of the brand doesn’t match the expectation, those brand values are in trouble. Extending Virgin values and success with airlines to trains made a lot of sense on paper, but inheriting tired rolling stock and living through a series of crises in our rail track infrastructure since railway privatisation meant the reality was a nightmare. Even the most ardent fan of Virgin has questioned its brand and its West Coast line has become the butt of the kind of jokes that used to be reserved for the likes of British Rail or Ratners.
The 12.30pm journey from Swindon to Paddington was the kind of experience people have come to expect from British trains: no food for lunch, no ice for the (Virgin) cola, annoying graphics on the place mat and an unpleasant smell wafting down the carriage. The big red shiny logo on the side may promise much, but it’s still the same old train underneath.
So Virgin has gone back to basics. It has taken the most fundamental action possible: design a new train from scratch. Hiding away on Platform 4 at Reading Station, but still catching the eye of ever vigilant trainspotters, was the gleaming new Virgin Cross Country four-carriage train. After three years of design work and a £2bn investment, Virgin has created the first completely new train in the UK for 30 years, working with design consultancy Priestman Goode to create a train that redefines our experience of train travel.
Most people have basic requirements for rail travel. We want trains that turn up on time and get us to our destination quickly and safely. If forced to spend time on them, then other stuff starts to get important, like comfort, noise, decent food and fresh air. So if Virgin decides to design a new train, doesn’t that mean it’s just glossing over the real problems, painting over the cracks of rail reality?
Not in Virgin’s case. It has developed two new trains that tackle the core problems of rail travel head on, and then set new standards of design and quality to make sure the service reflects the company’s core values. Virgin has come up with a train for the West Coast line that has the potential to travel at 185 miles per hour, if Railtrack can provide a track that can handle that speed.
The new train doesn’t have to brake for bends because it leans into them, and the one I rode on with Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman, the Cross Country, leans very well.
Leaning? Is that such a good idea? In the National Railway Museum in York (which houses the trains that used to be in London’s Science Museum), there is a very forlorn Advanced Passenger Train in a siding that acts as a warning from those engineers (possibly the ones who made Concorde too loud) who also knew that leaning got you there quicker. But they forgot about the unfortunate passenger experience that came along with it, as meals slid and stomachs turned.
But leaning is back in. Following on from successful Spanish trains, Virgin realised that a combination of a leaning and lightweight, efficient engines that accelerate quicker and break faster could trim journey times on even short cross country journeys. But no one had developed a leaning train with four carriages, so Virgin commissioned Belgian train manufacturer Bombadier to start from scratch and develop one, to suit those routes that link between the inter-city speeders. ‘It’s the commuters’ and mums’ and kids’ train,’ explains Priestman.
At the start of the project, suppliers created designs for the new train, but Virgin soon realised it had a problem. With no in-house design team, Virgin values are held by its managers, who work with a wide variety of design resources to deliver the brand value and experience. They realised that the key to delivering those values in the train was design. Putting the right designer at the head of the team would put the customer experience first. For Virgin it was vital that the designs reflect its own values, emotions and level of service. Experience in transportation design might be invaluable to the successful outcome of the project, but the initial vision had to be right.
As Branson explained in an interview for the Great Expectations exhibition, ‘The challenge was to turn Britain’s dilapidated rail network into the world’s best. We needed to find a design team to create wonderful new trains that not only ran smoothly, but were a joy to travel on.’
To achieve this Virgin appointed Priestman Goode, which has an international reputation for charismatic and innovative product design. This was the group’s first train, but the team had a track record with Virgin Atlantic on the Upper Class Seat. Virgin recognised that the consultancy had the Virgin DNA in its blood.
‘We started with the carriage extrusion and almost complete freedom,’ describes Priestman. So at the start of the project, Priestman, with his partners Nigel Goode and Ian Scoley, created the Red Book. This was a book of ideas and visions of what the Virgin Train experience should be like. It showed seats, colours and trim details. It had shops and a real coffee machine, and it defined the customer experience in every possible way.
Priestman Goode was at the head of a team of consultancies, which included Start Design for graphics and livery, JHL as collaborator on interior layouts and Jones Garrard, which worked on initial concepts and went on to develop the detail and implementation of the Priestman Goode vision. Virgin manager Ashley Stockwell worked with the design team and the manufacturers to ensure that the Virgin vision remained intact.
Three years on and the Cross Country train is a reality, with the West Coast version following soon. Sitting on the platform, the Cross Country might not be as glamorous in concept as the 185mph train, but, capable of 125mph and soon 140mph, it is a radical and innovative solution. On the outside, its appearance is the result of peculiar British regulations: by the time you have the driver viewing angle, the rail to hang a ladder on so the windscreen can be cleaned and the brief changed from infrequent coupling to frequent coupling, you get the shape you get, explains Priestman. Design manager Scoley, who worked with Priestman as the project manager on both Virgin trains, agrees that legislation is a major driver of train shape. Where form and graphic lines merge beautifully on the West Coast line train, they are more accidental on the Cross Country train.
The tilting of the train means that the sides are angled to avoid the sides of tunnels when in full tilt, and this does make the train feel taller and narrower inside. Furthermore, the tilting mechanism underneath the carriages means that all the stuff that normally goes there has to be fitted inside the carriage. The curved corridors and buffet car shapes are actually snaking around vital train components with ’25 miles of cabling packed into each carriage’. Visions of shops and lounge areas were not possible on this train, where wheelchair access requirements to the train and toilets ate into the floor plan, and maintaining the numbers of seats meant there was less space available.
On the train, lighting, colours and details are smooth and integrated, edges and corners are softer, more considered and less random. There are no rivets or aluminium edging anymore, and pseudo industrial diagonal warning stripes are playful, as well as functional, warnings of where carriage stops and door begins.
One of the most radical suggestions from the initial concept was for a real shop to replace the much derided buffet car. There is now a compact shop selling CDs, books and magazines, as well as coffee. A self-service cabinet gives more room and changes the feel of the service, making it less formal and more comfortable. The execution is stylish and inviting, serious and friendly at the same time, like a grown up Virgin brand with serious responsibility should look. It’s quite a shock to be on a train that seems to care more about you than the railway and the people who run it.
Aside from the style and feel, there are more basic innovations that leave you wondering why no one had done it before. A mains plug at every seat, in Standard and First Class. So simple, so brilliant, it’s a shock. It’s a real MK mains plug, not some laptop or Walkman thing. You could do your ironing or dry your hair on this train. The seats are curvaceous and comfortable, tables in First Class have soft edges that match the body’s contours and audio systems fitted between the seats, completing the feeling that this is an aircraft on wheels.
For Scoley, the achievement is that, ’90-95 per cent of the original vision is in the train, from the windows to door handles, the seats to the cutlery’. His job now has moved from one of engineering detail with Bombadier to what he describes as the ‘fluffy bits’ of service and delivery with Virgin, working on how food and other aspects of service are presented and delivered. ‘We are not just designing the plates, we have had a lot of ideas on how the service can be delivered,’ says Scoley. This becomes important when you consider that Virgin aspires to serve a cooked breakfast to 120 people in the time it takes to travel between Euston and Milton Keynes. It means automated systems for racking and dishwashing, and these have to be designed in. At the same time, a balance between quality and cost has to be managed because, as Scoley explains, ‘We have to control the level of compromise between the dream and the fixed price of the vehicle.’
Being the first new train for three decades, it was important to create an exemplar of design and service, so Virgin and Priestman Goode worked closely with the Joint Mobility Unit, formed by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Guide Dogs for the Blind, to make sure the considerations of all users were met. Thinking about sight impairment and 80 different types of blindness meant a lot of changes to original ideas. For instance, Priestman Goode thought it had done enough with a 150mm yellow border around the door, until the Joint Mobility Unit asked for 300mm. But in the end all the stakeholders came through highly pleased with the outcome.
Back on the train, you may be excited when you notice the airlock entry, with it’s deep blue ceiling, strong beam down-lighting and silver diagonal stripes on the doors, but this is lost in the interiors, especially in First Class. The colour of the carriage sides looks suspiciously like magnolia and the royal blue seats are a long way from Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. The original colour scheme was more dramatic and traces of green from earlier versions are still visible in the carpet, though Virgin toned down the final version.
Never mind though, the Virgin Train is very good and very important. It marks the change from engineering delivery to brand experience. Never again will putting a logo on a train and sprucing up the wine list be enough. It is an exemplar of design management, design vision and teamwork to overcome the problems of reality to deliver that vision.
If we want a high speed railway network that is as good as French or German systems, we need a lot of excellent engineering, core infrastructure investment and the political will to pay for it, but Virgin shows that innovative thinking that puts the passenger first is the starting point.
Now if the track could be a bit smoother and not be in a constant state of repair, and we were more confident about safety, things might get better. Then we can design the stations.