It is not always that I agree with the bearded one, as Sir Richard Branson is affectionately called, for reasons which I will explain later; but I agree with his recent plea for stability on West Coast Main Line.
Two weeks ago, I arrived at Euston Station to board the 9.17 Virgin Train from Euston to Crewe, along with most of the House of Commons. We were all heading north to importune the voters of Crewe in the then imminent by-election. However, the departure board made it clear that there were not going to be any departures for some time. All the trains were cancelled because of signalling problems.
The Tory MP’s had access to superior intelligence and discovered that the best way to get north was to walk to Marylebone Station, go to Birmingham and change. We tiptoed out of Euston without giving this valuable information to the other parties.
I discovered later that there had been similar problems on other days, and that there will be substantial disruptions at week-ends for some time to come – which led to the bearded one’s plea for stability.
Why do I not always back his judgement?
When I was privatising the railways, allies were few and far between. But one was Richard Branson who shared my vision of a railway better run by the dynamism of the private sector, particularly if part of it was run by him. Franchise after franchise was advertised and bid for, but his name never came out of the hat. Until, right at the end, West Coast Main Line came down the franchise track. Virgin Trains put in the highest bid and won. I duly turned up at Euston Station on the first day of privatised operation. We were photographed together in the cab of an engine, newly painted with the Virgin logo, and Richard’s teeth providing the necessary flash for the cameras. It was Richard and George.
Shortly afterwards, John Major called the 1997 General Election. If Richard Branson had been an ally during privatisation, the Labour Party had not. Every line of the Bill had been opposed, every sale challenged, with threats of renationalisation, if not confiscation. When Tony Blair launched the election campaign, imagine my surprise when it was hosted by the bearded one, aboard a privatised Virgin Train. It was no longer Richard and George; but Richard and Tony.
But we are now as one, so far as disruption on the West Coast Main Line is concerned. A man was reportedly on a train from Euston to Glasgow, which he had boarded without a ticket. The journey was not without incident. Delays at Watford, Bletchley, Rugby and Stafford, leading to late running by some two hours.
Accosted by the ticket collector, he confessed he had boarded the train without a ticket. He asked the collector for a half from Euston to Glasgow. “But you are not under 16” said the collector. “I was when I got on the train” he replied.