16 May 2014
You might have noticed that Sir Richard Branson was in Scotland earlier this week.
On Monday afternoon we took a senior delegation of 20 Chamber directors and Platinum Partners through to Edinburgh for a meeting with Virgin Trains. And we asked small delegations from Edinburgh Chamber and Scottish Chambers to join us.
Virgin Trains provides Glasgow with the West Coast Main Line service to London, one of the city's most important transport links.
The team representing Virgin Trains could not have been more senior - Sir Richard Branson and Patrick McCall for Virgin Group with their 51% holding of VT and Sir Brian Souter from Stagecoach plc with a 49% holding.
The main business focused on views on the effectiveness of the WCML service, but of course both Virgin and Stagecoach have such diverse interests that the conversation naturally wandered well beyond the specifics of the trains business.
However it's worth emphasising just what has been achieved by Virgin with the WCML franchise. Passenger numbers have doubled, tilting Pendolino and Super Voyager trains have been introduced, journey times have been improved - albeit not to the levels now being discussed for High Speed Rail - yield management techniques have been introduced for ticketing and Virgin has placed a real emphasis on customer service. Indeed if Sir Richard Branson concentrated on one thing in his own remarks it was just how Virgin went about engaging the VT staff in the importance of the customer.
In my own contribution I welcomed VT's work to increase capacity to a genuine hourly service between Glasgow and London and recognised how strong customer satisfaction levels are. Indeed the most recent National Passenger Survey gave Virgin a 91% satisfaction rating which puts it well above the average for UK train companies.
The Survey gives much more in depth assessments of where Virgin is performing well with the value for money on ticket prices and reliability also being above average. But availability of seats was more tricky which tends to confirm our long term concerns about capacity on the WCML. VT have though, since December, added 3000 more seats every weekday so next year's survey result should be very different.
During the more detailed discussions Sir Richard made a special point of recognising just how important a consistently effective wi-fi service was for the business user. For business customers at least it is an essential and not simply a desirable option. We've been encouraged to watch out for more developments on that in due course.
We are also keen to work alongside VT on promoting investments that can reduce the journey times on the WCML even without relying on the prospect of High Speed Rail. We intend to increase our understanding of what's possible and hear what the Department for Transport and Network Rail have to say.
Let's be perfectly honest though. Spending an hour or so with Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter could not possibly be just about trains. Attracting Little Red to Glasgow Airport, the options for bringing Virgin Start Up funding to Scotland, the importance of business support for tackling the impact of unemployment and the contribution business can and should make to some of the largest global issues which Sir Richard tackles throughVirgin Unite, Virgin's charitable foundation; these all came up in discussion.
Spending face to face time with two giants of British business isn't something you do every day and I'm especially grateful to Richard Muir, our Deputy Chief Executive and to Damien Henderson at VT for making the meeting happen.
I saw for sure that some of the Glasgow Chamber delegation had the firm confidence to ask outright for connections to the Virgin and Stagecoach Groups on issues of passionate significance to them. I hope some of that nerve pays off.