Coventry blogger attacks Virgin Trains for returning £300k cycling grant to DfT

Station operator says West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco means it can't commit to project

by Simon_MacMichael   November 21, 2012  

Station bike parking (copyright Simon MacMichael)

A blogger from Coventry has attacked Virgin Trains for returning a £300,000 grant awarded to it by the Department for Transport to improve facilities for cyclists at the West Midlands city’s railway station, which is managed by the train operator. The money was to have been used to provide a cycle hub, including 300 secure cycle parking places – but Virgin Trains says it cannot commit to the works while the future of its West Coast Main Line franchise remains uncertain.

James Avery, who runs the Coventry-focused cycling blog Manifietso, says that with just 80 cycle parking spaces currently at the station, bike riders who wish to use the train are suffering because of the company’s stance.

After noticing those existing spaces were fully occupied as he arrived at the station to catch a train, he asked the company when the new facility would be installed, but was told that nothing would happen until the controversy over the franchise had been settled.

“The situation is totally unacceptable,” he wrote in a press release also published on his blog.

“Why should Virgin Trains be able to hold Coventry cycling passengers to ransom by not spending money that has already been given to them by the Department for Transport?

“Cycle parking provision at Coventry Station has been inadequate for many years, yet all they needed to have done would be to have allocated a small portion of the available space on the site for Sheffield type cycling stands.

“Meanwhile, Virgin Trains have invested millions of pounds up and down the country on multi-storey car parks. I have no objection to the park and ride concept, as long as parking is available for both types of user.

“The commercial case for providing more cycle parking is very clear – make it easier to get to the station and park your bike, and people use your trains more.

Pointing out the difference between railway cycle parking in the UK and the Netherlands, he highlighted that Utrecht station has space for 22,500 bikes.

“Obviously, Coventry doesn't need that many spaces at this time, but it would certainly not be unreasonable to talk about planning for around 1,000 cycle parking spaces over the next few years, as the city invests in the Cycle Coventry initiative,” he went on.

“It shouldn't be necessary to have to kick up such a fuss to install such a basic piece of infrastructure, especially when you can park around 14 bikes in the same space as one car.

“Virgin Trains might earn plenty of revenue from car parking, but we all know that they also make good margins on the train services they provide, so anything that increases customer numbers should be a no-brainer.

“It's no coincidence that rail also has a 40% larger portion of the market in the Netherlands when compared to the UK.”

Virgin Trains’ franchise for the West Coast Main Line expires on 31 December 2012 and FirstGroup was due to take over after winning the bid for the new franchise. Last month, however, the Department for Transport admitted that there had been serious flaws in the bid process, plunging the franchise into chaos.

Virgin is currently negotiating with the government for a short-term extension to allow the tender process to be run again.

Referring to the £300,000 that Virgin Trains had been awarded for the Coventry bike hub, company spokesman Jim Rowe told the Coventry Telegraph: “Because of the uncertainty, we’ve had to return the money. We are not ruling it out but much depends on the signing of the franchise extension.

“All train operators are sympathetic to cyclists,” he claimed. “It fits in with our green policies.”

When it was pointed out to him that Leamington Spa station a few miles to the South though not itself on the West Coast Main Line, had space for 300 bicycles to be parked, he said: “Chiltern Railways [which operates that station] have the advantage because they have a long-term franchise so they’ve been able to carry out planning on a more certain basis.

“If we were to get a 15-year franchise, we could do a lot of things in 15 years – including putting up cycle storage.”

19 user comments

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"“All train operators are sympathetic to cyclists,” he claimed. “It fits in with our green policies.”"

What complete and utter bollocks.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [371 posts]
21st November 2012 - 15:12

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Bez wrote:
"“All train operators are sympathetic to cyclists,” he claimed. “It fits in with our green policies.”"

What complete and utter bollocks.

Agreed - cycle provision on trains and at stations is complete hit-and-miss - any convenient arrangements seem almost to happen by accident

posted by mad_scot_rider [544 posts]
21st November 2012 - 15:27

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To be fair to Virgin, if the contract's up in the air I'd have thought any major spending would be on hold. Not sure they're "holding cyclists to ransom"

posted by chris75018 [95 posts]
21st November 2012 - 15:44

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Thought the "sympathetic" comment would grab attention.

And yes, it's perhaps understandable that Virgin are reluctant to commit themselves in the current situation - but it also reflects a model that in effect puts commercial concerns ahead of passenger - sorry, customer - needs.

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [8003 posts]
21st November 2012 - 16:15

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“If we were to get a 15-year franchise, we could do a lot of things in 15 years – including putting up cycle storage.”

Virgin's shamelessness knows no bounds. Their franchise for the West Coast began in 1997... 15 years ago.

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posted by Doctor Fegg [133 posts]
21st November 2012 - 16:25

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There were (very small) signs up at Glasgow Central (also Virgin-run) saying that the only remaining bike storage was going to be removed imminently. Didn't get a response from Virgin or ScotRail when I tweeted at them.

Would love to see Jim Rowe give his thoughts on the matter.

posted by Darkerside [60 posts]
21st November 2012 - 16:28

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“Why should Virgin Trains be able to hold Coventry cycling passengers to ransom by not spending money that has already been given to them by the Department for Transport? Simple answer they are not holding anyone to ransom. If someone else gets the franchise the DFT can now give them the money. Virgin did the honest thing by saying they could not commit to a long term project for something they had no contract to support. The blogger seems to want to shoot the messenger rather than the villain who is the government. Is he a Tory supporter perhaps?

Paul W

posted by PaulVWatts [111 posts]
21st November 2012 - 16:37

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"“All train operators are sympathetic to cyclists,” he claimed. “It fits in with our green policies.”"

What complete and utter bollocks.

I couldn't have said it any better.

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posted by Angelfishsolo [105 posts]
21st November 2012 - 18:08

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Virgin are spot on. The problem here is the franchise system. Long franchises like Chiltern encourage investment and give much needed stability (as the Virgin fiasco has recently shown). And the franchising system was devised by... politicians.

Blame your MP, not Virgin Trains.

posted by Fox [5 posts]
21st November 2012 - 19:33

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Coventry station has not had any improvements (other than a new car park) in the 15 years (I've had to use it myself on occasion). The next excuse will probably be a lack of space to put cycles (especially if the new platform for the Nuneaton service is built - a bit pointless though if they extend that service to Leamington Spa...)

If cycling is indeed a sport of self-abuse why aren't more cyclists sectioned under the mental health act?

posted by hairyairey [279 posts]
21st November 2012 - 19:45

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Well hairyairey you do seem to be an informed source as they say in Modern Railways. Maybe you should tell the guys at Road cc that the franchise terminates on 9th December 2012, when the new 'Winter 2012-13' timetables start.

The car parks detail is interesting effectively we've paid for the developments to the tune of £40m as even if Virgin (the tenant of Network Rail) pays out, they are then obliged to 'sell' the betterment to the landlord and pay an enhanced lease charge for the station, and NR write down the cost over 20-30 years (they get the £40m from track access charges, and ... the Treasury - our taxes). In theory the same deal for cycle parking but until now the money has been chicken feed compared to the other works done at a station, and the messy bureaucracy of passing the cash from a to b to c, has been generally ignored. But with the first 1000 bike space station now with us (and its NOT Cambridge or Oxford) and shortly to add even more spaces, we are now dealing on a bigger scale.

Looking at those car park enhancements £2.5m got just 30 exta car park bays for Penrith at a staggering £83,333 per space. It certainly won't be paid back at the rates that VT charges for parking there. At Preston the 450 extra spaces cost around £23,000 each but the car park languishes about 40-50% filled even with the annual season ticket price cut by 40%, and car use is falling. The bike racks however are well filled. Wigan NW likewise is not very well used, and at Crewe a whole leased additional area gets very little use because it is such a long walk back to the station. Coventry might just fill up a bit more though.

Glasgow Central is not a Virgin run station, it is Network Rail Major Stations, and I'm puzzled by your comment. Might you be thinking of the cycle parking outside the retail unit which has been empty for ages, and I had hopes to see used as a cycle hub? Well someone reckons it will work as a catering outlet (as if we really need more of those) and it might help that the fish & chip shop next door recently went up in flames. Those racks were I think provided by Glasgow Council and were more popular as seats for the kids hanging around waiting to go to a show in town. The land might belong to Network Rail though.

The £300,000 was the only sum awarded to Virgin and was not just for cycle parking (£1000/space is a bit steep) it was for "300 space purpose built cycle point, including a mixture of secure storage of cycles (racks and lockers), covered with cctv, lighting and associated signage"

If it does get reallocated perhaps it can go to London Midland or Chiltern for stations in the West Midlands (like a cycle hub in Moor Street perhaps?), or maybe Network Rail can do the work as the Landlord, which they have done elsewhere, stepping in as manager of last resort for the station, in much the same way as DOR was being prepared to take over the WCML franchise on 9th December, but for some reasons not that well explained Virgin were given an extension to the franchise.

I'd check your figure for Leamington Spa though, Chiltern's official count is 128 spaces, unless you know of a secret location where the other 172 places are.

Oh and amongst many informed sources the preference is for the C word over the F word - concessions work pretty well for London Underground, Overground and London Buses, and get shot of the silly bidding wars, replacing it with basic contracts to run the trains whilst the government collects the fares, and we get rid of the huge pile of TOC-specific fares, and all the confusion that causes..

Rant off?

47 years of breaking bikes and still they offer me a 10 year frame warranty!

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posted by A V Lowe [481 posts]
21st November 2012 - 23:58

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Golly, sounds like actual balanced facts there Mr Lowe, very refreshing change from the usual frothy sensationalism found in Internet comment sections. Chapeau.

posted by Nick T [781 posts]
22nd November 2012 - 0:28

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A golden oportunity missed by Virgin Trains to show their total commitement to the future of their franchise.

posted by Mostyn [407 posts]
22nd November 2012 - 0:54

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How exactly can they show total commitment to a franchise that they potentially have only for another 2 weeks and the decision of wether they maintain it is out of their hands?

posted by Nick T [781 posts]
22nd November 2012 - 11:43

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Mr Lowe, many thanks. That was a good read.

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posted by mr-andrew [295 posts]
22nd November 2012 - 12:15

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Thank you Road CC for featuring this.

Quote:
To be fair to Virgin, if the contract's up in the air I'd have thought any major spending would be on hold. Not sure they're "holding cyclists to ransom"

There were about 70 schemes featured in the DfT announcement in March. Most "went Dutch" on funding, but this one didn't - so it is our money they have put on hold, not theirs.

There were also 5 months from the announcement until the franchise result in August, by which time they could have made some progress. They were fully aware at the time of bidding that the franchise was due for renewal, it wasn't as if it was sprung on them by surprise.

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Virgin did the honest thing by saying they could not commit to a long term project

What is long term about installing a bike hub that was well overdue and already planned and funded? Chances are it would also be full by the time it was built - even more likely by the time it ever happens.

Bike Hub aside, a short term measure of introducing a few extra racks could be implemented in days or perhaps weeks. They have shown no interest in doing that, all they have done is come up with more excuses.

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The blogger seems to want to shoot the messenger rather than the villain who is the government.

Other way round. It is the government who came up with the cash, Virgin who have refused to use it. Virgin have expanded car parks at all 17 stations they manage, but their cycle parking record is terrible. They are acting as if they've only been running trains for 15 weeks, not 15 years.

As for the franchise itself, well I think they are both as bad as each other. Clearly, the DfT has screwed up. The "Anything But Branson" attitude was unacceptable. However, so are Virgin peak fares. I have just taken a "peak" Virgin Train which was continuing to London with no more than 25 people in each carriage - and that was a "cramped" Voyager, not even a Pendolino. Also, this used to be an off peak service. So my sympathies are limited!

Quote:
I'd check your figure for Leamington Spa though, Chiltern's official count is 128 space

The figure will have come from a visual count, but as you have called me up on it, I will have to go back and check (unless we have someone who is from there?). There are multiple racks (2 deep iirc) on the down platforms, more still on the up - north / west facing end on both, and there are even more outside the station front.

I'm not sure that any TOC keeps particularly accurate bike parking figures?

posted by James Avery [2 posts]
22nd November 2012 - 14:10

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Nick T wrote:
How exactly can they show total commitment to a franchise that they potentially have only for another 2 weeks and the decision of wether they maintain it is out of their hands?

Two months back; and I'd have agree'd with you, But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then! I cannot believe that Western Rail will get the Franchise? I'm of the opinion that Virgin will keep their right to run on the rails they already possess.

Commitement to the task; however short, can have a favourable outlook for the future of any project.

posted by Mostyn [407 posts]
23rd November 2012 - 20:38

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But it sounds like the money was the DfT's not Virgin's - so why should it matter who's going to have the station from 2013? Even if Virgin loses the contract, they've not spent their own money, have they?

If DfT says "here's money to spend on cycling" why not get that money working asap?

Or, did Virgin just do the corporate equivalent of taking the cash, sticking it in an ISA for a couple of years, then giving it back?

Maybe this demonstrates that this "franchise" nonsense is totally unhelpful and unrealistic - train companies want to get away with spending DfT money, OUR money, and make it look like they're the ones doing good.

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posted by PJ McNally [586 posts]
24th November 2012 - 14:43

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Virgin are reported to be renewing staff passes through to 2014....

47 years of breaking bikes and still they offer me a 10 year frame warranty!

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posted by A V Lowe [481 posts]
28th November 2012 - 8:35

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