Friday, April 13, 2007

Virgin's famed customer service ... let down by National Express?

It was all going to plan. The new bmi red eye to Heathrow took off and landed on schedule (touching down a shade after 0740), leaving me plenty of time to get across to Heathrow Central Bus Station, get a ticket and catch the 0815 Virgin bus to Watford.

The grand plan was to get there and back again without having to drive a hire car up and down busy and unfamiliar English motorways. Why drive yourself when a bus driver can do that for you? Share transport with other people?

Twenty five past eight, no bus. Several Reading and Woking buses, but no big red Virgin bus? Is this how they run their trains?

It’s a funny arrangement, but the various airport transfer bus services to nearby train stations seem to be managed at the Heathrow end by National Express, even though they are provided and branded by Virgin, First, RailAir etc.

The National Express rep popped over out of the bus terminal to sign a Reading driver's log book. We asked her where the Watford bus had got to? “Oh, is it late? I've no radio on me. I'll go in and find out.”

A crowd of staff stood inside looking like they were sharing a joke or two. But ten minutes later, still no response.

Someone waiting went inside to chase – “We’re waiting for the driver to call us back” was the answer.

In the meantime I wondered about the roof of the Heathrow Bus Central – looks like a tent, or maybe an upside down bouncy castle?

Finally a lesser spotter Virgin bus turned up, just as the rep came out of the terminal to speak to us. “That's your Watford bus, leaves at nine, we just need to swap drivers.”

No apology, and no voluntary explanation of why we’d been left standing waiting for a 0815 bus that hadn’t turned up.

Asking around, it turned out that our bus had broken down on a motorway, but that fact didn’t seem to be relevant or worth passing on to the waiting customers. And the replacement bus pulled off its stand early at 0855, not nine!

So I’m glad that bmi managed to stick to its timetable this morning. But it’s a pity Virgin didn’t keep to their schedule.

Public transport needs to be reliable ... otherwise next time I’ll end up hiring a car, adding to the fleet of single occupancy vehicles already polluting the motorways, and incurring the additional cost.

- - -

Update from the return journey. Good news was that the red Virgin bus was waiting at its stand at Watford Station for the journey back. The even better news was that I was there early, as the driver set off a minute or so before the big hand had reached twelve.

The bad news was that I was the only passenger on the bus - what’s the environmental impact of being chauffeured back the 25 or so miles to Heathrow around the M25/M4 in a big coach. (I remember the first time I caught this bus, a couple of years ago. The driver had already driven empty from Heathrow - Watford - Heathrow and picked me up as his first passenger of the day.)

1 comment:

Oliver said...

The reason nobody uses the Virgin bus is that National Express does just nicely out of it's own city to airport services. Why would it be in National Express' interest to make the service connecting with the train work well?