Virgin Trains 15.05.14

virgin trains

Virgin’s Pendolino trains have been in service since 2002 (image: Getty Images)

Passengers sensitive to the mindless abuse of Madchester-era colour schemes may wish to seek alternative means of transport

An entire series of Crimes against Design could be compiled purely on the rolling stock, livery, ads and station redesigns perpetrated by Britain's privatised railway network. Each operator has its own particular offence. Southeastern has painted two dozen Italianate railway stations in London and Kent a wan off-violet, First Great Western inflicts clipart aesthetics on Brunel, and Northern Rail's two-carriage trains exhibit the civic pride and upkeep of a branch of Poundland. Each design choice serves only to advertise whichever particular gang of publicly funded vultures managed to grab which bit of the network. But in a mostly empty first-class carriage all of its own is Virgin Trains.

The sight of a waiting Virgin Pendolino on a platform induces a certain quality of despair, the sort inspired when you realise something potentially very pleasant – a long railway journey with a view – is going to become a struggle with your stomach and your aesthetic sensibilities. The post-Madchester colour scheme of each train is unbearably smug, a New Labour hangover, a perpetual D:Ream 1997, with the diagonal-striped doors and mock-industrial colours the final degeneration of Ben Kelly's designs for The Haçienda. Each train is top-heavy with first-class carriages, far more than any other network – the extra space therein means less elsewhere for the plebs.

The tilts and turns of the Pendolino itself are at least dictated by functional necessity. The same can't be said of the infuriating, misanthropic approach to fenestration in each carriage. Not only are the windows tiny, many of the seats in each second-class carriage aren't even by a window. Evidently Sir Richard Branson's design team intended to replicate the claustrophobia of an Airbus, but on a line which passes through the Pennines, the Lake District, Scotland's Southern Uplands and a high-level viaduct ride through the skylines of northern milltowns. Why would anyone want to look at any of that?

Virgin seized the most important parts of the rail network – the connections between the largest cities in the country: London, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham. Only Newcastle, Edinburgh and Leeds managed to escape – at least until Virgin is finally handed the West Coast franchise, and it can make that grindingly miserable, too. Renationalisation without compensation would be too kind – lives are shortened by design like this.




Owen Hatherley

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The sight of a waiting Virgin Pendolino on a platform induces a certain quality of despair

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