On the average Saturday night, platform 2 of London Euston station is rarely a party location. And the calling points of the 9.42pm to Wolverhampton are hardly the stuff to inspire a great journey: Watford Junction, Milton Keynes, Rugby ….
Yet 7 December 2019 will become part of railway history, remembered as the day that the longest-running and most successful train operating franchise reached the end of the line.
One passenger even gave three of the train crew a huge farewell card, reading “Thank you Virgin 1997-2019”.
From now on they will be wearing new uniforms, showing their employer to be Avanti – the joint venture between FirstGroup of Aberdeen and Trenitalia of Rome that has won the West Coast main line franchise until 2031.
The Virgin Trains rolling stock has been gradually debranded, with one train already in the sidings, branded in the colours of Avanti, ready for a public launch on Monday morning.
The driver of the 9.42pm was Mark Spinks, whose great-grandfather had himself driven the last-ever train on one of the lines in northwest England that was closed in the Sixties by recommendation of the Beeching Report.
“It’s sad to see them go. Very sad,” said Gerard, a passenger heading home to Birmingham.
“They’ve always been brilliant, they’ve always been very good to me, always reliable.”
The 9.42pm was not, technically, the last northbound departure. Five minutes after it, a relief train to Birmingham set off – scheduled to cover for a West Midlands Trains strike-hit departure (the stoppage was called off, but too late for the planned emergency timetable to be changed).
But the 9.42pm was the very last arrival of any Virgin Train. It reached Wolverhampton at 11.52pm, five minutes behind schedule.
The final train to Manchester had set off earlier, only to be terminated early at Stockport due to an engine fault. That abrupt and ignominious event happened at 11.26pm.
Meanwhile, the final southbound service had departed from Manchester Piccadilly at 8.35pm.
Most of the passengers were oblivious to the historic journey they were making – though in coach C, a group of three young men were well on their way to oblivion, with a tableful of empty cans of Foster’s, San Miguel and Strongbow (three of each), plus a half-drunk bottle of Kopparberg cider for a journey of two hours, 20 minutes.
The last Virgin Trains arrival at London Euston was five minutes ahead of its 11pm scheduled time.
Appropriately (and coincidentally) it was the first Pendolino train to be built: 390001, a key number for rail enthusiasts.
Gerard, who by then was fast approaching Birmingham, offered advice for Avanti: “Keep in their footsteps, you won’t go far wrong.”
And the final message on the now-dormant Twitter feed of Virgin Trains was changed to read: “We weren’t a regular train company, we were a cool train company.”