"How would you like a high speed train named after the Red Arrows?" That question had come completely out of the blue one day in March 1997 in a telephone call to me from Kelvin Bayldon, Accounts Manager for Virgin Cross-Country Trains. "All our train sets are being repainted in a very striking red and dark grey livery," he added.
"I'm sure we'd be delighted but there's already a train named after us," I replied. "It's 91004, one of East Coast Main Line's Intercity 125s. It was named by The Queen Mother at Kings Cross in 1989. I'm not sure whether we could - or should - have two trains named after us. It might seem greedy and it might confuse the spotters."
At about that time, one of those odd coincidences that cropped up so regularly in my job happened. I had a letter from a lady castigating the East Coast Main Line railway company for removing the Red Arrows’ nameplate from 91004. Did we know about it, she asked in her letter; had the Queen Mother been consulted; what had happened to the nameplates? I wrote to the PR Manager for GNER, the railway company that had the franchise for running the East Coast Main Line services. and eventually had a nice letter back. It was written in rather guarded terms, almost as though the writer thought she would be reported to the Queen Mother for deleting Her Majesty’s name without permission. It seems the naming policy had changed when ECML was taken over from British Rail by GNER, Great North Eastern Railways. Apparently, no-one had thought about telling, or asking, either the Red Arrows or the Queen Mother. GNER had decided to sell the original name plates for charity, so that was all right then!
But, as the Team were to learn, Kelvin Bayldon was not easily put off. 49 members of the Red Arrows including all the Reds, a group of the Blues and a fair sprinkling of wives, partners and children, drove by motor coach to York and gathered in the Royal York Hotel for a VIP reception on 12 May 1997. After an excellent lunch, everyone made their way through the station concourse to Platform 10 where a gleaming train set was standing ready to form the 14.07 scheduled service to Bristol Temple Meads. Sadly, although the event had been widely advertised in advance, there were not many train-spotters on hand; perhaps they were kept at bay by the British Transport Police. After introductory remarks by Virgin Trains' Chief Executive, Brian Barrett, the Red Arrows' Team Leader, Simon Meade, was invited to make a short speech, which I had drafted for him:
"You may not know this, but Richard Branson has been associated with the Red Arrows for a number of years. He flew a full display sortie with Tim Miller, one of my predecessors, seven years ago - and that is not an exploit to be undertaken lightly. I was there that day, just about to start my first year with the Team. Richard Branson now has 10 ex-Red Arrows flying as pilots for Virgin Atlantic including the Team Leader he flew with in 1990. Thus, Richard could, if he wished, form his own Red Arrows Team - albeit with rather ageing pilots! I am not sure whether that represents good teamwork and leadership or just plain head-hunting. Brian, please tell Richard that if he's thinking of poaching any of my pilots to use them as drivers on Virgin Trains - I would be grateful if he would wait until the end of my tour. Next Saturday we'll meet this train again, between Exeter and Teignmouth, on that spectacular stretch of line along the sea wall, when we hope to make a series of flypasts over the train to take photographs for the benefit of the local tourist boards - and for the sheer pleasure of doing it. We hope that you, Brian, will fly in my back seat to see your train from a different angle."
Above: My pic of the naming ceremony at York, Brian Barrett back right
After the brief ceremony, the Red Arrows party joined the train for the journey south to Derby. Because it was a normal scheduled service there were fare-paying customers on board. The Team's Reds and Blues passed through the train distributing brochures and stickers and chatting to the passengers. Fortunately, many of them appeared to be Red Arrows' fans and perhaps they assumed that the Team's presence in their flying suits was part of Virgin Trains' on-board entertainment. Certainly, no-one complained, possibly because all the passengers were invited to share the free champagne and canapés! A beautifully iced and decorated cake topped by Red Arrows' models was handed to the ground crew for safe keeping - and never seen again! No-one, apart from the pilots, even batted an eyelid when the Senior Conductor, encouraged by the Red Arrows ground crew, announced over the train's public address system that 'Spot' Firth, one of their fuel bowser drivers, was now driving the train. Of course, it was not true but the pilots certainly looked worried for a few seconds.
Several of the pilots and ground crew were invited into the cab, a few at a time, to see the 'cockpit', accompanied, as the rules required, by a senior railway inspector. The Red Arrows left the train at Derby and re-joined their motor coach, which had repositioned from York, for the journey home.
The date for the flypast of the train was governed by the rules of all flypasts: they have to be timed so that they can be flown without incurring additional expense. As it happened, the Red Arrows had to be in Exeter on 17 May for a display at Plymouth and it was easy to build the flypast into the schedule. This news caused Kelvin Bayldon a crisis of conscience: it was the very day set for his wedding but, having been the instigator of the train-naming, he certainly did not wish to miss the flypasts.
"How am I going to tell Annie that we have to change the wedding date?" he asked rhetorically.
In the end, Kelvin wisely drew back from any further consideration of that option and reluctantly accepted that his date in Weston-super-Mare would have to take priority. Although Annie had learned to love the Red Arrows following a couple of visits to Cranwell with Kelvin, there seemed little doubt that she would not wish to postpone her wedding on their account.
"Pity really. It would have made a nice story for the media," I mused, sadly.