Few easy so­lu­tions for the CrossCoun­try co­nun­drum

With the De­part­ment for Trans­port soon to re­veal its pre­ferred bid­ders for Bri­tain’s ‘lo­cal long-dis­tance op­er­a­tor’, PHILIP HAIGH ex­am­ines the tricky rolling stock and timetabling el­e­ments that will have to be con­sid­ered

Rail (UK) - - Con­tents - Philip Haigh

The CrossCoun­try co­nun­drum.

CROSS Coun­try was the for­got­ten part of Bri­tish Rail’s in­ter-city net­work. It didn’t con­cen­trate on Lon­don, and so found it­self a low pri­or­ity for in­vest­ment.

It hit pri­vati­sa­tion 20 years ago with some High Speed Trains and a mot­ley col­lec­tion of coaches hauled by Class 47 diesels and Class 86 electrics.

Newer read­ers fa­mil­iar with the De­part­ment for Trans­port rolling stock pro­cure­ments be­ing mea­sured in decades might be sur­prised that Vir­gin CrossCoun­try (VXC) took just four years to de­sign, build, test and in­tro­duce to ser­vice its en­tirely new Voy­ager 125mph diesel-elec­tric units.

With their in­tro­duc­tion came a changed phi­los­o­phy. Rather than Bri­tish Rail’s long but in­fre­quent ser­vices, VXC brought fre­quent but shorter trains all formed of Voy­agers. As pas­sen­gers re­sponded, VXC’s four-car and five-car trains be­came busy. Too busy. This prompted a change, with des­ti­na­tions such as Poole, Portsmouth and Brighton cut from the net­work in order to con­cen­trate on the core.

This worked for a while, but as Vir­gin gave way to Ar­riva in 2007, the new op­er­a­tor drafted HSTs back into ser­vice to re­lieve con­ges­tion. To­day the fran­chise des­per­ately needs more ca­pac­ity.

DfT is set to soon re­veal which com­pa­nies it will ask to bid for the next XC fran­chise, which is due to start in late 2019. These com­pa­nies will face some dif­fi­cult choices as they con­struct their of­fers. That’s be­cause XC is not a clas­sic long-dis­tance op­er­a­tor - it’s ev­ery­thing to ev­ery­one, as the crowd­ing map DfT pub­lished with its fran­chise prospec­tus in July shows.

This map looked at XC ser­vices on a Fri­day be­tween 1600 and 1859. No one should be sur­prised that the map’s cen­tre on Birm­ing­ham showed plenty of red, but there were also dis­crete sec­tions re­veal­ing trains with ev­ery seat oc­cu­pied. Ed­in­burgh-Dun­bar, New­cas­tle-Durham and Bris­tol-Taun­ton all showed red.

All three are clas­sic com­muter flows but they’re on trains de­signed to con­nect dis­tant com­mu­ni­ties. They re­in­force XC’s po­si­tion as Bri­tain’s lo­cal long-dis­tance op­er­a­tor. DfT’s prospec­tus re­veals the split of XC’s 40 mil­lion an­nual pas­sen­ger jour­neys - 23% com­muter, 13% busi­ness and 64% leisure.

There would be more space for long-dis­tance pas­sen­gers if those com­muters were bet­ter served by their lo­cal op­er­a­tors, but it’s tricky be­cause sta­tions such as Ed­in­burgh, New­cas­tle and Bris­tol also rep­re­sent good long-dis­tance mar­kets. Ar­riva’s pol­icy of of­fer­ing last­minute, cheap ad­vance tick­ets ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem and gives bid­ders an­other co­nun­drum to solve.

DfT pro­vides an ex­am­ple of one jour­ney where pas­sen­gers have a choice be­tween longdis­tance and lo­cal op­er­a­tor. York-Sh­effield can take just 46 min­utes with XC via Don­caster (longer via Leeds). Mean­while, North­ern’s in­fre­quent ser­vices take 1hr 18mins, calling at all sta­tions on its di­rect route via Pon­te­fract Baghill. XC’s any­time sin­gle fare is £11.60 while North­ern’s is £18.70, ac­cord­ing to DfT.

There’s lit­tle in­cen­tive for pas­sen­gers to forego XC’s crowded trains on this ba­sis, but DfT doesn’t list the £6.50 on-the-day ad­vance fare North­ern of­fers. And it lists XC’s equiv­a­lent as £11.60 rather than the £10.70 shown on the Na­tional Rail En­quiries web­site.

Even if North­ern pro­vided an at­trac­tive link, at heart, XC needs longer trains. Voy­agers are half­way through a train’s typ­i­cal life of 30-40 years. Owner Bea­con Rail will be keen to keep them on lease with XC’s win­ning bid­der, but will have seen re­cent fran­chise wins com­ing with com­plete or sub­stan­tial fleet re­place­ment plans which should sharpen prices in favour of bid­ders.

Bom­bardier’s Voy­ager pro­duc­tion line closed many years ago, and there’s no prospect of new ve­hi­cles be­ing built. But there is an­other user of the type - Vir­gin West Coast. DfT is cur­rently ex­am­in­ing bids re­ceived over the sum­mer for the next West Coast fran­chise, and will know whether any of those bids in­clude ditch­ing Voy­agers.

It ex­pects to re­ceive XC bids next April (as­sum­ing it can keep this fran­chise com­pe­ti­tion on sched­ule in a way that it’s failed for oth­ers). It ex­pects the next West Coast fran­chise to start in Septem­ber 2019, and would nor­mally an­nounce its win­ner around five months be­fore takeover. If ev­ery West Coast bid­der plans to ditch Voy­agers, then Bea­con could con­fi­dently of­fer them to XC bid­ders. The prob­lem comes if one or more plans to keep them… and this can’t be re­vealed un­til DfT an­nounces its West Coast win­ner.

The next XC bid­der will also need to plan around HS2 and East West Rail. HS2 will be build­ing its line with dis­rup­tion al­most cer­tain on XC’s key cor­ri­dor from Wa­ter Or­ton into Birm­ing­ham New Street, which HS2 will share. New Street is XC’s hub, so plan­ners will be look­ing care­fully at reach­ing it via Lich­field, thread­ing long-dis­tance trains from Scot­land and north­east Eng­land in be­tween lo­cal trains through As­ton and Sut­ton Cold­field.

Bid­ders will need to con­sider what changes they should make to timeta­bles, to re­flect HS2’s trains start­ing in 2026 be­tween Lon­don and Birm­ing­ham and 2027’s ex­ten­sion to Crewe. The first could make it quicker for pas­sen­gers from Read­ing and points south to reach Birm­ing­ham via Old Oak Com­mon and HS2 rather than us­ing XC’s trains through Ox­ford. Birm­ing­ham-Crewe-Manch­ester HS2 trains will tempt pas­sen­gers from XC’s ser­vices on the slower clas­sic route.

Switch­ing Read­ing-Birm­ing­ham pas­sen­gers will cre­ate space for oth­ers to be tempted by fares if time is unim­por­tant to them. Bid­ders might re­spond by re­duc­ing ser­vices be­tween Birm­ing­ham and Read­ing via Ox­ford. With East West Rail likely to be feed­ing pas­sen­gers into Ox­ford from the West Coast Main Line at Mil­ton Keynes and the Mid­land Main Line at Bed­ford, there’s a chance to turn some XC trains west at Did­cot to­wards Bris­tol and the West Coun­try.

Bid­ders will be look­ing hard at speed­ing XC jour­neys. They might use 125mph trains, but they’re slow be­cause their sched­ules con­tain lots of al­lowances for pathing, per­for­mance and en­gi­neer­ing.

Au­gust 30’s 0925 Ply­mouth-New­cas­tle con­tained 19 min­utes of al­lowances be­tween Birm­ing­ham and York on a jour­ney that took 2hrs 44mins, for ex­am­ple. Trim­ming these al­lowances will be dif­fi­cult be­cause XC’s ser­vices cross many other routes. Timetable plan­ners will need all their wits if they’re to solve these prob­lems.

DfT wants XC’s win­ner to cut over­crowd­ing, de­liver con­sis­tent and op­ti­mum cus­tomer ser­vice, im­prove right-time per­for­mance, and make it eas­ier to change be­tween trains at sta­tions. On to­day’s busy net­work, that’s a harder task than Vir­gin took on in 1997.

“Bid­ders will need to con­sider what changes they should make to timeta­bles, to re­flect HS2’s trains start­ing in 2026 be­tween Lon­don and Birm­ing­ham and 2027’s ex­ten­sion to Crewe.”


CrossCoun­try 43357 leads the 0700 Ed­in­burghP­ly­mouth un­der leaden skies on Rat­tery Bank, near Totnes, on Au­gust 24. Ar­riva brought back HSTs to com­bat con­ges­tion, yet the XC fran­chise still suf­fers from na­tion­wide over­crowd­ing.

Philip Haigh Trans­port writer

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