No easy answer to CrossCountry’s 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 and five-car trains became busy. Too busy. This prompted a change with destinations such as Poole, Portsmouth, 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 that’s due to start in late 2019. They 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 last-minute, 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 long-distance and local operator. York-Sheffield can take just 46 minutes with XC via Doncaster (longer via Leeds). Meanwhile Northern’s infrequent services takes 1hr 18min, 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 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 and 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. There’s no prospect of new vehicles being built but there is another user of the type. That’s Virgin West Coast. DfT is examining bids received over the summer for the next West Coast franchise. It 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 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 WC winner.
The next XC bidder will 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 North East 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 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 2hr 44min, 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.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 862, published on September 12 2018.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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