Are you sitting comfortably on Northumberland trains?

A CrossCountry train south of Berwick.
A CrossCountry train south of Berwick.

The American poet Longfellow, while pacing the boards with his baby daughter, composed the poem: “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead; and when she was good, she was very, very good; and when she was bad, she was horrid.”

Our trains are like that little girl. They can be the most delightful form of travel you could hope for, or unbearably awful. The trick is to work out on which routes and at what times to travel to secure the transport of delight.

The accompanying image is of a CrossCountry train. As mentioned last month, CrossCountry has five 125s, of which one may be seen at Craigentinny, while the other four are in use. The first service south from Edinburgh is usually one of these, so if you want a comfortable ride, you are wise to rise early.

While passengers travelling first class boarding LNER trains at Berwick are plied with breakfast, experience suggests that no such luxuries are available on CrossCountry trains until Newcastle, and then what is available is a poor thing by comparison.

When Arriva won the franchise from Virgin more than a decade ago, it seems that a policy decision was made that it would only do the minimum requirements of the contract.

It was hoped that when German Railways bought Arriva a few years ago things might improve, but evidently we have to wait until the franchise changes hands again (quite soon) before there can be any hope of improvement.

Most of the trains operated by CrossCountry in the North are the short, uncomfortable trains designed by Virgin nearly 20 years ago. Virgin called them Voyagers, but Arriva management refused to use the name, referring to them always as “the inherited stock”.

Having been designed by Virgin, which was originally an aircraft operator, it appears that they were designed to be as uncomfortable as aeroplanes.

There was no provision for large luggage on the assumption that this would go in the hold, but, of course, there is no hold on a train now. In the days of British Rail large luggage could be carried in the guard’s van, but this was done away with on the grounds that it was space that did not earn revenue, so for years we have had to put up with inadequate luggage accommodation.

The other major failing of the design for the CrossCountry trains is that they are too short, being only four or five coaches long when they ought to be at least six. This brings us to the real culprit, on which we may reflect in our discomfort. The size and number of trains operated is specified by the Government.

It was reported recently that CrossCountry management has made more than one attempt to obtain Government permission to lengthen these trains, but without success. As they put it, “the Government was not interested”.

The East Coast Main Line is one of the few stretches of line where passengers have a choice of operator. The idea that privatisation meant competition is meaningless to passengers. The competition is between the operators, the Government apparently appointing the one that can get the most money out of customers. Passengers have to travel on the trains that go where they want to go, like it or lump it.

The main operator between Edinburgh and York is LNER, the previous operator having been the third to fail since privatisation. One of the employees has said of the change: “I hope this means we can now get back to how we were.” A sentiment many of the passengers will echo.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order through or from Grieves in Berwick.