‘Disturbing development’ on franchises

A Cross Country train south of Berwick.
A Cross Country train south of Berwick.

Every effort is being made to sign up as many new rail franchises as possible before next year’s election to tie the hands of the successor administration if it should be of a different political balance from the present coalition.

It seems we shall follow the continentals along the path of continuous coalition in government so that no one party can win outright, but only govern with the help of partners.

With more parties to choose from, the possible permutations are widening. Each party will have its own view on the railways and this might not be uppermost in their minds when negotiating a coalition, so the future of transport might not be easy to forecast.

As part of the preparation for the next round of franchises, there are one or two disturbing developments.

Great Western, in the hands of First Group, is drastically reducing the amount of first-class accommodation on many trains. Instead of 21⁄2 coaches, the affected trains now have only 11⁄2 first class, one coach having been re-configured to its cramped standard class format.

Other companies, such as East Coast and Virgin, have skilfully adjusted their advance fares to attract passengers to experience the benefits of first class at affordable prices. Once they have experienced it, many remain committed to travelling first class, judging the additional cost to be well worth it. In this way, the available accommodation is well utilised rather than being downgraded.

Sad to say, it may not even have been First Group’s idea. There have been suggestions that it was ‘leant on’ by the Department for Transport. If this is true, passengers on other lines can expect the same thing happening to their trains.

In Virgin’s Pendolino trains, coach G is fitted out as a first-class coach and normally operates as such, but in August, when business travel is reduced and holiday travel increases, it de-classifies coach G for standard ticket-holders. However, it misses an opportunity to charge a supplement for this coach, which has more spacious accommodation than normal standard-class coaches.

While attention is focused on the mainline franchises, CrossCountry’s franchise is not due for renewal until November 2019. This franchise had the misfortune to inherit Virgin’s Big Mistake in the form of the Voyager trains, which were designed shorter than normal mainline trains on the grounds that they were going to run more frequently.

The number of seats in the day may have been similar to the less frequent longer trains they replaced, but Virgin overlooked one basic economic truth – frequency generates traffic, so very soon these short trains were totally inadequate.

When the CrossCountry franchise changed hands, Arriva was stuck with them, though it did bring back one or two of the old longer trains, which are much more comfortable.

Arriva’s CrossCountry franchise is unpopular on another count – it provides a poor on-train refreshment service. It also deleted extra stops, such as Morpeth, which Virgin had introduced, on the grounds that they were not required under the franchise terms. This was a pity as they were showing signs of growth.

The Virgin-designed trains, Pendolinos and Voyagers, have a major disadvantage in that luggage accommodation is inadequate. On the trains it inherited, CrossCountry has removed seats and installed extra luggage racks, but this is a mixed blessing, especially as the seats it has replaced are those with window views, leaving seats beside pillars and no view for passengers.

Rumour has it that the Virgin trains were designed by aircraft designers, who gave no thought to luggage accommodation, assuming luggage would go in the hold. This causes untold misery for passengers.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (www.john-wylde co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.