A ‘Starter for Ten’ – the new XC Franchise?

The CrossCountry (XC) passenger franchise is the first of four passenger rail franchises due for renewal in the next couple of years, with East Midlands, South Eastern and Chiltern being the other three. The deadline for responses to the DfT’s XC Franchise Consultation is set for August 30, and Fraser Pithie, a member of Campaign for Rail – West Midlands, gives his view on what a new XC franchise could and should look like.

The story so far

What do Oxford, Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Plymouth, Aberdeen, Exeter, Bristol, Derby, Lancaster, Reading, Preston, Stoke-on-Trent, Cardiff, Coventry, Dundee, Leicester, Durham, Manchester, York, Southampton, Bournemouth, Glasgow and Cambridge have in common?

They are all university cities, and are all served by the CrossCountry (XC) passenger franchise that is due for renewal in late-2019.

While some passengers who currently use XC services have lots that is positive to say about their journeys, there is an increasing level of negative customer experience. There is also emerging evidence that suggests the recent stalling of rail passenger growth (in 2017/18 ticket sales dropped by 1.4%) is at least partly because of the railways not meeting customer expectations and service demand.

CrossCountry ‘Voyager’ No. 221133 forges north past Dawlish with train 1S43, the 06.28 Penzance-Glasgow Central on May 15. DAVID HUNT

It used to be XC reached most of the main hubs and stations on the UK rail network. XC also has a uniqueness in that it does not, and never has, operated any stations on the network. Consequently, you won’t find XC staff on stations to help you with your enquiries, at least unless you are on the platform and an XC service happens to be present.

It’s just one of many examples of things that over the course of the franchise have not helped passengers or indeed the current franchisee, Arriva.

Background

To understand where things are now a historical perspective about the early days of XC after Privatisation is needed.

Virgin obtained the XC franchise in late-1996 and started to run services from early 1997. Initially, Virgin had to rely upon Class 47s with rakes of seven Mk2 coaches that formed the backbone of its SE/NW/NE services, and mainly IC125s forming the SW/NE services.

Other traction available at the time included Class 158s and Class 86s. In those early days, the XC franchise did not include east-to-west routes from Birmingham to Stansted Airport, and Nottingham and Cardiff.

Richard Branson’s brave new Virgin Trains world, as it was in those early days, set out plans to ‘transform’ the customer offer of XC services.

I recall catching a southbound Manchester/Bournemouth service one day at Leamington Spa and picking up the Virgin ‘on-board’ magazine. Inside there was a message I recall went something like “as you read this you may well be on a late, cold or draughty train that looks and feels tired. We are sorry, and we’d ask you to bear with us as we wait for our fleet of brand new fast trains that will provide more frequent and much better quality train services”.

Read more and view more images in the August issue of The RM – on sale now!

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