Re-privatisation of East Coast means greater comfort and convenience

The first train in full Virgin colours to come to Berwick, on March 2. Picture: John Wylde
The first train in full Virgin colours to come to Berwick, on March 2. Picture: John Wylde

The long-resisted re-privatisation of the East Coast Main Line happened on March 1, and the extrovert Virgin brand is making itself felt.

Ninety per-cent of the business is actually Stagecoach but the two have worked together on the West Coast line for many years.

Time will tell what the effect will be of having trains on both the West Coast and East Coast lines in Virgin’s colours – whether the competition between them will continue, which seems unlikely, or whether we shall experience the monopoly effect.

The real competition for the Anglo-Scottish traffic is of course Air, so perhaps we shall find more effort going into that.

The publicity for the new East Coast franchise is emphasising the advantages of the new trains to be introduced in 2018, which, by the time slippage has occurred, will probably actually be 2020. As with new car designs, a great deal is made of the beauty of their appearance.

While this may appeal to our artistic appreciation, as passengers we should be more impressed by greater comfort and convenience.

It is particularly interesting that ‘more seats’ is one of the key benefits mentioned. There are two ways of having more seats – one of them being longer trains, which beyond a certain point can only be achieved by having longer platforms and re-designed signalling arrangements.

There is very little scope for lengthening the platforms at Berwick, but it has to be done to accommodate the slightly longer coaches in the new trains on the East Coast services, which are at full length.

Until 1970, new coaches were always an improvement on those which had gone before but then the government started to dictate some of the design criteria, which started the rot and each new coach design since has been less comfortable and less convenient than those which preceded it.

The important thing now is not comfort and convenience for the passengers, but capacity for the operators, so more seats simply means less space per seat and less space between seats.

People who have seen the prototype of the new trains for 2018 have commented on how this trend is being pursued and this at a time when people are becoming larger.

We need more seats right enough, but in the form of more trains and longer trains.

For more than a decade passengers travelling on Cross-Country services have had to put up with trains which are too short and at long last this has been recognised and plans are being laid for running longer trains on these routes. Passengers will no doubt have to put up with the present trains for another five years before it happens.

The details of the new trains are controlled by the government, while the publicity for the trains makes it appear that they are the operators’ initiative.

This is quite deliberate, so that the complaints which follow their introduction are directed at the operators who have little to do with their design or their quantity, but who paint them in their colours and have to make the best of them and reply to the complaints.

The big improvement which is now, at long last, being taken seriously by the government, is electrification. Each month the technical press reports another line to be electrified. It is strange that the country where railways were born has been one of the slowest to develop them.

The key reason is that here we built them piecemeal whereas other people planned and designed them as an integrated whole.

In closing some of the lines which should never have been built many lines which were really useful were also closed and restoring them is being a slow and expensive task compared with the alacrity with which they were closed 50 years ago.

One of the difficulties is that the old track-bed has often been built on, particularly in the towns, involving the demolition of property and/or finding new routes to by-pass the obstructions when the line is restored.

While Stagecoach and Virgin work closely together on the two main Anglo-Scottish routes, their arch-rival is First Group.

First has owned the ‘open-access’ Hull Trains company for several years, which operates on the East Coast Main Line from Doncaster to London. As reported last week, the Group has now announced its intention to operate a similar ‘open-access’ company with services from Edinburgh to London, its declared aim being to attract traffic from air.

The significance of the term ‘open-access’ is that it is not a franchised operation with responsibilities, whose financial stability is under-written by the government, but an entrepreneurial business which buys its paths from Network Rail in the form of track-access agreements and takes the full risk of the profitability of its operation. It will therefore experience much less meddling from the government in respect of the sort of trains that it runs and the fares that it charges. It is expected to start in 2018.

First Group’s franchised operations currently are Great Western and Trans-Pennine Express.

While electrification is forging ahead on the railways, hybrid buses are coming onto the roads in increasing numbers in the cities. To eliminate even their small diesel engines fully electric buses are beginning to make their appearance, and the first full London Bus route entirely operated with electric buses is being set up in Croydon.