John Wylde: Passenger comfort is a priority on trains

A Cross Country train south of Berwick. This franchise is not due for renewal until November 2019, but has a lot of issues to address to keep their customers satisfied.
A Cross Country train south of Berwick. This franchise is not due for renewal until November 2019, but has a lot of issues to address to keep their customers satisfied.

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

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

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

As part of the preparation for the next round of rail franchises, there are one or two disturbing developments. Great Western, currently in the hands of First Group, is drastically reducing the amount of first class accommodation on many of its trains. Instead of two-and-a-half coaches, the affected trains now have only one-and-a-half first class, one coach having been reconfigured to its cramped standard class format.

Other companies, such as East Coast and Virgin, have addressed the problem of balancing the demand for first class travel by skilfully adjusting their advance fares to attract passengers to experience the benefits of first class at 
affordable prices.

Once they have experienced it, many people remain firmly committed, judging the additional cost to be well worth it. In this way the available accommodation is well utilised rather than having to be downgraded.

One passenger, having travelled for many years on long journeys in standard class to visit relations, became exasperated with the cramped conditions, because every new design of train is worse than those it replaces, and is now a complete convert to first class for long journeys.

Sad to say, it may not even have been First Group’s own idea to increase standard class accommodation at the expense of first. There have been suggestions that it was ‘leant on’ by the Department for Transport, and if this is true, passengers on other lines can expect to find the same thing happening to their trains.

Virgin approach the problem in a different way. In their Pendolino trains, coach G is fitted out as a first class coach and normally operates as such, but in August, when business travel is much reduced and holiday travel is much increased, they de-classify coach G for use by standard class ticket holders. However, they miss a trick by not charging a supplement for passengers to travel in this coach, who have the benefit of more spacious accommodation than in the normal standard class coaches. It seems strange that they fail to take advantage of such an obvious commercial opportunity.

While attention is focussed on the main lines, Cross Country’s franchise is not due for renewal until November 2019. Cross Country won the franchise in 2007, and had the misfortune to inherit Virgin’s Big Mistake in the form of the Voyager trains, which were designed deliberately shorter than normal main line 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 which they replaced, but Virgin overlooked one basic economic truth – frequency generates traffic, so very soon these short trains were totally inadequate. When the Cross Country franchise changed hands, Arriva were stuck with them, though they did bring back one or two of the old longer trains, which are much more comfortable.

Arriva’s Cross Country franchise is unpopular on another count – it provides a poor on-train refreshment service compared with the main line operators. It also deleted some 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.

A little idiosyncrasy of the Virgin-designed trains, Pendolinos and Voyagers, is that they welcome passengers on board with an olfactory greeting from the toilets. Virgin refused to admit there was a problem for several years, but eventually agreed to take corrective action, which has had only limited success.

The Pendolinos and Voyagers also have a major disadvantage in that luggage accommodation is inadequate.

On the trains they inherited, Cross Country have removed some seats and installed extra luggage racks, but of course this is a mixed blessing, especially as the seats they have replaced with racks are those with window views, leaving seats beside pillars and therefore no view for the hapless passengers.

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

This little thoughtlessness causes untold misery for passengers.

○John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ This book, priced at £14.95, is available to Advertiser readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwick Advertiser office.