Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Virgin Trains (OPT 27)



  1.  Virgin Trains is the brand name for Virgin Rail Group Holdings Ltd (VRG). The company is jointly owned by Virgin Management (51%) and Stagecoach Holdings (49%). Virgin Trains operates two major intercity train franchises—CrossCountry Trains Ltd and West Coast Trains Ltd. This evidence addresses the overcrowding issues on our CrossCountry services.


  2.  Passengers expect to get a seat on intercity journeys of any significant length. Market research consistently shows Availability of a Seat as the third most important requirement for long distance passengers after Reliability and Punctuality. The only exception is where intercity services pass through large conurbations and some commuters elect to stand for short distances to save time on their journeys.

  3.  History shows that when long-distance trains are regularly overcrowded, intercity passengers migrate to other means of transport. The revenue-forecasting model used by the rail industry predicts an accelerating loss of income as overcrowding increases. It is therefore in the intercity operator's interest to minimise overcrowding and match changes in demand.

  4.  Virgin Trains plans on the basis that every passenger is seated, apart from a few short distance commuter flows. The train managers count the passengers on every train at several points on every trip and this information forms our database for managing overcrowding. Virgin Trains' franchise agreements specify a range of measures to ensure that overcrowding is minimised. For example, West Coast is required to provide at least 350 coaches in service daily, and CrossCountry is required to provide 15,360 seats daily.


  5.  CrossCountry is the UK's only national rail network. It provides long distance intercity services from Aberdeen to Penzance and connects 115 towns and cities without the need to change in London. A third of passenger income comes from journeys of 200 miles or more. It is a growth business, with passenger journeys growing from 12 million trips pa to 16 million since 1996—a growth of 33%.

  6.  This growth has been met by a doubling in train services from 110 trains a day in 1996 to 200 currently. Virgin Trains also committed to totally replace the CrossCountry fleet with the new Voyager trains at a cost of £390 million. The timetable took three years in consultation and was finally introduced in September 2002—where it generated an unexpectedly sudden increase of 40% in passenger journeys over the previous year.

  7.  The average load factor in October was 52% across all services, but after three months experience of the new service it is already clear that a number of services have been suffering unacceptable levels of overcrowding for two reasons. The first factor has been the scale of short-distance passengers transferring to the new Voyager trains as they pass through the major conurbations. The CrossCountry franchise was intended to provide long distance travel between large centres and its trains will never have the capacity to pick up large numbers of short distance passengers en route.

  8.  The second factor has been the worsening punctuality of the national network. Service disruption can cause overcrowding problems to escalate dramatically, as delayed passengers naturally crowd onto the first available train. Train congestion on the national network has worsened significantly since the CrossCountry timetable was conceived and it is increasingly hard to run long-distance trains to time. Punctuality is closely linked to overcrowding in a rail industry with virtually no spare resources. Around 20% of CrossCountry delay minutes are caused by network congestion.

  9.  Virgin Trains is committed to resolving the overcrowding issue. There is no Do Nothing option, as continued overcrowding will lead to the loss of the very long-distance passengers and income base that we are seeking to expand in line with government growth targets. Possible solutions fall into three categories: a) managing short-distance demand b) expanding capacity and c) adjusting pricing.


10.  Remove some intermediate stops

  From 12 January we removed some short-distance stops from selected CrossCountry services in the Midlands to provide relief to long-distance trains and return local passengers to their regional services.

11.  Re-timetable to strengthen core routes

  From 18 May we shall re-timetable some services to create additional seats on the core network, where the overcrowding is worst. This will allow us to double the length of some trains and put the longest trains where they are most needed, eg on Anglo-Scottish services.

12.  Reservations

  There is a growing conflict between the freedom to "walk up" unreserved and the certainty of getting a seat. We are increasingly encouraging long-distance passengers to book in advance so that we can spread the demand onto quieter services through cheaper fares and reservations. From May, CrossCountry will follow other intercity operators in advertising all its services as "Reservation Recommended".


13.  More train slots

  It is becoming clear that the rail network is now suffering serious congestion on the critical corridors/bottlenecks and there is no hope of finding additional fast slots to strengthen the CrossCountry network at popular times. In the light of this, we have agreed to withdraw our proposal for a new two-hourly service Birmingham-Swindon-Paddington from next May.

14.  Retain old High Speed Trains

  CrossCountry retained 17 of its old High Speed Trains to provide overcrowding relief whilst the new timetable bedded down. The SRA require us to reduce this to six High Speed Trains from May and we shall use these to enable some Voyager services to be doubled up on popular routes. There is currently no agreement to retain any HSTs after September 2003.

15.  Lengthen new trains

  About half the Voyager fleet is four-car and the other half five-car. An obvious overcrowding benefit would be to lengthen all trains to five-cars to provide an additional 2,200 seats together with greater operational flexibility. This would require the purchase of an additional 38 coaches at about £53 million. Unfortunately all attempts to make a commercial business case have foundered on insufficient payback for the investment. The only way forward now lies in raising fares to deliver the missing income and/or persuading the SRA to provide socio-economic support.


16.  Cheapest fares on quietest trains

  About 50% of CrossCountry passengers travel on walk-up Saver tickets where there will always be a risk of overcrowding. Virgin Value fares (APEX in InterCity days) were introduced at even bigger discounts to encourage passengers to reserve on the quieter trains. This policy will continue, but it is taking time to adjust the pricing and reservations to the new travel patterns.

17.  Raise prices for committed investment

  A longer-term issue is the declining value of the Saver fares to train operators. 50% of CrossCountry income is now locked into a ticket which has reduced its value by RPI-1 for the last five years. This has been good news for volume growth, but is bad news for investment, as it is becomes ever harder to make a commercial case for investing in additional rolling stock to match the growth. There is a good case for allowing increases in Saver fares where these can be linked to tangible investment in congestion relief such as additional trains and capacity.


  18.  A new fleet of trains brings the opportunity for once-in-a-generation safety developments. The Voyager trains offer Train Protection Warning System to prevent SPADs: sophisticated wheel-slide protection: front-end crumple zones twice the strength of high speed trains: crumple zones throughout the train: black box safety recorders and rapid passenger evacuation through wide doorways

  19.  Trains are designed to operate safely at crush loadings, as it is impracticable to regulate passenger numbers at every calling point (CrossCountry trains call at up to 30 stations with stops as short as one minute). Whilst crush loadings on intercity journey lengths are totally unacceptable on environmental grounds, there is no evidence that they create any greater safety risk. A 1999 Health & Safety report Implications of Overcrowding on Railways concluded that "there is no evidence to suggest that overcrowding per se is a safety issue".


  20.  Intercity overcrowding will need addressing as demand continues to rise, fuelled by worsening transport congestion and ever cheapening Saver fares.

  21.  CrossCountry overcrowding will be significantly improved this year as timetables are adjusted, reservations encouraged and passengers are diverted to quieter trains.

  22.  The government/SRA have a pivotal role to play in planning ahead to avoid overcrowding through capacity management and investment.

January 2003

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