Branson rolls out cheerleaders to signal an end to 'hell' on the network no-one wanted

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The Independent Online

By common consent, Virgin Trains' sprawling ramshackle CrossCountry service has been a national disgrace.

Those unfortunate or foolish enough, for instance, to want to get from Dundee to Penzance by availing themselves of Sir Richard Branson's trains would need a spare 12 hours, with say another two hours built in for "operating difficulties" and an extra hour to cope with the company's habit of mislaying drivers. During the recent post-Hatfield engineering work, even Virgin advised people against using its services.

Yesterday, Sir Richard launched a new 125mph train aimed at coping with its nationwide rail franchise, which was the bit nobody really wanted when the rest of the network was privatised.

Since 1997 CrossCountry train services have performed lamentably by every possible index of passenger satisfaction. Sir Richard's talent for self-promotion and marketing was rendered impotent in the face of trains that were falling apart, and routes Railtrack conspicuously failed to maintain to any reasonable standard. In Sir Richard's own words, it was "sheer hell".

NowVirgin believes that its new Voyager trains will transform the CrossCountry network. They are replacing rolling stock, which are up to 40 years old and held together by parts that maintenance engineers have to make for themselves. By September 2002 all the old trains will have been sent to the scrap yard, allowing Virgin to double the frequency of services.

The new diesel trains offer a smooth ride and reasonable comfort, with the addition of the sort of audio entertainment available to economy-class air travellers. A drawback is Virgin's insistence that passengers must book ahead if they want reasonable fares. Those turning up to a station and asking to travel immediately are often rendered speechless by the cost of the journey. This policy has meant that since Virgin bought the franchise in 1997, the proportion of pre-booked tickets has risen from 4 per cent to an incredible 60 per cent.

Predictably, the launch of the new trains yesterday was accompanied by Virgin publicity stunts, which included the regulation bevy of young female cheerleaders and an inaugural journey by the Virgin Voyager train from Euston to Oxford ­ where journalists were taken to Sir Richard's country home and entertained by The Parachute Regiment's Red Devils sky-diving team.

Virgin foresees a "new dawn" for its operations. It promises to cut the Birmingham-Reading journey time by 20 per cent ­ from 110 minutes to 87 minutes ­ and the number of trains between the two stations will increase from the current 18 to 41 a day.

The aim is to lure travellers away from the motorway network that traces almost exactly the lines operated by CrossCountry. But no doubt the management at the rail company will have its work cut out.

Yesterday, a senior industry insider rang The Independent to offer what he described as "an alternative view" of Virgin, as the company strutted its stuff in front of the media. "I'm in Sheffield and I've just travelled on a CrossCountry train ­ which was one and a half hours late ­ trying to get on another one, which has just been cancelled. They might be launching their new rolling stock with all this ballyhoo, but they seem to have given up with the trains they have got," he said.

Nevertheless, Virgin Trains' reputation for "making do" with antediluvian equipment could lead to an expansion of its empire, which also includes the main Anglo-Scottish west coast train line. Despite its problems, the number of passengers using CrossCountry has risen from 12 million to 16 million since privatisation, and it now carries as many people as it did before the Hatfield disaster last October.

The Strategic Rail Authority will decide this week which company should take over the east coast main line between England and Scotland, which is operated by Great North Eastern Railways (GNER). Sir Richard is in with a shout.