10 September 2008

At the bit

I've mentioned before how Barry Doe's The Fare Dealer column in RAIL magazine is the first page I personally turn to, mainly thanks to its specialist subject matter: oddities in the national rail network's fare structure, as well as keeping readers up-to-date with alterations to fares, conditions etc.

I also enjoy Barry's style of journalism - he's very, very knowledgeable on the subject of rail fares (what is or isn't possible, what is or isn't valid) to the point that those in the industry approach him for clarification; he's also often quoted in the national press as a "rail fares expert" and has gone some way in helping people understand that purchasing your ticket in stages can be cheaper than when done on a direct train. Where criticism is due he ensures it's handed out and pulls no punches. Others would be pragmatic or cautious; if Barry Doe describes Arriva's CrossCountry franchise as a "dog of an operator" I (and I presume many, many others) could side with his opinions and assume that it must be.

CrossCountry's chief executive Andy Cooper disagrees - not noticeably with the fact that Barry's referred to his company as "a wholly negative operator" and a "dog of an operator" in recent columns as a result of its seemingly ludicrous restrictions to cheap day return fares, but as a result of Barry comparing CrossCountry with another, now defunct rail operator - Connex.

In a four-column letter in RAIL's issue 598, Andy Cooper takes on Barry Doe head-to-head, questioning recent claims made in The Fare Dealer by responding with some impressive operational statistics, namely that its operational performance has been improved beyond anything in recent years (a little dig at Virgin, whom it inherited the franchise from last year) - it currently sits at just over 90% for the past four months or so.

I was less impressed with Andy Cooper's response on the matter of the new fare restrictions imposed on cheap day returns where CrossCountry sets the fare. Effectively this means that cheap day returns are not valid between 1530-1815 on journeys where CrossCountry sets the fare and in many cases other train companies have to fall into line as they offer these CrossCountry-set fares. The best example is with First Great Western who operate the majority of fares between Cheltenham-Gloucester, yet this section of route has its fare set by CrossCountry and so CDRs are not valid 1530-1815 on weekdays.

Andy Cooper's general response was to claim that "it has always been and will always be possible to find 'fares anomalies' and inconsistencies. After all, without them, there would be little need for The Fare Dealer column, would there?"

Claws now firmly retracted, Andy Cooper's lacklustre response to Barry Doe's continued criticism of his company serves to prove one thing: The Fare Dealer column's strapline is very much true - 'The man they can't ignore'. If a chief executive of one of the nation's rail operators feels obliged to write to RAIL, it at least shows that those at-the-top read the magazine!

In the interests of balance, my first and only journey with CrossCountry was earlier this year when I travelled between Birmingham New Street-Stockport and it went without error. The interior of the Voyager I was travelling on was a little weathered, though I had just come out of a first-class carriage on a Pendolino! That said, this has always made me smile.

As for Connex ('who are they?'), they were the first casualty of the UK's privatised rail industry, losing their franchise four years into their 7 year contract to operate trains in the area that is now operated by Govia's Southern company. The contract was taken off Connex on 24 October 2000 following the company's poor punctuality and lack of investment in new carriages. Additionally, Connex had reduced some journeys in the autumn of 2000 due to a shortage of drivers, were still operating 40-year old slam-door trains, suffered industrial action in the autumn of 1999 and in the last year of their operation saw complaints rise by 31%.