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The rolling stock and your fellow passengers make all the difference
Member Name: snakemonkey
Advantages: Good value if booked ahead.
Disadvantages: Inconsistent level of service with catering and rolling stock, certain trains can be very busy.
I've decided to ignore the cost argument of rail travel in my review, because all up front train tickets on long distance routes are expensive, regardless of the operator, and all operators have a decent choice of cheap advance tickets, including first class, so to single out Cross Country for being expensive in this way would be unfair.
Cross country use three types of trains, the Voyagers (which form the majority of their services), a small number of the old Intercity 125's and the turbostars. Despite the fact that you might think 'a train is a train', the passenger environments in these three types couldn't be more different, and thus it can be like travelling on three separate train companies, rather than just the one!
The voyagers themselves are by far the worst of the three types of train. These trains aren't suitable for some of the routes they are on, with only 4 or 5 coaches, despite going the length of the country. The standard class seating is very uncomfortable for long distance travel, with hard upright seat backs and little legroom. Whereas this layout may be preferable for short distance commuter trips, where the aim should be to maximise passenger numbers, on a long distance train it is fairly intolerable. A short history lesson reveals that the voyagers were ordered by the franchise predecessor Virgin, who wanted to double the frequency of the cross country network, with the plan to shorten train lengths, but increase the number of services. A nice idea on paper, but for whatever reason, this seems to mean that half the services aren't very busy at all, where as the other half can be horrifically rammed (usually the ones going on the longer distance trips such as Bournemouth to Manchester, or Dundee to Penzance). I cannot say I can recommend a long distance journey on these voyagers at all, though for short hops within the core network served - i.e. Reading to Oxford, the service frequency increase is ideal.
The second type of train used is the Intercity 125, the old BR high speed trains, still used by Great Western and East Coast. The passenger environment on these couldn't be anymore different to the voyagers, with plenty of tables, comfortable standard class seating you can fall asleep in, and plenty of leg room. Because they are 7 coaches long, there are usually plenty of seats, even when they are busy. This is much more like long distance train travel should be, and well done to Cross Country for bringing these trains back. The only problem is they don't operate that many services, so it is the luck of the draw if you get one of these.
Finally we have the smaller turbostar trains, which are used on the secondary routes such as Nottingham Cardiff and Leicester to Stansted Airport. These trains can get very busy in the peak - being only 3 coaches long, however off peak they provide a not too dissimilar environment to the Intercity 125's with very comfortable standard class seating, and a variety of airline and table seats. Obviously slightly more of a local train, but still pleasant to travel by.
All catering now is provided by trolley services. The trolley services on the voyager and 125 trains are in house, but the ones on the turbostars are provided by agency staff. This means that the cost of a cup of tea (and other items) is different depending on what service you use! In general the service provided in house is better, with smarter, more professional and keen staff, which is not surprising as I would imagine they are paid a better wage, and get better benefits. The other staff you will encounter is the Guard , often called the Train Manager or Conductor, most are only too happy to help, but you can get a couple who are very keen on enforcing the ticket regulations by the book, so make sure you are on the correct train and have all your documents up to date and correct!
Finally the main upside and indeed downside of train travel involves who else you are sharing a carriage. You can meet interesting people or have a decent quiet relaxing journey, but equally you could have to put up with annoying personal stereo noise leaking out and constant chatter on mobile phones. But this is true of all companies.
Summary: There are worse ways to travel!