When privatisation struck the British railways in 1997 the bulk of services on the old intercity cross country network passed to Virgin Trains. Having also won the rights to operate the West Main Line franchise Virgin Trains split their operations into two sectors. The Cross Country franchise is rather unique as it was one of few long distance operators to avoid London.
Services commenced in a blaze of publicity when 43063 ‘Maiden Voyager’ and 43068, painted in the corporate Virgin red livery worked 0850 Edinburgh to Penzance on 6th January 1997. An interesting move took place on the same date, with 43087-090 all moving away from ICCS at EC to ICCP at LA.
Virgin Cross Country inherited a large fleet of HSTs which operated alongside Class 47s with the HSTs operating the majority of long distance services with destinations such as Penzance, Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and reaching as far North as Aberdeen.
Virgin Cross Country also operated ‘Summer Saturday’ services visiting destinations such as Newquay and Paignton. One popular train was the 00:01 service from Manchester Piccadilly to Newquay, getting into the seaside resort in time to hit the waves! This service was also popular with enthusiasts from the North and the Midlands wanting to get a full day down in the South West enjoying the plentiful HSTs of the time. To assist Virgin Trains with this operation HST sets were also hired in from GNER and Midland Mainline. This pleased photographers as it gave them the chance of a GNER HST running along the famous Dawlish sea wall.
In order to extract the maximum possible use from their HST fleet Virgin reallocated all the EC allocated Cross-Country power cars to LA, but retained the ICCS pool code, whilst the small West Coast fleet of HSTs was reallocated from LO-LA. Virgin pooled the HST power cars for the Cross Country and West Coast services together in order to achieve a massive increase in the mileage they operated from May 1998 as part of a franchise commitment.
The next major change around with the HST fleet then came in October 2002, Virgin Cross Country launched ‘Operation Princess’ which saw a full fleet of Voyager trains displace HSTs from their previous duties, although at this time only 10 power cars left Virgin Trains – the remaining 47 power cars were divided into two pools. The ‘Challenger’ fleet was created to operate Blackpool and Manchester to Birmingham services, with the plan being to give this fleet a major refurbishment and retain these trains within Virgin Cross Country for a planned Paddington to Birmingham via Swindon operation. The power cars, which were technically the power cars in most need of attention, were transferred to Longsight depot but in a peculiar move were allocated to depot code MA, instead of LO which the West Coast power cars had used. The remainder of the power cars were nicknamed ‘Pioneer’ and these worked the Virgin West Coast services, in addition to four duties on Cross-Country operations.
The ‘Challenger’ fleet consisted of 43063/069-071/078/079/086-089/155/156/159/161/162/180/193-198 whilst the ‘Pioneer’ fleet consisted of 43065/067/068/080/084/090-094/097-103/121-123/153/164/157/158/160.
The remainder of the ‘Pioneer’ machines continued to work with Virgin Cross Country until September 2003 when regular HST operation on Virgin Cross Country ceased, and only a slimmed down fleet was needed to work the West Coast services. 43090/093/099-103/154/157/158 were all surplus, and placed into storage at MOD Bicester.
May 2004 saw the end of HST operation on Virgin West Coast, with the handful of Euston to Holyhead workings becoming loco hauled, which meant that 43065/067/080/084/121 were placed into storage, 43122/123 briefly transferred to MML with just 43092/094/097/098/153 remaining with Virgin for summer holiday trains on Cross Country.
The availability of so many off-lease Porterbrook power cars in various conditions allowed Virgin Cross Country to hire 43070/080/087/193/196 for their summer Saturday workings in 2005, after which open access spot hire operator Cotswold Rail took 43070/087/157/193 and this lead to the relivery of 43070 in Cotswold Rail silver and 43087 in a sponsored Hornby advert scheme.
The staggered introduction of the Voyager led to the demise of HST on Cross Country routes, or so we thought…