After a wonderful fun filled day in Exeter, including a whirlwind tour of the city centre, playing board games and enjoying an excellent meal, we headed back to the city’s St. David’s station for our journey back to Penzance. When booking tickets for our trip, I had decided to take the opportunity to compare the two operators that use the Cornish Main Line and so chose to travel back to Penzance with CrossCountry trains. The tickets for each of us from Exeter to Penzance were £15.75 for a first-class advance single with a railcard. In comparison, this was slightly more expensive (by £2-£3) than GWR, however the timings worked better for our plans and so I was happy to pay the extra.
As with Penzance, there is no First-Class lounge at Exeter, although this wasn’t really an issue as we were only at the station for 10 minutes before our train, and so headed straight for the platform. The Voyager operating our service arrived at Exeter a couple of minutes early, having departed Manchester more than 4 and a half hours earlier and after a short wait in the platform we departed on time. Our journey back to Penzance was timetabled to be just under 3hours 10minutes and was almost exactly the reverse of the trip to Exeter, with only Hayle being omitted on our return journey.
Shortly after departing Penzance, the Train Manager made their way through the train and, after checking our tickets, very kindly pointed out some other unreserved seats in the carriage which would provide us with a bit more space for the journey. Having settled in I was pleased to find that there were both power sockets and wi-fi provided, with the latter turning out to be much faster than that on our outbound journey with GWR. However, the Voyager fleet is newer and hasn’t been refurbished a recently meaning that the seats were fabric rather than leather and there were no USB sockets available.
Having previously had mixed experiences with CrossCountry’s onboard service (including their ridiculously early finish times on Birmingham to Stansted services – read about that here), I deliberately hadn’t set my expectations very high and so was pleasantly surprised to find that before our first stop the Train Manager had made their way back through the train and offered us a “range of snacks” and drinks. This was the first time I had experienced the arrangement of neither a trolley service or Café Bar, with the Train Manager heading to the small catering area next to first-class and returning with our selection a few minutes later. The range of snacks included crisps, biscuits and fruitcake with us also receiving a lemonade and a hot drink, the latter of which was very much appreciated towards the end of a long day.
Shortly after leaving Exeter, the railway follows the western bank of the river Exe and the Exe estuary on its way to Dawlish Warren and we are able to enjoy amazing views out over the river in the fading evening light. Turning towards the west as the river meets the sea, we pass through Dawlish and along what is now possibly one of the most infamous sections of railway in Britain. In early 2014, a storm caused devastation to this section of the railway with the sea wall and a section of the line being washed away leaving the rails suspended in mid-air. In one of the most impressive engineering operations of recent times, Network Rail poured resources into the area and re-built the affected section of railway (and sea wall) in six weeks.
Approaching Totnes station heading westwards, we were able to catch a glimpse of Totnes Castle above the rooftops, somewhere we were planning on visiting later on in our holiday and that will be covered in more detail in a guest post by Beth on the blog in the near future. A castle was built on the site soon after the Norman invasion of 1066 and the remaining keep and curtain wall were constructed in the 14th century. After Totnes, we have a brief stop before approaching Plymouth where the Train Manager announces we have a scheduled 15-minute stand. Although timetabled, I hadn’t realised that there was an extended wait at Plymouth, and it went someway to explaining why our journey west was scheduled to take longer than the earlier eastbound journey despite having less stops.
Departing Plymouth on schedule, we passed through the suburbs of the city and pass the Naval base of Devonport, where we are able to get a good view of HMS Albion, the flagship of the Royal Navy until the new HMS Queen Elizabeth assumes the role later in 2019. HMS Albion is an amphibious transport dock and carries troops and vehicles (up to the size of a Challenger II tank) which can be deployed by landing craft or via helicopter from the flight deck at the rear of the ship. HMS Albion is a total of 176m long, almost twice the length of the Class 220 we were travelling on and has a displacement of almost 20,000 tons.
As we leave the Plymouth suburbs, we slow to the 15 mph speed limit for crossing the Royal Albert Bridge and are lucky enough to enjoy the view of the Tamar Estuary as we cross it at sunset. Despite the maximum speed of all of the trains operating across this route being 125 mph, the geography of the line prevents any reaching these high speeds with the maximum speed at any point between Plymouth and Penzance being 75 mph and a lot of the distance being a maximum of 60 mph. This is part of the reason (combined with the multiple stops) it takes over 3 hours to travel the 133 miles between Penzance and Exeter, but only 2 to travel the 192 between Exeter and London Paddington.
Having been up at 6am, both of us settle down for a nap for the final hour of the journey, but not before the Train Manager has come through the now empty (except for us) first class carriage and offered us more drinks and snacks. Pulling into Penzance we arrive exactly on time, which although expected, is impressive considering the train has started its journey over 7 hours previously in the north-west, stopped at 23 stations and passed through major railway junctions such as Birmingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads on it’s way to the Britain’s most westerly station.
In conclusion, the journey with CrossCountry was better than I had expected, with a reasonable first-class offering and a fairly comfortable journey. My only real complaint with the journey is that the seats on the Voyager trains could be improved, as on a three-hour journey they started to become uncomfortable. In comparison to the competitor on the route, GWR, CrossCountry’s offering is pretty much identical and with the price difference being negligible, in future I will choose whichever operator offers the best timings and would have no issues booking a CrossCountry service into Devon and Cornwall.
Punctuality 5* Comfort 3* Facilities 5* Cost 5* Overall 4.5*
Operator: CrossCountry Headcode: 1V61 Route: EXD-PNZ Class: First Seat: A24 Date: Saturday 11th May 2019