The Edinburgh to London train could see off the plane and boost rail travel if another service is allowed to run alongside the East Coast franchise, says Tony Lodge
A new race is on which can at last make London-to-Scotland express rail travel competitive with aviation. New plans for the fastest ever long-distance rail service between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh using new tilting trains will slash city to city journey times from an average of just under four and a half hours to just over 3hrs 40 mins. .
But 20 years since railway privatisation, there is still no on-track competition against the main franchise holder, East Coast, in the provision of direct fast services between Waverley and King’s Cross on the East Coast Main Line. This could change if the government approves plans for new privately funded fast services from 2017. Where this kind of “open access” rail competition and choice has been allowed elsewhere on the line, fares have remained low, satisfaction high and more passengers have used the railway.
The ambition by the early rail pioneers to connect London and Scotland with fast trains led to the famous “Race for the North” in the 1890s which also fired the legendary rivalry between the LMS and LNER railway companies in the 1930s, both seeking to deliver the fastest connections. While the LNER delivered the crack Flying Scotsman and Silver Jubilee services between King’s Cross and Waverley, the LMS fought back with their streamlined Coronation Scot service, delivered between Euston and Glasgow in 1937.
Direct commercial flights, started between Turnhouse Aerodrome (now Edinburgh Airport) and London Heathrow in 1947, immediately made an impact on the rail market as they could more than slash in half the seven hours and 15 minute journey offered by the steam trains.
But new modern electric 140mph tilting trains allow rail, for the first time in 80 years, to regain its supremacy in connecting passengers, city to city, between Edinburgh and London and deliver modal shift and real competition between air and rail.
Alliance Rail’s proposed new Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) services will require a £300 million private investment and plan to operate every hour throughout the day between 6am and 7pm with later starting services at weekends. Between London and Edinburgh there will only be one stop at Newcastle. GNER has already identified spare capacity on the line to host the new services as well as finding suitable platform space at Waverley.
GNER will be able to deliver a journey time of 3 hr 43 mins journey time because it will operate the 140mph trains, although initially they will be limited to 125mph. Importantly, these trains will be capable of tilting, which allows them to travel safely and comfortably at higher speeds around curves. Readers will know that between Darlington and Edinburgh, particularly around Berwick and Dunbar, the railway has many tight curves.
Speeds of up to 140mph may be possible from 2020 when a new signaling system is in place between London and Yorkshire. The company plans trains with nine passenger carriages, offering around 500 seats in various classes of travel. There will be new railway jobs in Scotland as the trains will be serviced and maintained overnight at Glasgow’s Polmadie depot and Scottish train crews will be employed. Importantly, this service can effectively deliver HS2’s projected journey times and economic benefits for Scotland 15 years early.
By competing with the line’s franchise holder, East Coast, the new GNER services can repeat the positive results from Yorkshire and the North-east of England, where private open access services have been allowed and encouraged to compete and deliver new rail services alongside the franchise.
Detailed research this year by the Centre for Policy Studies showed that where rail competition is delivered, it leads to more journeys, higher revenues for the train companies, lower fares, more routes served and happier passengers. The research (since 2009) showed that passenger journeys increased by 42 per cent at those stations which enjoyed rail competition, compared with 27 per cent for those without competition; revenue increased by 57 per cent where competition occured compared to 48 per cent for those stations without competition; average fares increased by only 11 per cent at those stations with competition, compared to 17 per cent at stations without competition and there was no threat to the viability of the franchise.
In addition, in the official rankings of passenger satisfaction of the 31 main train companies, those which came first and second were those which are running “open access” competitive services against the franchise.
This modal shift and competition, with air as well as rail, can deliver improved accessibility and will increase both business interest in Edinburgh and also the tourism attraction of the whole of Scotland as many international visitors first arrive in London. Faster and cheaper rail links will help deliver more tourists to Scotland.
But the railway regulator remains stubborn as regards allowing such new non-franchised services to get the green light. There remains an old-fashioned approach that such innovation on the railways just causes complications. This view is, of course, wrong and draconian and must be changed. Scottish MPs, MSPs and trade groups should get behind this proposed new service to secure better connectivity with London and more inward investment. Such a fast new service to Edinburgh will stand out to the London business community in the same way proposed new fast rail services from Paddington will change the attraction of Cardiff and South Wales.
Politicians have regularly voiced their desire for more modal shift from air to rail but this will only work and become popular if rail can put up a sound case for competition on time, cost and passenger comfort. Up until now, between London and Edinburgh, this has been lacking. Even with the need to travel out to airports, check in, suffer possible delays and then travel on to your destination after the flight, the plane has traditionally been preferred over the train, but this can now change.
So 90 years since the LNER introduced the Flying Scotsman express and delivered a revolution in fast rail travel, new privately funded high speed services can pull the advantage back from aviation and deliver a new era on the railways between London and Scotland.
• Tony Lodge is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of ‘Rail’s Second Chance – Putting Competition Back on Track’, published by the CPS