First Group has promised to offer “significantly lower” fares on the route if its plans go ahead, with journey times of four hours between Edinburgh and London.
Rail chiefs hope to poach customers from the likes of Ryanair and easyJet as well as East Coast operator Virgin, but while the trains will have no first class, they won’t be no-frills as services would include free wi-fi and a full catering operation.
However, Virgin said the services wouldn’t be any faster than its own trains to London – and said its schedule wouldn’t allow for competing services.
First Group, which recently lost out on a bid to continue running the ScotRail franchise, said services between the two capitals would only make three stops along the route, and would be aimed at passengers connecting on to flights from smaller regional airports as well as London-bound travellers.
Express services would stop at Newcastle and Morpeth stations, close to Newcastle Airport, and at Stevenage, which is near London Luton.
The bid comes less than a fortnight after Virgin Trains took over the running of the East Coast main line. The new operator, which uses the famous Virgin corporate branding but is 90 per cent owned by Brian Souter’s firm Stagecoach, has also pledged to introduce four-hour services.
Proposals will need to be signed off by the Office of Rail Regulation, which has power to grant or refuse permission to use a stretch of track to “open access application” from firms that do not hold the main franchise for that line.
First Group chief executive Tim O’Toole said the new service would be an “alternative to flying”.
He said: “We hope to entice passengers away from budget airlines through our low fares and high-quality trains. We have put our compelling case to the ORR and we are looking forward to hearing the outcome of our application.”
A First Group spokesman said: “Passengers would benefit from low fares, free wi-fi and on-board catering, all offered in one high-quality class of travel on brand-new, state-of-the-art rolling stock comparable to other trains being introduced on the route.”
However, a spokesman for Stagecoach-Virgin said the operator already had plans for four-hour services between Edinburgh and London, and said the proposal would not be compatible with its timetable.
He said: “Any open access application should be considered as part of the whole network and ensure that what’s on offer is in the best interests of passengers.
“While limited open access competition is possible, we don’t believe what has been proposed would be compatible with our timetable proposals, which will deliver extra and new direct services to London from key locations in Scotland and England and more weekend services.”