Trains trouncing planes for cross border travel

THE proportion of people using trains to travel from Scotland to England, instead of planes, has doubled, figures published today show.
Virgin Trains carry passengers from Scotland to London. Picture: Robert PerryVirgin Trains carry passengers from Scotland to London. Picture: Robert Perry
Virgin Trains carry passengers from Scotland to London. Picture: Robert Perry

Trains have gained ground as a result of faster and more frequent services, the availability of wi-fi and discounted tickets.

Aviation is also seen as losing out from the fragmented nature of air travel and the departure of BMI’s routes from Scotland-Heathrow.

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However, consumer groups said many train operators still had work to do to win passenger satisfaction, while public transport campaigners said the railways needed to attract substantially more passengers to catch up with those in Europe.

In a comparison of train and plane passenger numbers on the ten busiest UK air routes, the most striking change has been on West Coast main line routes.

Between Glasgow and Birmingham, rail’s share against air has more than doubled from 15 per cent in 2006 to one-third last year. On the Edinburgh-­Birmingham route, the proportion has increased from 10 per cent to nearly a quarter.

The airlines’ stranglehold on other routes has also loosened, with Glasgow-London rail journies now accounting for 22 per cent of passengers, up from 11 per cent. Even on the most fiercely competitive route, between Edinburgh and London, rail has increased its share by nearly two-thirds from 17 per cent to 28 per cent.

The report, by the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), was compiled from information from rail firms and the Civil Aviation Authority.

Atoc said factors included a doubling of advance fare sales and a near-doubling of railcard use by students, pensioners and disabled travellers.

Atoc chief executive Michael Roberts said: “Train companies have been winning market share from airlines by competing head to head and adopting airline-style discounting.

“Significant investment and an industry focused on attracting passengers are creating a virtuous circle, where growing revenue is sustaining funding for faster and better services, in turn encouraging more rail travel.”

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Which?said its latest survey found passenger satisfaction with several cross-Border train operators still wanting.

Virgin Trains had been top with 67 per cent of passengers happy, but East Coast scored only 58 per cent and CrossCountry a mere 51 per cent.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Passengers are fed up with trains that are delayed, overcrowded and dirty.”

Colin Howden, director of public transport campaigners Transform Scotland, said: “It’s very welcome to see rail winning market share from the airlines on these key Anglo-Scottish routes. However, on the continent, the railway captures the majority of trips on similar length of routes as the Central Belt to London.”

The Scottish Passenger Agents Association, which represents travel agents, said rail improvements and increasing hassle of air travel had produced the shift.

President Kevin Thom said: “Undoubtedly, Anglo-Scottish train operators have upped their game significantly in recent years. The range of fares has been broadened, encouraging leisure and business travellers to travel by train rather than by air.

“The attractions – and time-­effectiveness – of city centre-to-city centre rail travel have grown, as airport check-in times and procedures have been extended and capacity has come under increasing pressure.”

Damien Henderson, spokesman for Virgin Trains, which operates from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Birmingham and London on the West Coast main line, said: “We have worked really hard to put a service in place that’s more attractive than flying. That means competing aggressively on price, cutting journey times and giving passengers a level of comfort and convenience they don’t get on a plane.”

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An East Coast spokesman said: “Many business and leisure passengers, frustrated by increasing check-in delays at airports and rises in air passenger duty, have seen the advantages of the train.”

However, a spokesman for Edinburgh Airport hit back: “It is clear that air travel remains the best option to travel to London.”

He added: “Scottish airports provide fantastic service to all of London’s airports, and without the subsidy given to rail and road travellers and despite the unfair levels of air passenger duty imposed by the Westminster government.”