A new fares war on Britain’s most fiercely contested route is in prospect after Virgin vowed to make trains more popular than planes for the first time in decades.
Virgin Trains East Coast (Vtec) said it will increase rail’s share of the 3 million annual passengers between Edinburgh and London from one third to at least half within seven years.
The bold claim is certain to trigger a fightback from airlines, especially now that low-fares leader Ryanair has resumed flights between the cities, competing with British Airways, EasyJet and Flybe.
Air overtook rail between Edinburgh and London in the 1980s and became dominant with the growth of low-cost airlines in the 1990s,
Nearly one in three passengers at Edinburgh Airport – Scotland’s busiest – fly to and from London and the airport boasts BA’s most frequent flights on the airline’s global network.
Virgin aims to win more passengers with a new fleet of Japanese-built “Azuma” trains which will have extra seats, run more frequently and cut journeys by 20-30 minutes to four hours.
The Hitachi trains go into service in two years, with all the improvements completed by 2020.
Virgin is now taking on the air market it failed to crack as an airline. Its Little Red service, which included Edinburgh-Heathrow flights, folded last year.
The firm conceded its rail target was a “massive challenge” but it has to lure passengers to pay for its £3bn bid for the east coast franchise, which started a year ago and ends in 2023.
Despite the name, Vtec is 90 per cent owned by Perth-based Stagecoach, and analysts at the HSBC bank claimed last month it was “falling behind its targets”.
Stagecoach has declined to comment.
Virgin said rail won the war with air between Manchester and London, where it increased passenger share from half to 90 per cent by introducing faster and more frequent trains a decade ago.
It has also enabled Virgin West Coast to increase rail’s slice of the market between Glasgow and London from 10 per cent to one quarter.
Vtec managing director David Horne said: “We’ve seen really positive growth in train travel on routes where airlines used to dominate.
“But no-one has yet gone after the biggest domestic air market of them all. Around a third of people choose train over plane when travelling between Edinburgh and London. We’re confident we can up that to around half by the end of the franchise.
“Rail will no longer play second fiddle. We think there’s a really big tipping point at four hours where rail becomes the default option for a much bigger proportion of customers.”
A spokesman for EasyJet said: “For over 20 years EasyJet has been competing with other operators whilst focusing on our own strategy of growing our network and providing easy and affordable fares for our customers and this remains our focus.”
Transport experts predicted airlines would be forced to cut fares to compete – and possibly even some flights.
A former ministerial adviser said: “We will see a competitive response and pricing is probably the only move they have got.”
He added that if Virgin met its targets, some flight frequencies might also be reduced, such as those to London City Airport.
A spokesman for Edinburgh Airport said: “We embrace any advances in passenger choice. Without a penny of public subsidy, we offer on average 50 flights a day to London that deliver our passengers to a choice of five locations in and around the UK capital.”
BA declined to comment.