After years 
of playing catch-up, rail is fast becoming an excellent alternative to flying between London and Glasgow or Edinburgh.

After decades of declining passenger numbers, Anglo-Scottish rail has finally turned the corner. The “high road” of air travel – for years considered the better choice, and the main option for people travel between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow – is losing market share.

Having travelled the East Coast main line (ECML) route for many decades, I can confirm the British Railways era (pre-1965) was the low point for Anglo-Scottish rail.

That BR era was one of managed decline; and indeed, the 1960s’ Beeching report even recommended the ECML be severed north of Newcastle, with all Edinburgh-bound traffic routed via the West Coast main line (WCML).

Today, of course, it’s quite different. Compared to the 1960s, the ECML – managed by Network Rail, which is government owned but has private train operating companies (TOCs) running on it – has staged a renaissance. It easily outperforms the WCML in terms of passenger numbers.

In fact with fast trains every 30 minutes, the ECML offers almost the sort of service frequency one would expect on some suburban lines.
In contrast, the WCML only operates hourly services. Not as frequent as those over on the ECML, but a significant improvement on what would have been expected in the past.

Figures released last summer gave rail a 33 per cent market share of the air/rail journey between London and Edinburgh/Glasgow, beating the previous record of 32 per cent set in June 2014. Virgin Train East Coast’s (VTEC) Edinburgh-London route is the star performer, with Virgin Trains (VT) Glasgow-London not too far behind.

“When we took over the ECML route we set an ambitious plan to gain a 50 per cent market share between Edinburgh and London by 2023,” says David Horne, MD of VTEC.

“These figures show an encouraging start to that journey and confirm an historic shift in travel patterns towards train travel. Our customers have responded positively to the improvements in customer service, and investment in new train interiors and additional services.”

I would be failing in my duty as a journalist to not mention the service disruption that occurs from time to time. Trains can be delayed for, at best, a matter of minutes; at worst, several hours.

So why the resurgence in rail? 
There are several reasons.

Rail today offers a more attractive package in terms of scheduling, pricing and, on the WCML, more modern trainsets. It’s true that VTEC’s trainsets have been refurbished, but fussy travellers will notice that they are life-expired.

Today’s services may not be faster from London to the Scottish cities than the best that operated in the pre-1965 British Rail era, but the number of them has almost doubled. And scheduling is better. Gone are the days when the fastest trains were either one-stop or even non-stop such the Flying Scotsman or the Elizabethan. The policy now is for trains to make several stops en route to cater to a wider market; this is an option with which air cannot compete.

UK rail travel, especially for the 
many travellers conscious of 
their carbon footprint, has become fashionable. All the more surprising, because rail fares can cost more than budget airlines.

Rail offers the ability to work onboard, especially in first class. Other benefits of first class include free weekday catering on both VT and VTEC routes; the menus vary, but the East Coast line is invariably posher.

Hotel glory

Railway hotels at both ends of these routes have been refurbished to their former glory: at King’s Cross, the Great Northern and the St Pancras Renaissance; in Glasgow the Grand Central; and in Edinburgh, the North British (now the Balmoral).

New trains and services

When VTEC introduces Hitachi Azuma trains in December 2018, the ECML will see a much-needed capacity boost of around 20 per cent. VTEC’s existing British Rail era HST diesel trains and electric Mallard sets, although refurbished, are life-expired after racking up huge mileages over the decades. Azuma trains will be limited to today’s maximum of 125mph, but will have better acceleration to cope with the en route stops.

VT’s services over the WCML are already in the hands of modern “tilting” Pendolino trains, and these are not due for replacement.

Currently VT/VTEC face no rail competition between London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. But although VT keeps its monopoly, VTEC will have a rival; First Group has been granted open access rights between London and Edinburgh.

First Group’s East Coast Trains Ltd 
brand aims to ape budget airlines from 2021. It will do this by operating five services a day to provide 1.5 million seats annually, offering wifi for all, having charges from £25 one-way and taking online reservations until the point of departure. Modern trains are planned (details yet to be revealed) and services will call at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth en route.

This raises the question: why are First Group so interested in Morpeth, Newcastle or Stevenage? Because Stevenage and Morpeth are within easy reach of Stansted and Newcastle airports, and so appeal to potential air passengers, many of them travelling with low-cost carriers.

So what are the downsides to rail? 
Unlike air, rail is still not perceived as being ideally suited for day business trips. And some travellers do not necessarily live and/or work close to city centre train stations; for some, the airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick, London City or Stansted can prove more convenient than King’s Cross or Euston.

In Edinburgh the situation can be even clearer, with many business parks located near the airport. A good number of business people now live in other parts of the Central Belt, such as Stirling or Falkirk, which makes the airport more convenient than Waverley, especially if you drive and park.

Sleepy time

Rail is better for business people intending to have an overnight stay, or those who may wish to mix and match air and rail on the same trip. Or those who may wish to take the Caledonian Sleeper in one or both directions to save on accommodation costs and, in winter (when flights can be subject to weather delays), ensure you can arrive in time for early appointments.

Right now the Caledonian Sleeper is a 40-year throwback. But, as you will have read online at Business Traveller, major changes are planned for 2018 when the overnight trains will be taken to a new level, and priced for the business and wealthy leisure market. Artists’ impressions of the “hotel standard” trainsets show rolling stock with en suite showers and toilets, as well as more regular accommodation.

Whereas other European countries are cutting back, the UK is investing in new luxury rolling stock; the new overnight trains are being partially-funded by the governments on both sides of the border. The Caledonian Sleeper will continue to serve the main cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in addition to Highland routings. The latter appeal not just to leisure travellers but also to parliamentarians.

Virgin confusion

Despite what people might think, Virgin Trains (VT) and Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) are not the same.

When VT took over the West Coast franchise in 1997 it was viewed as a neglected, overlooked “Cinderella” service; the government paid Virgin to take it off its hands. Virgin Trains’ franchise ends in 2019, and the next operator (who will also be responsible for HS2) has yet to be announced.

By contrast, East Coast is viewed by the government as a prestige franchise, with fees to match. VTEC is having to pay £3.3 billion – yes, billion – in fees over the eight years of its franchise, which ends in 2023. Previous operators GNER and National Express failed to make the necessary payments and so “returned the keys”. And now, as we have previously reported, VTEC is running into difficulties and is renegotiating its franchise.

Not only does each operator have different tariffs and trains, but the onboard product and the ownership also varies. (In the days of British Rail, fares between London-Edinburgh and London-Glasgow were identical, 
which is not the case today.)

VT is 51 per cent owned by Virgin Group, and 49 per cent by Stagecoach. VTEC is owned 10 per cent by Virgin Group, but 90 per cent by Stagecoach. 
So VTEC is really a Stagecoach company with Virgin branding.

However, Business Traveller receives very few complaints about late-running trains. Maybe this is because of generous Delay Repay payments, which are in excess of what a domestic airline would provide; VT/VTEC are also usefully proactive in encouraging passenger claims.