With prices that compete with air fares, improved online booking systems and onboard sevices, travelling by train from London to Scotland is becoming a more attractive option. Alex McWhirter reports.

Taking the train to Scotland will soon be a more feasible option than taking a plane, particularly if you live or work within easy reach of a mainline station. The two rail firms operating the busy East and West Coast routes to Edinburgh and Glasgow, namely NXEC (National Express East Coast) and Virgin Trains, plan a number of service improvements over the coming year.

With a better product, environmental concerns on the agenda and the chance to avoid airport stress, this means that, perhaps for the first time, the train has a fighting chance of winning back market share from the plane.

Currently, rail holds a minute share of the Anglo-Scottish business market. According to Nigel Turner, director of public sector UK for travel agent Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), rail tends to be most popular for journey times of up to three hours. He says: “It means Newcastle is the furthest destination on the London-Edinburgh route that a business person is prepared to go to by train. Right now, only between 3 and 5 per cent of our business passengers would take the train to Edinburgh or Glasgow.”

Other attractions aimed at winning passengers from the “high road”, making train-travel cover better, are onboard food plus faster and more frequent trains.

NXEC, which operates from London King’s Cross and took over the East Coast franchise from GNER (Great North Eastern Railway) at the end of last year, has already begun offering free wifi internet access on board to passengers in both first and standard class, and catering improvements will shortly appear.

An NXEC spokesperson says: “Previously, standard class passengers had to pay a supplement to access the service. Wifi is also available free in all eight first class lounges at stations along the East Coast route. Usage of our wifi has tripled since the change to free access.”

GNER’s former onboard catering service will be maintained and relaunched. The spokesperson says: “We view restaurant service on this route as a key element of the company’s plans for customer service. We will soon be announcing details of our relaunched onboard catering to start at the end of May. It will feature a fresh and more contemporary menu range alongside the best of the existing offer.”

NXEC doesn’t have the newest trains – they are more than 25 years old, unlike those of its West Coast rival, which operates out of London Euston – but they have been or will soon be fettled up. The NXEC spokesperson says: “Our 125mph electric trains have been comprehensively rebuilt in a two-year, £30 million programme completed in 2005. A further £45 million is being invested in rebuilding our 125mph diesel trains to a similar standard.”

These diesels operate from King’s Cross via Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Inverness as the track north of Edinburgh is not electrified. The best London-Edinburgh journey time is four hours, 15 minutes, and the number of trains – usually one departure an hour throughout the working day – offers customers a good choice.

Virgin has the advantage of having the UK’s newest fleet of long-distance trains – its technically-advanced Pendolino tilting trains are only a few years old. They operate at 125mph (the same speed as National Express East Coast’s trains), but journey times are longer because engineering work continues to slow London-Glasgow times.

The best timing now is four hours, 25 minutes (although some services take five hours), but from next December the trains will start to have 30 minutes cut from their schedule, bringing the timing down to four hours, ten minutes, with the average being four hours, 30 minutes. By May of next year, when the new services are up and running, the number of trains will be boosted from nine to 13 a day, giving a frequency of one per hour.

Virgin’s catering offer is not as comprehensive as NXEC’s but it’s made available free of charge. First class passengers are provided with a cooked breakfast on trains departing up until 1100. From then onwards passengers can expect to be served various snacks throughout the rest of the day.

The exception to that would be a number of peak trains departing Euston (this would cover the 1715 to Glasgow), where a free dinner is served. Free wifi internet access will also be installed on the Pendolinos by next October – it’s already available free in Virgin’s first class lounges.

Both operators offer a variety of fares which can compete with air fares depending on when you book and travel. But one advantage of rail travel is that the flexible tariffs enable you to break your journey at no extra cost, a feature which might make your trip more cost-effective.


Britain’s rail companies want more passengers to book online. Faced with onerous franchise fees the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) have to raise cash as best they can. Besides taking the unpopular step of raising fares, the TOCs can also make savings by cutting agency commission (this has now been reduced from 9 to 5 per cent) and by getting more passengers to opt for cheaper online booking.

Newly launched websites from NXEC (nationalexpresseastcoast.com) and agent Raileasy (raileasy.co.uk) have begun displaying fares more simply, and both automatically show one-way pricing even when passengers request a return ticket. One-way prices can be cheaper than a return ticket depending on demand.

Raileasy has gone one step further by providing a simple “mix and match” price grid for a particular trip. In other words, it will tell a passenger when it is price advantageous to combine standard and first class on the same trip.

It was one of Raileasy’s corporate accounts which gave the online agent the idea. Mike Richardson, managing director of Raileasy, says: “This firm regularly had executives travelling between Crewe and London Euston. It found that when standard class seats were booked out they could obtain a good-value seat in first class for almost the same price [as standard class].”

The next big change will be a more efficient way to get the ticket to the passenger, with print-at-home and Smart ticketing on the horizon. Rival online agent The Trainline (thetrainline.com) was the first to confirm the launch of Smart ticketing. It’s set to start in February 2009, initially with South West Trains (an operator of commuter and regional trains out of Waterloo).
Adrian Watts, sales and distribution director for The Trainline, says: “Passengers will be able to load their Trainline Smartcards through their PCs or laptops or via a ‘smart target’ at stations. The ticket is then validated in the normal way by Smart-enabled ticket gates or by onboard staff.”

Train firms will also move to Smart ticketing in years ahead because it will enable them to increase passenger throughput at busy stations. But in doing so, says Watts, “the TOCs don’t want to get into the situation where they increase passenger numbers by 25 or 30 per cent and then find that queues at busy stations lengthen by a similar amount”.

Another further development might see your mobile phone metamorphosing into a rail ticket. Raileasy’s Richardson says: “Our smart consultancy reckons the ultimate solution will be a ‘smart’ phone to which your ticket would be transmitted. In other words, you would buy a ticket online and use your mobile like you now use your Oyster card [a Smart card used by Londoners for public transport trips].”

Nevertheless, the number of passengers booking long-distance tickets online is small compared with other travel modes. More than 90 per cent of passengers book their Ryanair and Easyjet flights online; in contrast, NXEC says that 22 per cent of its passengers book its services via its website.

When it comes to long-distance rail travel with all operators, Raileasy reckons 27 per cent of passengers book online. The reason, says Richardson, “is because of the difficulty many people have in understanding the UK’s complex fares”. Salvation may be around the corner. The ATOC (Association of Train Operating Companies) says fares will be simplified next September. About time.