News

Focus of the week: Trains v Planes

9 Jan 2008 by Mark Caswell

The battle for passengers between London and Manchester is raging again. Richard Branson may have his own airline, but that is not stopping the fight between his train company and the domestic flyers becoming ever bloodier.

It is a lucrative market – Transport for London even advertises its Oyster card in the Manchester Evening News – and the airlines flourished during the closure of the West Coast Main Line for its multi-billion pound upgrade a few years ago. But after the bulk of the work was completed and the fast-tilting Pendolinos got into their stride, there seemed to be no stopping the train operator.

Virgin officials had begun to talk about the “decimation” of the domestic airline industry and former Tory environment minister John Gummer even suggested grounding all 32 flights between Manchester and London in favour of Virgin’s ever-faster and more frequent trains.

But a big train fare increase on January 3 and this Christmas’s infamous problems with the WCML at Rugby have opened up the market all over again. Belgian operator VLM, just bought by Air France, says its return flights between Manchester and London City were selling out during the difficulties. Only a few months ago each side was nobly saying there was room for both. But now, the gloves are off again.

Johan Vanneste, managing director of VLM, said: “Network Rail’s failure to complete engineering work has crippled rail services between Manchester and London, and we are pleased that we have attracted new customers who have been able to experience our fast and convenient service. Manchester-London City is one of the most important routes in our expanding network and has grown considerably since its introduction over five years ago.”

Engineering work is not the only thing Virgin has to worry about. The reality may be that not many passengers will actually be paying the full first class open return fare between London and Manchester. But an eye-watering £360 – £30 more than Virgin Atlantic’s advertised London to New York fare of £330 on January 2 when the new train tickets went on sale – did not sit well with the disruption.

Yet Virgin insists that the price is carefully pitched to undercut the airline’s standard fares between the two cities. Elsewhere, it claims that worsening delays at Gatwick and Heathrow are helping trains to compete successfully with planes between central Scotland and London.

Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Trains, said: “We have beaten off air competition from Liverpool, taken the vast majority of air/rail traffic from Manchester to London and are now making significant inroads into the Glasgow-London market.”

Meanwhile, in November the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against Exeter-based Flybe (which bought BA Connect) for its “misleading” advertisement earlier this year, which made three erroneous claims about the level of train fare rises past and present, as well as claiming that Flybe was cheaper than rail.

Following a complaint by rail buff Lord Faulkner of Worcester, the ASA ruled that Flybe’s three claims breached its code, either on the basis of truthfulness and/or substantiation and said: “The ad was likely to mislead.”

The nearest Flybe gets to London is Southampton, but there are no fewer than four airlines vying to carry business travellers between Manchester and London. British Airways serves both Heathrow and Gatwick, Bmi uses Heathrow, the tiny Eastern Airways flies to Stansted, and VLM gets closest to the centre at City airport.

For a comparison with Virgin, only VLM will really do because the others start and finish so far out of London. I made two journeys on successive Monday mornings by plane and train from my home 18 miles from Manchester to St James’s Square, Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

I caught each carrier’s busiest service – the 0705 train from Manchester Piccadilly and the 0715 flight from Manchester airport. For fairness, we checked the prices to make the same journey on a Monday. At first sight, VLM’s fares look extremely competitive, but air taxes of £58.30 return bump up the cost considerably.

Timewise, the plane won, but only just. This is the result:

                                             Virgin                                  VLM

Home to station/airport      30 minutes                            40 minutes

At station/airport                 First class lounge                   Security queues

Price (return)                       £230 (standard), £360 (first)   £206.30 inc taxes
                                                                                         and booking fee

Train/plane                          Pendolino                              Fokker 50 
                                                                                         turboprop

Seats                                     296 (standard) 145 (first)       50 (all economy)

Frequency                             34 trains a day                      11 flights a day

Food                                      Cooked breakfast                  Sandwich and
                                              included first class                 coffee included

Arrival                                   On time                                On time

Euston/ London City             Three stops on Victoria line     DLR

To destination                      On foot                                  Seven stops on
                                                                                          Jubilee line and
                                                                                          then on foot

Train/flight time                  2 hours, 6 minutes                 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total journey time               3 hours                                 2 hours, 45 minutes

More good news for airlines is that Manchester airport has opened a new purpose-built Domestic Security Search area in Terminal 3 for the exclusive use of all UK domestic, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland passengers. That will ease the biggest hassle for air travellers of the moment and will help weather Virgin’s next big trump card – three trains an hour from Manchester to London by the end of this year.

For more information visit virgintrains.co.uk, flyvlm.com, asa.org.uk.

Alan Salter

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