Rail firms to compete on London-Edinburgh route

12 May 2016 by Alex McWhirter

In a few years’ time, rail competiton will arrive on the busy East Coast Mainline (ECML) linking London Kings Cross with Edinburgh Waverley.

Today the ORR (Office of Rail and Road) granted permission for First Group to operate a budget rail service between London and Edinburgh. But it will not start until 2021.

First Group is being allowed to operate five return services daily between London and Edinburgh in competition with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC).

Trains will call en route at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth. The stops at Stevenage and Morpeth might seem an odd choice but they’re designed to attract travellers currently using nearby airports as well as not to overly conflict with VTEC.

First Group intends to operate this service to appeal to budget airline passengers. It claims the average fare will be less than £25. There will be free wifi and catering in a fleet of five-car trains and the latter have yet to be acquired.

The trains will be one-class and it’s unclear whether or not there will be separate sections available to business travellers but at a higher price. It is also unclear whether the wifi and catering will be offered to every passenger or offered only to those paying a higher rate.

A claim from rival firm Alliance Rail to also compete against VTEC on the London-Edinburgh route was rejected by the ORR.

First Group already operates between London Kings Cross and Hull under the Hull Trains banner.

Potential problems? 

Readers using the ECML will know that it’s a busy route with limited capacity so it will not be easy to squeeze in another five “paths.”

And First Group will be an “open access” operator on the route so it doesn’t face the expense of having to pay the government's hefty franchise fees.

This is important because First Group will only begin operating towards the end of the VTEC franchise (it expires in 2023) for which the latter is paying the government a mammoth £3.3 billion.

The government views the ECML as a flagship route so franchise fees are high. 

Previously they have been considered too high, resulting in two previous ECML operators, GNER and National Express, having to “hand back the keys” to the government when the fees became unaffordable.

As might be expected VTEC (which is 90 per cent owned by Stagecoach but only 10 per cent by VTEC) is unhappy at the government’s decision.

Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Martin Griffiths, the boss of Stagecoach, said the company “will assess the ORR’s decision and implications in detail and review our options. We do not believe the granting of these services within a franchised system and without a level playing field [open access operators aren’t liable for franchise fees] is in the best interests of passengers, taxpayers or communities.”

But the news will be welcomed by passengers. Anglo-Scottish rail travel is on the ascendant following years of decline in the days of British Rail.

Alex McWhirter

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