Between the lines

1 Apr 2022 by Alex McWhirter
LNER Azuma train

Anglo-Scottish rail services are now provided by a mix of privately owned Avanti, government managed LNER and open access Lumo.

In British Rail days there was little difference with regards to Anglo-Scottish services. From London, trains departed Euston for Glasgow and Kings Cross for Edinburgh and beyond. Fares and the onboard product were almost identical whether one chose the WCML (West Coast Mainline) from Euston or the ECML (East Coast Mainline) from Kings Cross.

Privatisation in the 1990s saw a reversal in rail decline. Starting from BEA’s Shuttle in the mid-1970s and further spurred on by the arrival of low-cost airlines, air had become the main and fashionable route between London and Scotland, but the arrival of new rail operators in the 1990s started to revive rail’s fortunes, and that has been further boosted recently by environmental considerations. Rail has a much lower environmental impact than either air or car. To take one statistic, admittedly from a rail company, LNER says the extra passengers it has wooed from air and car have saved 170,000 tonnes of carbon per annum.

What do we have now?

We have Avanti West Coast operating over the WCML from Euston and serving both Glasgow (Central) and Edinburgh. Yes, you can change in Glasgow for Scotrail trains further north, but note there will be a change of terminus from Central to Queen Street. Trains to Glasgow are hourly with the fastest taking 4.5 hours. The few which run directly to Edinburgh over the WCML take roughly 5.5 hours.

From Kings Cross, there is government managed LNER operating faster trains over the ECML both to Edinburgh and beyond to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. LNER wins on service frequency with trains operating every 30 mins. Most journeys take around 4.5 hrs (some a little less, some a little more). The fastest LNER service is the 0540 from Edinburgh taking exactly four hours to Kings Cross, although that’s a one-off. LNER’s trains to Aberdeen, Glasgow (Central) and Inverness take considerably longer, as they attract passenger joining en route. For example, Kings Cross to Glasgow takes almost six hours.

Avanti West Coast

WCML rolling stock is Alstom’s Pendolino tilt trains whereas LNER operates the more conventional Hitachi Azuma. Both are modern trains (Azuma is newest) and both have pros and cons.

Avanti is shielded from competition (on the above routes) whereas LNER faces competition from open access Lumo. The rail regulator allowed Lumo to compete on what is probably our most prestigious route by dint of its business model akin to a low-cost airline.

Lumo is not intended to compete in the business market. It’s more for the leisure traveller or, perhaps, the business person paying his or her own fare. Lumo operates infrequently compared to LNER, although, having said that, its business model has been welcomed by customers (judging by its high load factors).

Lumo Hitachi AT 300 Class 308 (istock.com/Teamjackson)

Lumo is one-class only and its fares may not be lower than those of LNER. As with low-cost airlines it depends on the loadings on any given day plus how far ahead one books.

On-board catering (with the two main operators) is complimentary and offered to first class passengers. It has been upgraded in recent months (catering was limited during much of the pandemic) and there’s now a breakfast ‘war’ between operators. In January, Business Traveller reported that a hot breakfast offering had been launched on both Avanti and LNER.

Avanti West Coast offers a three-class configuration: first, standard premier (first class seating without first class catering), and standard. LNER offers conventional first and standard class while Lumo is standard only.

Fares vary between the operators. LNER tends to have the price advantage although much depends on when you book and travel. Avanti may experience competition from open access Grand Union which seeks permission to operate Stirling-London Euston via the WCML. A decision on this application is awaited from the regulator.

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