Fares are slashed in new railway race to north

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The Independent Online
Nipping north for Hogmanaywill be far cheaper in future as one of the new railway companies announced a cut-price London to Edinburgh fare of pounds 19 yesterday.

Though next Sunday's start date is too late for a Caledonian New Year, the move by the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) was welcomed by other rail operators as proof that privatisation was good news for travellers.

But it also signalled a fight back against air competitors which have given the railways a run for their money. EasyJet has offered pounds 29 single fares from Luton airport, north of London, to Scotland.

Where in the days of steam, the great race to the north pitted rival rail companies against each other for the fastest time to Scotland, the battle a century later is over prices, with train and plane the bitter rivals.

The GNER will introduce the new rate from Sunday on trains from London's Kings Cross to Edinburgh, Motherwell and Glasgow on the former InterCity East Coast line, British Rail's old flagship route.

The move should reverse the advantage between rail and the cheapest air routes. The cheapest previous one-way fare from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow price was pounds 45. The cost of travelling to Dundee will also be cut to pounds 23 from pounds 54 and for Aberdeen or Inverness the price will also be pounds 23, compared with pounds 59, as long as tickets are booked seven days in advance. A single National Express coach ticket to Edinburgh is pounds 13.

Christopher Garnett, GNER's chief executive, said: "Nobody else can offer better value for money. Going by rail is cheaper than flying, much quicker than coach travel and, at this price, a real alternative to taking the car. With these new fares we aim to show that rail travel to Scotland is not as expensive as people believe."

The introduction of the heavily discounted fares from London follows the recent success of similar tickets from Scotland. GNER claimed it attracted thousands of passengers to choose the train in preference to the plane.

However, an EasyJet spokesman said they had carried 500,000 passengers in 1996 and would increase capacity to 1 million next year. "These people have come from somewhere," he said.

GNER's price cuts were a sign they were proving a challenge, the EasyJet spokesman said. But as a quarter of its day returns were business travel, mainly to Edinburgh, it was not unduly worried. "It's pushing it to do a day return rail trip to Scotland".

Price cuts elsewhere on the rail network were difficult, though not impossible to find. From tomorrow, Cardiff Railway is to extend a scheme which offers half-price rail travel to unemployed adults to include jobless teenagers.

And Jane Lawrie, of Midland Main Line, said the company recently introduced a pounds 29 ticket for up to four people going anywhere in its area. "People were very sceptical about privatisation. But fares are certainly not going up and in many cases are going down."

Anglia Railways goes into the private sector on Sunday so has not not introduced new fares. But it has continued to promote previous cut-price offers such as a pounds 16.50 day return from Norwich to London.