Travel: Airlines swoop on railways' passengers

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The Independent Online
Letting the nation's train set fall into private hands was supposed to lead to a rail renaissance. But Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, explains why more people might prefer to let a plane take the strain.

The war for rail passengers has taken to the skies. Airlines are targeting domestic routes which have been considered the preserve of the railways - forcing down fares on both.

British Midland recently announced it would start flying from Heathrow to Manchester next year in competition with Virgin Trains "indifferent" rail service.

EasyJet, the low-cost, no-frills carrier, sparked a price war with Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) - the operator of the east coast service - which saw a single rail ticket from London to Edinburgh drop to just pounds 19.

Experts say that a three-hour rail journey can compete with an hour's flying time.

"With airports you need to drive, park and then spend half-an-hour checking in, and then spend time getting from the airport into the city at the other end" says Alex McWhirter, technical editor of Business Travel. "With rail you leave a city centre and arrive in one."

Airlines are aware that rail companies need to increase passenger numbers rapidly, in order to make money. Many air travel companies are preparing more skirmishes with the railways. "Journeys less than 250 miles are considered the railways', but that still leaves London to Leeds and London to Teeside - which we would like to operate," says Sir Michael Bishop, chairman of British Midland.

Virgin Trains remains sceptical of the airline's chances. "On our London to Manchester route we have seen a 16 per cent increase in passengers. And, when we get the billion pound upgrade in, that will see trains reaching Manchester (from London) in 1 hour and 45 minutes." However, these record times are some way off.

The "tilting train" fleet, as well as the pounds 2.1bn worth of track and signalling improvements to Virgin's west-coast service, will not reduce travelling times until 2002. Sir Michael claims that while the west coast is being improved, the service will suffer.

"I lived in Manchester during the Sixties - when the west coast was last upgraded - and the line was speed-restricted because of the work."

Train companies point to the European experience. When the X2000 tilting train was introduced on the route between Gothenburg and Stockholm it reduced the travelling time to just three hours. It also wiped out the air market, forcing the domestic airline to cut its services by 70 per cent.

But the battle is not just about journey times.

Airports have much bigger catchment areas than rail stations. Experts point out that travellers living in Brighton are more likely to drive to Gatwick and catch a plane than take a train into London for Heathrow.

Rail operators are developing plans to increase the area they serve. GNER, which runs trains from London to Scotland, is looking to set up "parkway" stations on the M25 which would allow passengers to leave their vehicles in vast car parks and take the train north.

"We do very well against the airlines going south from, say, Newcastle," says Chris Garnett, managing director of GNER. "But not so well the other way."