The East Coast franchise has been awarded to Inter City Railways / EPA

Simon Calder’s reality check on today's major railway news

The Department for Transport has awarded the East Coast franchise to Inter City Railways, a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin. But what is being said - and what do people really mean?

“Rail journeys between London and Edinburgh will be transformed by more seats, more services and new trains”

It’s true that new rolling stock and additional services will help the franchise to cope with increasing demand for fast and reliable rail travel, but “transformed” is pushing it - journey times between the English and Scottish capitals will remain at above four hours, meaning the plane will continue to dominate. For comparison, Paris to Avignon - a longer distance - takes under three hours.

However, the rail guru Mark Smith, founder of the seat61.com website, says: “When you're in the critical three-to-four hours zone every minute you can shave off makes a difference in your competitive position. Although not bringing times under the psychological four-hour point, knocking 13 minutes off from 4h20 to 4h08 is a significant improvement, one that is likely to reinforce the trend back towards less-hassle train travel for Edinburgh/Glasgow-London routes. Train has been gaining market share again over the last few years.”

“Plans for new direct links to Huddersfield, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Dewsbury and Thornaby”

Thanks to the “open access” operator, Grand Central, passengers from Sunderland already have direct trains to London - and Huddersfield and Middlesbrough have reasonably easy access from Brighouse and Eaglescliffe respectively. 

“More trains to London from Bradford, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Leeds, Lincoln, Newcastle, Shipley, Stirling, and York”

The main interest here is the “non-core” stations, i.e. Harrogate, Lincoln, Shipley and Stirling. More direct access to and from the capital proves very valuable for leisure and business passengers alike. Lincoln, for example, has only one direct train each way from London at present. 

 

“3,100 extra seats for the morning peak time by 2020”

The rate of growth of demand for rail travel suggests those extra seats will quickly be taken up. However, a consequence will be a boost to “shoulder” services, with potentially lower fares to entice passengers on board. Example: an extra Leeds-London train at 6.20am will likely return north at about 8.50am, offering more options for northbound travellers.

“65 state of the art Intercity Express trains brought into passenger service from 2018, totalling 500 new carriages”

Excellent news, not just for the East Coast, but also for the lines which get the “cascaded” 225 stock, which despite its age is still a lot better than offered on many long-distance services.

“Journey times from London to Leeds reduced by 14 minutes”

Getting the trip between King’s Cross and Yorkshire’s biggest city below two hours (by a couple of minutes) should prove invaluable in luring motorists to the train. It will also intensely annoy cities on the other side of the Pennines; Manchester, Liverpool and Preston seem stuck at around two hours eight minutes. Those trains are also run by a consortium of Virgin and Stagecoach.

“Stagecoach and Virgin will not only deliver for customers but also for the British taxpayer”

The jury is out. Directly Operated Railways, which has been managing the franchise after National Express handed back the keys, has performed outstandingly. Inter City Railways is expected to provide an even bigger premium - £3.3bn over eight years - but a large chunk of that will come from new business created by government-funded improvements.

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A consortium involving Virgin Group and transport company Stagecoach had been chosen to operate East Coast (PA)

“Reduce all long-distance standard anytime fares by 10 per cent”

Fares such as £49.50 for the 45-minute link between Peterborough and London are absurdly high - largely in a bid to suppress demand at peak times. Extra capacity should ease the squeeze, and this is a consequence - though £45 for a 45-minute hop still looks unreasonably high.

Mark Smith says: “The reduction in anytime fares by 10 per cent is largely irrelevant for Ordinary Mortals. It's like British Airways reducing fully flexible air fares by 10 per cent, so Heathrow-New York is reduced from £1,500 to £1,350. Big deal, unless you're on business and using one of those tickets, in which case you don't care anyway as the company is paying.”

“The operator will also develop its own website, smartphone and tablet apps that will make door-to-door travel easier for customers, including planning journeys and buying tickets”

About time; it is still much easier to buy a flight from Edinburgh to London than to book a train. 

“Better Wi-Fi connections”

Burkina Faso circa 1993 had better internet service than the typical East Coast train, so anything would be preferable to the existing system. Once again, though, Mark Smith has a different view: “I realise it's currently the must-have accessory for trains, but I think it'll go the way of seat-back TVs and at-seat audio fitted to trains. Everyone now has their music and video on their own iPod/iPad.

"In the same way, everyone will soon have cheap mobile data. Train Wi-Fi isn't fast, as it has to come over a 3G signal. I find many high-bandwidth sites or activities (eg picture tweets) blocked so I end up using my mobile 3G data anyway.”

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