Simon Calder: On track, on time – so why change trains? - News & Advice - Travel - The Independent

Simon Calder: On track, on time – so why change trains?

The man who pays his way

Nationalised railways can be brilliant: that is the conclusion to draw from the Department for Transport's latest pronouncement. Four years ago this week, National Express handed back the keys for the East Coast Main Line franchise. The Government took the train operation back into the public sector. Today, punctuality on the route connecting London King's Cross with Yorkshire, North-East England and Scotland is better than at any time this century, which helps to explain why East Coast Trains has enticed passengers from the airlines.

Crunch the DfT's numbers, and you discover that, on an average day, East Coast carries 2,600 more passengers than did National Express – a rise of 5.5 per cent. Revenue has grown twice as fast, partly because passengers are choosing to upgrade to First Class. Previously, says the DfT, the posh seats had been in "steep decline". Improved food and drink and Wi-Fi, coupled to expert revenue management, spurred a "significant increase in the number of First Class journeys". Public-private competition is thriving, with travellers able to choose between East Coast and its "open access" rivals, Grand Central and First Hull Trains. Staff sickness at East Coast has halved under public ownership. And Sky 1 is broadcasting a TV reality show about the train operator. This shows the confidence that the management has in its workforce and day-to-day operations, and reveals that the railway has become something of a national treasure.

The taxpayer bankrolls the railways even if he or she never goes near a train. On the average line, each £1 paid by passengers is matched by a pound from the Treasury. In contrast, East Coast has been handing back an average of £4m a week. East Coast Trains is manifestly not broke. But it is about to be fixed anyway. Unhappily, the DfT's praise is contained in the very document that spells the end for East Coast Trains as we know and (mostly) love it.

The Transport Secretary pronounces the death sentence in his introduction to the InterCity East Coast Prospectus. The line, says Patrick McLoughlin, "is now ready to be transformed by the private sector".

His department insists: "State control of rail services is considered to represent poorer value for money, restrict investment and therefore growth and to import risk to the taxpayer." Accordingly, in 15 months' time a textbook example of a public service operated for the good of the travelling public will be re-privatised.

Class warfare

Virgin Trains and Eurostar are in the running to take over, but their hands are tied about the innovations that they can bring. You may recall the fuss last month when the RMT union got hold of a leaked copy of the prospectus. The draft document referred to a new intermediate class between First and Standard. Mischievously, though, Labour cast the option as inviting bidders to create a new underclass.

Mary Creagh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: "David Cameron says we're all in this together but if that's true then why is he going back to the 1950s and reintroducing third class? East Coast passengers deserve better than this."

Travellers deserve better from the Opposition than wilfully misrepresenting the not-unreasonable idea of a "premium economy" service.

Ms Creagh and the RMT General Secretary, Bob Crow, may be gratified to read a line from the DfT in the prospectus that is clearly aimed at assuaging public fears: "We would be unlikely to consider any variation which delivers a worsening of passenger experience such as a reduction in passenger or luggage space."

That's a shame, because I don't think the travelling public fears "Third Class"; indeed, many of us would welcome it. As the French train operator, SNCF, has shown with its "no-frills" option, called Ouigo, there is an appetite for high-speed, low-cost travel. SNCF stripped out luggage space from a few of its TGVs, packed in more seats and borrowed some ideas from Ryanair: operating from a station some distance from Paris, insisting on passengers printing their own tickets, and charging for anything more than a modest amount of luggage. For the 500-mile journey from Marne-la-Vallée to Marseille, the typical one-way fare, booking about a week ahead, is only €25. And that takes you from Disneyand Paris to the Med in just over three hours.

The "proper" TGVs on the Grandes Lignes from the beautiful Gare de Lyon in Paris continue to attract business travellers and tourists who don't need the faff of an out-of-town connection and are prepared to pay perhaps 60 per cent more to avoid it, while price-sensitive passengers are lured back to the chemin de fer from the autoroute (not to mention Ryanair).

Frequent First

Despite the absence of a proper third-class option for Britain, there are plenty of opportunities to trade time for fare savings. Virgin Trains links London and Birmingham in just 84 minutes, but when researching this week's 48 Hours story I opted for Chiltern Railways. It takes a quarter-hour longer, and the southern end is a little off-centre at Marylebone rather than Euston station. But fares are typically half those on Virgin – and Wi-Fi comes free.

Virgin Trains could lure me back, though, by extending a loyalty scheme that is simple and neat: upgrade four times to Weekend First, and the fifth ride in the posh seats – along with lots of leg room, Wi-Fi, snacks and drinks – is free. This deal cuts the effective cost of an upgrade from £15 to £12. At present a trial is running from Manchester to London. Given the crowds in Standard, and the empty seats in First, let's hope that it is soon rolled out across the network for the benefit of all passengers.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week