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.

Suggested Topics
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
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
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015