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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
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

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Account Executive - Hotel Reservation Software - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly growing Hotel ...

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Receptionist / Warranty Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion the Largest Independent Motor...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game