When trains are off their trolleys, speed isn't everything

Now Virgin Trains has, apparently, found an equivalent for the railways. The late-running train I boarded at Preston was delayed, we were assured, by "problems in Scotland". The nature of these difficulties was never revealed; evidently a vague hint of trouble north of Carlisle is considered sufficient to excuse any tardiness. Later on in the journey, the use of language in the public announcements became more surreal still: the on-board facilities included a shop "situated between the centre of the train". We also learned that "there will be no trolley service this morning due to a declassified trolley", which I imagine is one which is no longer regarded as secret.

This autumn sees a refreshing burst of competition between Britain's two leading long-distance train operators, Virgin Trains and GNER. While they compete head-to-head only on routes from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh (problems in Scotland permitting), their performance on the key routes from the capital to Manchester and Leeds respectively is remarkably evenly matched.

The fastest Virgin Trains daytime journey for the Euston-Manchester Piccadilly service has accelerated to two hours, 13 minutes, an average speed of 83mph for the 184-mile journey. Britain's fastest railway remains the East Coast Main Line. GNER's King's Cross-Leeds service covers an almost identical distance five minutes quicker, at a mean speed of 87mph. Given that the trains are capable of 125mph, these averages may not seem impressive. But as Kevin Flynn, the compiler of the Great Britain section of the Thomas Cook European Timetable says, "Frequency and reliability are far more important than high-speed heroics".

THE QUICK way to compare how our trains are performing nationally is to look at times for similar journeys in Continental Europe. In the time it takes to travel from London to Manchester or Leeds, a French TGV would take you from Paris to the town of Valence in the Rhône Valley, 327 miles south of the French capital, at an average speed of 150mph. In Spain, you can travel nearly 300 miles from Madrid to Seville in about the same time. So should we conclude what we probably already thought, that the British railway network remains in a lamentable state? Not at all, according to Flynn: "It's instructive to examine humdrum medium-distance provision."

Take the journey from the English and French capitals to Grantham and Reims respectively. The distance to both is around 107 miles. But while Reims is served by only nine trains a day, averaging 65mph, Grantham gets 22 at a mean speed of 94mph.

EVEN WHEN British Rail was at its under-funded, badly managed worst during the 1980s, you could count on a BR breakfast to deliver a decent fry-up (declassified trolleys allowing). On Monday this week, Virgin Trains' first-class travellers found themselves offered smoothies and fresh fruit as well as the usual bacon and eggs. But GNER has the edge for those of us in standard class; we are still allowed to sneak into the first-class buffet car for breakfast.

THE TWO train operators are united about one thing: the need to overhaul their fare structures to take on the no-frills airlines. This autumn GNER and Virgin Trains are transforming their cheap deals. Instead of having to buy a fortnight or a week ahead to get the lowest fare, the advance-booking cut-off will end at 6pm the night before travel. As with the airlines, the fare you pay will depend upon demand. Flexibility is the key. In return, you could travel one way to London from Newcastle for £10 or from Preston for £15 - subject, of course, to problems in Scotland.

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