Train vs Plane: which is fastest between London and Edinburgh?

As Lumo makes its first run between the English and Scottish capitals, our travel correspondent sets off by air – and rail, bus and foot – to race the train

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 22 October 2021 13:37
Launch of new London to Edinburgh train service

It’s the race I really don’t want to win. At 10.45am, I will wave off the very first passenger train from the new Anglo-Scottish train operator, Lumo, from London King’s Cross. Just over four-and-a-half hours later the shiny train is scheduled to arrive at Edinburgh Waverley. And I may be there to meet it, after a journey by rail, bus, air, bus or taxi and rail.

My opponent is the UK’s leading rail expert: Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who founded the website for international train travel. While he sits back and enjoys the scenery on the East Coast main line, I will be stressing about catching the train to Luton Airport Parkway, the bus up the hill to the Bedfordshire airport, going through security, finding the right gate and (hopefully) strapping in for my £25 flight to Glasgow.

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Yes, I appreciate that is technically the wrong city, but given the currently sparse flight schedules from London to Edinburgh it is the only way I might feasibly reach the Scottish capital first.

A bus along the M8 into Glasgow city centre, and a train from the newly refurbished Queen Street station to Edinburgh should, all being well, see me reaching Waverley Station in time for a cup of tea while I wait for Mark. But plenty of jeopardy awaits …

Follow my live updates as we race to the finish line.


It’s a tie!

Amazingly, my walk delivered me to Edinburgh Waverley at exactly 3.15pm – the same moment that Lumo arrived from London King's Cross, bearing The Man In Seat 61, Mark Smith.

A dead heat. I believe in the Olympics these days we would both get a medal.

Each of us had taken exactly four and a half hours to travel between the English and Scottish capitals. But Mark claimed a moral victory.

“ I certainly arrived a lot less stressed that you, “ he said. “It was a fantastic journey on the East Coast main line in the lovely sunny weather through the scenery of Northumberland and Scotland.

“So I know which way I'd prefer to head to Edinburgh.

“I will definitely be using Lumo in the future – sometimes I will still use LNER, but it's always good to have a choice.”

Journey’s end: Simon Calder and Mark Smith at Edinburgh Waverley

Simon Calder21 October 2021 16:05

Sightseeing stroll

After my lucky escape from Glasgow, I realised I was on course to arrive well ahead of the Lumo train. So after a stressful journey I decided to unwind by taking a stroll and doing some sightseeing.

So I hopped off at the station before Edinburgh Waverley – Haymarket – and enjoyed a 15-minute walk along Princes Street, with superb views of Scotland’s leading tourist attraction: Edinburgh Castle.

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Simon Calder21 October 2021 15:55

Back on track

As the sun bursts through the clouds to illuminate the autumnal scene to the north, I am doing what I like best: watching Scotland unfold from a train window.

Rail travel is a special joy. Each of the 300 or so people on this train have their own motives for making the journey; their own thoughts; their own way of filling the time – the gentleman opposite me is knitting.

Yet collectively we are racing through spectacular landscapes, covering a mile every 40 seconds, using Victorian infrastructure to the full and causing minimal environment harm. The rail traveller is in touch with the world.

More practically, the train is clean, calm and spacious, with the added advantage of on-board electricity to resurrect my laptop and decent WiFi to keep in touch with the world beyond the window.

Oh look, there’s Edinburgh airport. If only it had a decent rail link …

Blue sky thinking: from a train, near Linlithgow

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:54

Minute man

“C. Spratt Multi Utility apologises for any inconvenience,” reads the back of the truck whose urgent repair work is blocking our progress on Bothwell Street.

“I will do my best to get you there,” promises Michael, the friendly taxi driver who knows a stressed traveller when he sees one. “It all depends on the lights.”

At 10 seconds before 2.14pm he drops me at Glasgow’s splendidly refurbished Queen Street station. Ten seconds before 2.15pm, the express to Edinburgh pulls away from platform 4.

Handily, I am aboard. Croy, Falkirk High, Polmont, Linlithgow and Haymarket await, with the train terminating at Edinburgh Waverley at 3.03pm – 14 minutes ahead of Mark, I calculate.

I would crack open a bottle of something to celebrate, except that (a) I have been on a plane, and therefore am subject to the “liquids rule”, and (b) alcohol is banned across the ScotRail network.

All aboard: platform 4 at Glasgow Queen Street station

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:28

Hopes fading

All gone Tango Uniform in the past few minutes.

Wheels down at Glasgow 1.41pm, followed by a brisk three-minute taxi and on stand six minutes early. But then there was a 10-minute wait for a dispatcher before anyone could leave the aircraft.

Add in that the plane was at the furthest gate from the exit, and even though I ran right through the terminal I reached the taxi queue only at 1.59pm – 16 minutes before my train from a station eight miles away.

“Are you in a hurry,” asks Michael, from Krakow, Glasgow’s finest cab driver. He suggests I pay in advance: £26.

Waiting game: easyJet flight 65 at Glasgow airport, gate 8

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:09

Clear skies

Here at 1.07pm and 31,000 feet (nearly six miles high), with Leeds to the left-hand side, I calculate that Mark Smith is about to start enjoying the fine scenery on the East Coast main line – which I reckon starts at Durham.

But I can see for miles further – all the way to the west coast of England and the curves of Morecambe Bay.

Captain Carlo Tomaso says he expects to get us to Glasgow five minutes ahead of schedule. If correct, that gives me three minutes to leave the aircraft and reach the 1.48pm bus to the city centre – and Queen Street station, where the 2.15pm train to Edinburgh is my last hope.

View from a plane: easyJet flight 65

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:04

On your marks ...

So far I have travelled 30 miles from London King's Cross in 105 minutes. Time to accelerate, with easyJet flight 65 from Luton to Glasgow fully boarded and the doors closed five minutes ahead of schedule.

A total of 168 passengers are on board, a “load factor” of 93 per cent. It is rather ironic that so many people are choosing to fly to the city that is hosting COP26.

An Airbus A320 can fly at over 500mph, four times faster than the Lumo train. The journey is scheduled to take 75 from gate-to-gate.

easy does it: Flight 65 is ready to go

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:31

Easy does it

The route I am flying from Luton to Glasgow has some historic significance. On 10 November 1995, it was the very first departure of a start-up airline called easyJet. Obviously I wasn’t there because I presumed it wouldn’t last more than a few weeks.

The lowest fare then was £29. I have paid £25, of which more than half goes to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as Air Passenger Duty.

First mover: Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the maiden flight of easyJet from Luton to Glasgow in November 1995

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:17

‘Boarding now’?

From the gates into the security area to emerging – after my torso, possessions and shoes have been closely examined by hard-working and professional staff – takes exactly 10 minutes.

Mark did not have to endure a good frisking before boarding his train.

Just past security, life imitates, well, life – in the shape of a restaurant called Friska. I am reminded of my earlier life, frisking people at Gatwick airport*.

Boarding zone: Gate 2 at Luton Airport

(*As a job, not a hobby.)

At 11.47am, the Glasgow flight is shown as “Boarding”. It is departing from Gate 2, which as a well-known law dictates, is the furthest away – technically, I believe, in a different county.

I pause to refill my water bottle and buy lunch at Pret a Manger, and then stride to the gate. It turns out that “Boarding” actually means “Your plane has just arrived and you can all stand in line to watch the passengers getting off”.

At the adjacent gate, passengers to Amsterdam are told they face a two-hour delay due to poor weather in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, I rummage around the walls in an unsuccessful bid to find some electricity. I hope Mark’s train has enough.

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:12

Transfer window

“Don’t rush,” reads the sign on the stairs of Luton Airport Parkway station, as I sprint up the stairs two at a time. “One step at a time.”

The train arrived six minutes late, leaving just 120 seconds for the scramble up a flight of stairs, along a corridor, down four escalators and through the ticket gates to the bus stop.

Three of us are racing for the transfer bus, and the driver kindly waits an extra 15 seconds before setting off for the airport – and still arrives a minute early, at 11.35am – giving me one hour before my flight.

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:02

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