London – Edinburgh is almost certainly the most competitive public transport market in Britain with three rail companies, three airlines and three coach operators slugging it out. Virtually all ticketing is now through the internet and I recently spent an hour or so with a cold towel round my head ploughing through various websites to get a broad picture of overall prices, and how the various modes compare.
As one would expect, coach is generally cheapest although journey times are inevitably long at nine to ten hours. All three operators – National Express, Megabus and Flixbus – offer three direct services a day, one morning departure and two overnight services in each case. Interestingly, Flixbus – the new entrant – was the most expensive option for the next day with one of its overnight services priced at £52.99, and National Express was cheapest at £24.90 for one of its overnight services. A month out, both Megabus and Flixbus were selling all their services at £15.99, and National Express were a bit more expensive.
The cheapest ‘next day’ flight – a 2010 departure from Stansted with Ryanair – was actually cheaper than almost all the coach operators at only £27, although of course for journeys from central London there is the additional cost of getting to the airport. EasyJet fly from Luton, Gatwick and Stansted with Luton ranging from £57 to £89 for the 0820 morning departure; surprisingly EasyJet flights from Stansted were generally a little higher and more expensive than Ryanair. As one would expect, British Airways is more expensive from £75 upwards, reflecting the higher landing charges at Heathrow and its relative convenience for central London; the route is also important for BA as a feeder for its longer distance network.
Four weeks later, Ryanair will fly you to Edinburgh for only £15 – cheaper than anything else on offer by any mode; EasyJet start at £25 and British Airways at £77 from London City or £83 from Heathrow.
Rail comes out as the most expensive mode. As you would expect, the new open access operator Lumo was the cheaper of the two principal options for next day travel, ranging from £59.90 for the 0548 from Kings Cross to £75; the 1045 departure was already sold out. London North Eastern Railway (LNER) ranged from £83.70 to £128.70, with fares in the off-peak period effectively capped by the regulated Super Off-Peak Single at £87 – so the market leader was also most expensive. The regulated off-peak ticket is flexible; all the others, including the £128.70 fare, are train specific advance tickets. For complete flexibility, you would need an Anytime Day Single at the eye-watering price of £193.90, or £300.70 first class.
Prices are cheaper four weeks out, between £34.90 and £42.90 for Lumo and starting at £63.30 for LNER, typically double the price for the two low cost airlines.
There is also a third rail option, the Caledonian Sleeper; no sleeping berths were available for next day departure, and just one seat at £80. Four weeks later, just seven berths are available at £310 or seats at £50. All this despite a recent excoriating article in the Times – it seems the sleeper is doing well in a niche market, paralleling the renaissance in sleeper travel in Europe.
Years ago, air travel was seen as exciting and upmarket and had progressively clawed market share from rail on long distance routes. But flying is environmentally problematic and has become familiar and frustrating, with increased security and the need to get to the airport well in advance of the scheduled departure time. In contrast, rail is environmentally sustainable and the train service to Edinburgh is extraordinarily frequent – every half hour throughout the day – and passengers can join at the last minute, although most people allow some contingency to avoid missing their nominated train.
Two further changes would improve rail’s competitive position: allowing passengers to transfer to the next train for a modest payment of, say, £10, and making the peak £128.70 fare fully flexible, getting rid of the hardly used £193.90 anytime day single. These changes would start to re-establish rail’s historic advantage as a ‘turn up and go’ mode while putting minimal revenue at risk.
Climate change is now manifest. Both land and sea temperatures are consistently breaking new records and countries across the world have been suffering unprecedented heatwaves. Despite this, the airline industry is still hell-bent on growth, notwithstanding making unconvincing noises about net zero aviation; Heathrow passenger numbers are now virtually at pre-pandemic levels, Gatwick is planning expansion and Luton – owned by Luton Borough Council – is seeking planning consent to grow from 18 to 32 million passengers a year. The Government is helping, too. Aviation fuel is still untaxed and Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights was reduced in 2022.
In contrast, rail is a highly sustainable mode of transport, yet the Government’s commitment to modal shift is barely visible. A number of European countries are actively encouraging modal shift through highly attractive fares – the latest I’m aware of is Portugal where there is now a 49 Euro monthly regional pass for the system. In contrast, in this country fares reform remains stalled; the only relief has been that increases were held below the rate of inflation this year. And we’ve recently suffered the UK Government-inspired and appallingly incoherent and inconsistent consultation on booking office closures.
There is also no sign of any electrification programme beyond the completion of schemes which have been in hand for some years; even the main schemes currently in progress – TransPennine and Midland Main Line – have been start/stop, with TransPennine subject to constant changes of scope. There is supposed to be no more diesel traction on the network after 2040 – an off-the-top commitment by Jo Johnson, a long departed junior Minister – yet relatively small scale freight electrification schemes such as the branches to London Gateway and Felixstowe are not on the agenda and DB Schenker have recently withdrawn their remaining electric locomotives.
The sad conclusion is that the present Government is in reality doing little more than paying lip service to climate change, backtracking on determined action in a number of areas because of short-term, populist electoral reasons. The rail industry is not seen as an important tool in tackling the climate crisis but more of an irrelevant financial black hole.
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