FEATURE: Chiltern Railways: A rural ride to Birmingham
As more business travellers switch to rail, some of the smaller UK train operators are looking to see how they can attract the corporate market. Adrian Shooter, chairman of Chiltern Railways, tells ABTN about his plans
Chiltern Railways runs out of London Marylebone, the capital's most civilised station, north westwards to towns and cities like Birmingham, Banbury, Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon. For business travellers anxious to avoid the soulless bustle of London Euston, this is a more soothing journey through rural England to Britain's second city.
The good news for these discerning passengers is that Chiltern is about to knock 20 minutes off its journey time to Birmingham and it is also planning to start a new London to Oxford service.
The new services are part of Chiltern's Evergreen 3 project which will see train times on its service between Birmingham Snow Hill and London reduced from two hours to one hour and forty minutes.
Adrian Shooter, Chiltern's chairman, said: "The time reduction between London and Birmingham is possible principally by removing speed restrictions so that our trains can spend the majority of the journey travelling at 100mph. The second part of Evergreen 3 will then see us create a link to an existing but lightly used line heading west to Oxford, giving us a new London to Oxford service."
He said that the "two schemes together will cost around £250m and we are just about to go out to tender. We hope to be making an announcement in December that it's all going ahead."
The quicker journey times between London and Birmingham will be from December 2011, while the new Oxford service is expected to start in May 2013, and will re-link Oxford and High Wycombe by rail for the first time since 1964. The infrastructure improvements will include new track, an upgrade of parts of the line to allow speeds of up to 100mph, a new station at Water Easton and renovation of the Bicester Town station.
The works will enable two Chiltern trains per hour from London Marylebone to Oxford calling at Bicester Town and Water Eaton Parkway, with a 58-minute journey time Marylebone to Water Eaton Parkway and 66 minutes Marylebone to Oxford.
In addition there will also be an improved frequency and journey time from Oxford to Bicester from seven trains per day taking 27 minutes to an all-day, seven day per week service of two trains per hour with a journey time reduced to 14 minutes.
It will be a viable alternative to a car trip on the invariably congested A34.
Linking Oxford to High Wycombe with a journey time by rail of 38 minutes, running twice per hour, will also provide an alternative to the M40
Chiltern points out that the new Oxford services will run over separate tracks to the existing Great Western Main Line, so avoiding the risk of "performance pollution" between the two routes.
It also said that Great Western Main Line faces major disruptions over the next decade as a consequence of works at Reading for the planned Crossrail service and potentially electrification.
Mr Shooter said the competition on the Oxford route comes "mostly from motor cars and coaches", adding that the existing operator (First Great Western) has "quite a small share of the market." He added: "We will improve the service for everybody by introducing further competition." Chiltern already competes on the Birmingham route with Virgin Trains' faster Pendolino service.
It means in its battle to attract the business traveller, the small operator which is owned by Deutsche Bahn the German national rail operator, will be taking on two of the UK's biggest train companies Virgin and Great Western.
Mr Shooter said Chiltern was doing well in competition with Virgin Trains on the same route although Virgin's fastest trains take only one hour from Birmingham to London, whereas Chiltern's currently take two.
"We run our trains on time, we've spent a lot of time and money on making sure they are comfortable, we have good facilities at the stations and friendly and helpful staff on board, as well as competitive fares," he said.
He also pointed that Chiltern's stations have adequate car parking "because over half of our passengers come by car" and that the company has opened a new station targeted at these people - Aylesbury Vale Parkway.
"The overall journey time depends on where you live," he said. "Significant amounts of people live in the south west quadrant of Birmingham, so yes, the rail journey would be a little longer (than on Virgin), but the door to door journey would be shorter because instead of battling round the M42 to get to Birmingham international or drive to Coventry, we are offering convenient stations."
Chiltern says that it is one of the most punctual train services in the UK, with 95% of its trains arriving on time, and enjoys 90% customer satisfaction. It is a one class service but carriages have tables and power sockets at every seat, improved lighting and good legroom as well as at-seat refreshment services on morning peak trains.
The operator has a business travel department for corporate customers which offers a rail ticketing and advisory service with no management fees, a dedicated travel adviser for each corporate account, a detailed management information and a departmental itemised monthly invoice as well as a fully, itemised itinerary with any restrictions that apply.