With airlines feeling the pinch, focus is increasingly falling on train travel says Dave Richardson, reporting on the UK's rail renaissance
Things must be pretty busy if you need to travel between Wrexham and London on business. And even for the 99.9 per cent of us who don't need to make that journey, developments at this Welsh town say a lot about the renaissance of rail travel in Britain.
For the first time in over 40 years, Wrexham has direct trains to London - including the comforts of First Class.
Telford and Shrewsbury are back on the inter-city rail map using the same service, while Sunderland, Hartlepool and a station near Middlesbrough, have also re-gained direct trains to the capital in the last year.
More is to come this year, with Lincoln and Grimsby also rejoining the inter-city network and big increases in frequency for Bradford and Harrogate. The East Midlands town of Corby, which has no rail service at all at present, is now preparing to wave off the first train to London St Pancras.
As with air travel, a few entrepreneurs are challenging the established order. But just as pioneers like Sir Freddie Laker risked being crushed as the big airlines ganged up on him, so the start-up rail operators face a battle just to gain a foothold.
Privatisation, which happened more than a decade ago, promised 'open access' to new rail operators, subject to agreement from the rail regulator, which is effectively controlled by the Department for Transport. But in that time only three new operators have started, in addition to the Heathrow Express link owned by airports operator BAA.
Hull Trains was the first, in 2000, and it has proved a major success. Hull passengers had only one direct train a day (by GNER) to London before the new operator came in, and Hull Trains now carries 750,000 passengers a year, with up to seven trains each way daily and a best journey time of 2 hours 33 minutes.
GNER - since replaced by National Express East Coast on routes from London King's Cross to the North East and Scotland - fought long and hard to prevent a second new operator, Grand Central, from coming in. Existing franchise operators gain significant protection from the rail regulator, which is understandable bearing in mind their investment in new trains and the money many are now paying back to the Treasury after years of subsidies.
An open access operator can only succeed if it offers new journey opportunities or develops an under-used route, and Grand Central provides the only direct link with London from Sunderland, Hartlepool and Eaglescliffe, between Stockton and Middlesbrough. The Grand Central company was founded in 2000, but it took until December 2007 to get the service running after GNER's objections were over-ruled.
Wrexham & Shropshire started operating from Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford to London Marylebone in April last year, with up to five trains a day. It is the best example so far of the frustrations facing a start-up operator, as it is not allowed to serve Birmingham New Street or International, where it would compete with Virgin Trains.
Instead its trains have to take a circuitous route around Birmingham, calling at Tame Bridge Parkway which is close to the M6/M5 motorway junction. The result is that journey times are slow - and although there was some reduction last month (December) it still takes nearly four hours to travel from Wrexham to London and over three hours from Telford. Telford passengers find it much faster to take a local train to Birmingham and then join Virgin, while Wrexham people can drive to Crewe in less than one hour and then get to London in well under two hours.
But Wrexham has become an unlikely battleground as, from January 26, Virgin will start a once-daily service direct to London in less than 2 hours 30 minutes, via Chester, departing at 7am and returning in the evening peak. It's easy to see this as a spoiling tactic to undermine Wrexham & Shropshire, but is part of a huge increase in London-Chester direct trains from five a day to hourly, with journey times cut by 20 minutes to 2 hours.
Meanwhile, National Express is gearing up to fend off two more entrants on its lucrative East Coast route. Grand Union - a sister company to Grand Central - wants to start services from London to Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford. Huddersfield and Halifax would gain their first direct services to London for many years, with Bradford gaining up to six trains a day compared to just one at present by National Express.
A sister company to Hull Trains, Harrogate Trains, wants to give the Yorkshire spa town and conference centre a service it deserves - and again, it is served just once daily at present by National Express. Harrogate Trains estimates it can save 100,000 long-distance road journeys a year. The new entrants are busy grooming businesses, councils and the general public, as the rail regulator prepares to make a decision. But National Express is hitting back, and has already announced a package of improvements from December 2009 to include higher frequency and shorter journey times on key routes, and - predictably - a better deal for Bradford and Harrogate.
One train per hour will be extended from Leeds to Bradford, giving it 15 trains to London daily instead of one. Six will serve Harrogate (via Leeds), while another train every other hour will run to Lincoln (via Newark). One daily service will also extend from Lincoln to serve Market Rasen, Grimsby and Cleethorpes.
National Express East Coast managing director, David Franks, says: "We want to create a bigger railway, making better use of existing capacity. Other schemes offer only limited benefits to a handful of communities, while swallowing up vital track capacity on one of the busiest and fastest-growing routes in the country."
The rail regulator's decision could indicate whether open access operators have a viable future or not, or whether they will be squeezed off the overcrowded network. Other proposals which may cause less controversy are on routes not touching London, where more capacity is often available. Renaissance Trains - the company which started Hull Trains and Wrexham & Shropshire - wants to start services between Glasgow and Liverpool and Glasgow and Nottingham, routes where through trains were abandoned long ago.
The answer to the capacity issue is to build more lines, although in the shorter term infrastructure operator Network Rail has managed to squeeze more capacity out of existing routes with extra tracks and signalling improvements.
Britain's only purpose-built high-speed line is from St Pancras International to the Channel Tunnel, but Network Rail is weighing up the case for up to five new lines leading north and west from London. The Conservatives have pledged to build a high-speed line to the north rather than a third runway at Heathrow, but nothing will happen for at least 10 years.
Iain Coucher, Network Rail's chief executive, says: "By 2025 many lines will be full up, and this will happen even after we have implemented the investment to boost current capacity. We have to start planning for the medium- and long-term future today to meet the capacity challenge, and see what solutions are deliverable and affordable."
"Affordable" has been the stumbling block for politicians of all hues for decades. The recent oil crisis has pushed further electrification up the agenda, but whether funding for major projects will be possible in today's grim economic outlook is anyone's guess.
The two things a New Year always brings are failed resolutions and hikes in rail fares. The increases that took effect on January 2 are mainly in the range of 6-7 per cent but are as high as 11 per cent in some cases, and this at a time when inflation has turned into deflation.
This makes it all the more important to book ahead through online retailers such as Evolvi (the Capita Business Travel-owned system marketed through other TMCs) and thetrainline.com, which can often save you over 50 per cent on the walk-up fare and guarantee you a seat.
The increases are defended by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) on the basis that investment in a better service is bringing results, but there's also the issue of the government reducing subsidies and shifting costs on to the passenger. Subsidies will be cut by 40 per cent by 2013-14 on the 2006-07 figure.
Michael Roberts, chief executive of ATOC, says: "Passengers have helped pay for 20 per cent more services in recent years, and performance in the first half of this year is at the highest level since records began with more than 90 per cent of trains arriving on time. Yet, since 1996, in real terms, overall rail fares have risen by just five per cent."
Rail watchdog Passenger Focus is unimpressed. Chief executive Anthony Smith says: "These fare rises hark back to a time of high inflation and spiralling energy costs. The economy is different now, but the seemingly unstoppable rail-price express ploughs on. Fare rises way above inflation are unjustified and unfair, and these average fare increases will no doubt mask some very steep rises on particular routes."
Booking ahead - often with the purchase of two single fares for a return journey - can help a business wipe out any increases and start making big savings. Evolvi and thetrainline.com put the decision in the hands of the individual through self-booking tools, while ensuring the purchase complies with policy.
Thetrainline.com head of account management, Clare Morrissey, says: "Research among our top 50 customers indicates that while total spending on rail increased in the September-November 2008 quarter compared to 2007, the average ticket value went down by three per cent. There is no sign of a slowdown in demand, as companies are migrating from domestic air because of the carbon agenda, and this cushions any reduction in non-essential travel." Some rail operators are increasing seat capacity dramatically and need to fill off-peak seats with advance deals through online retailers and their own websites. The biggest increase is by Virgin Trains, which also cut journey times from December as modernisation of the West Coast route was completed.
Most eye-catching is that there is now a train every 20 minutes on the London- Birmingham and London-Manchester routes, every weekday from around 7am to 8pm. Average journey times are down from 2 hours 18 minutes to/from Manchester to 2 hours 5 minutes; from 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 22 minutes for Birmingham; and from 2 hours 33 minutes to 2 hours 7 minutes for Liverpool. London-Glasgow is increased from nine to 13 trains a day with a best journey time of 4 hours 15 minutes.
"We have worked hard on the business market since our Pendolino trains were introduced in 2004, and the increase from 14 million to 21 million passengers a year since we took over has largely been driven by business," says Virgin Trains spokesman Jim Rowe.
"We now have 75 per cent of the London-Manchester market compared to airlines with 25 per cent, and we can now start to compete on London- Glasgow. There are no longer any airlines flying from Liverpool to London as they can't compete. With wifi being introduced in March, there will be even more reasons to choose the train."
Another example of major capacity growth is East Midlands Trains on the route from London St Pancras to Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield. Frequency is generally increased with Nottingham gaining 700 extra seats a day to London, with faster trains and hot breakfasts served on more peak breakfast trains. A new station, called East Midlands Parkway, is due to open in the first quarter of this year, with a bus link to East Midlands Airport and ample parking space for people not wishing to drive into town to catch the train.
Competition looming for Eurostar?
Eurostar continues to reap the benefits of its move to St Pancras in November 2007, and the speed-up of services to Paris and Brussels. It is continuing to run at slightly reduced capacity (93 per cent) following the Channel Tunnel fire of September, but expects to be up to full capacity by the spring.
In the first nine months of 2008 it carried seven million travellers, up 13.9 per cent, with ticket sales up 17.2 per cent to £521.1 million.
Passengers from the north and west of London have more than doubled now that through-fares are available from 130 towns and cities. In the longer term, however, Eurostar could face competition as European rail systems are being opened up to competition from 2010 by EU decree. A new operator could be allowed in, possibly at the former Eurostar terminal at London Waterloo International, which now stands empty.
Most European railways remain state-owned, but that is starting to change. Air France KLM has announced it will run rail services, and there could be more integrated rail and air links. KLM is a shareholder in NS Hispeed, the Dutch operator of a new high-speed line to open late this year linking Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam.
OPERATOR: National Express East Coast
TRAIN: 12.00 London King's Cross to Edinburgh
SCHEDULED JOURNEY TIME: 4 hours 26 minutes
DATE: Wednesday, November 26, 2008
AS I WRITE THIS I am sending emails and looking up a couple of websites to check fares and other details. Nothing unusual in that, you might think - except that I am travelling by train through the wilds of North Yorkshire at 125 mph.
National Express East Coast is the first operator to introduce wifi throughout its train fleet, and this is available in both Standard and First Class, free of charge. This could be a major reason to switch from air or car to rail - so how does it work?
The train left promptly at 12.00 and I was surprised to find that most seats in First Class were reserved or occupied, considering the time of day and the recession. First Class is in 2x1 configuration with reclining seats at tables, meaning adequate room to work. Most seats are fitted with power points for laptops or mobiles.
The atmosphere was relaxed and a complimentary service of tea, coffee and soft drinks is provided. Food is not free as in Virgin First Class, but snacks can be bought at your seat, with sandwiches costing from £2.25 to £4.95.
I decided to try out the restaurant car, where I enjoyed excellent sausages and mash for £8.50, with a quarter bottle of merlot for £4.95. This is how on-train catering should be - a classic dish, simply served. Other options included pasta, a gourmet burger and chicken cassoulet (£12.95 each). Now it was time to work, and the acid test of whether it was worthwhile going by train. I soon found the train operator's wireless network, launched my browser and was connected at once, remaining connected for more than two hours until I reached Edinburgh.
The speed is not great at 11mbps, but adequate for general browsing and sending emails. I managed to get a lot done while still enjoying the scenery - York Minster, Durham Cathedral, the bridges over the Tyne, the Northumberland coast and the view from the Royal Border Bridge as the train crossed the Tweed into Scotland.
I reached Edinburgh Waverley one minute early at 16.25, having eaten, worked and relaxed. I would probably have reached Edinburgh earlier by plane, but I wouldn't have got any work done.