Does train beat the plane?

To London. By plane. Yes, I’m sorry, I flew. It wasn’t my preferred choice but it did give me the opportunity to compare aeroplanes and airports with trains and stations.
I was making a day trip from Edinburgh. Door-to-door, it took me four hours by plane, with about an hour in the air. Door-to-door by rail would have been six hours. Airlines don’t do ‘turn up and go’ tickets so my return leg took longer because I’d allowed a couple of hours to cater for things in town taken longer than planned. With an advance-purchase rail ticket, I’d do the same.
If time forced me to reach for the skies rather than the rails, it also allowed me to compare them. I flew business class, which with British Airways brings access to airport lounges and on-board catering. This is the closest equivalent to first class on Virgin Trains East Coast, which also has lounges and meals.
In lounges, BA beats VTEC very easily. Edinburgh’s BA lounge was clean with staff on the front desk. Breakfast was porridge, fruit salad, yoghurt and pastries with decent coffee from a machine, tea and fruit juice. I couldn’t tell whether the machine used powdered or liquid milk. A typical VTEC lounge will usually offer tea, coffee, juice, crisps, fruit and biscuits. BA has a better selection of newspapers and magazines.
The gate for my plane was fairly close to the lounge but there was no plane by it. Instead, we all descended to the apron to board a bus that took us on a winding tour of the airport, through the part where they park all those odd-looking machines, over to the freight side where a BA plane waited, doors open and lights on. I heard no explanation for our excursion but there were other planes using the terminal gates and several stood empty.
I claimed my window seat and we hurtled down the runway, rotated and climbed towards the clouds. BA served breakfast. If it wins on the lounges, it can’t compete with VTEC’s breakfasts. Sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, a tomato and mushrooms. The latter contributed the watery brown liquid in which the other components swam. Even ignoring my school-inspired dislike for scrambled eggs it was grim.
VTEC does it so much better although on my last rail trip south from Edinburgh, the VTEC crew explained that their kitchen was flooded so there’d be no hot food. Perhaps that was unlucky but when VTEC does serve breakfast, it easily beats BA.
VTEC’s first class seats are better than BA’s, which appear the same in business as in standard, with the only difference I could see being that the middle seat in each trio has a table fitted across it. Given the shorter time that you’re in an aeroplane seat, I didn’t think the VTEC-BA difference a problem.
I’m a sucker for those coastal views through East Lothian and the Northumbrian coast. This time I was treated to lots of clouds and the occasional glimpse of towns, fields and coasts as we headed over the Lake District, south towards Liverpool and over the Midlands towards London.
Seeing London from the air is always a treat. We flew in over the Chilterns, with Wembley Stadium an easy landmark to spot, followed by Arsenal’s ground just as a VTEC electric slid south through Holloway. Over the City, complete with the Honourable Artillery Company’s cricket ground in its centre – surely the most valuable piece of grass in town? – and then a sharp right turn over the Shard and London Bridge station’s glimmering canopies.
Waterloo, Houses of Parliament and the housing of West London slipped past, punctuated by parks, sports grounds, London Underground trains and those from South Western Railway as we settled into our final approach to Heathrow.
Without luggage, it didn’t take long to escape the airport via Heathrow Express. I found the trains easily enough but the ticket office takes some finding. Sensing my confusion, a man with a HEx lanyard around his neck offered to show me. “It’s not easy to find,” he said. It should have been, I’d walked past a few minutes earlier but it looks more like one of those airport information booths manned by bored staff. HEx, you need some bigger signs!
Heathrow worked for me because I was heading towards that side of Central London. Rail-air journey time comparisons can be heavily weighed by final London destinations. Had I flown to Gatwick, I’d have spent an hour travelling from the airport but for South or East London, it can work well.
Time was my main factor. What about price? I didn’t look at rail prices when I booked my flight a month out but, looking now, for a journey in late-May, VTEC first class costs £246 for an anytime ticket. There’s a £74.50 advance-purchase for the 0730 train which is around the time I flew. If I wanted a similar arrival time, I’d need to be on the eye-shattering 0540 from Waverley, priced at £148.50 for an advance fare.
For the same day, BA is quoting £112 for the 0635 from Edinburgh to Gatwick and £345 for the 0705 to London City (£180 for the 0735 into City) and £305 for the 0805 Edinburgh-Heathrow.
If I’d not been in a hurry, I’d have taken the train. I think too that with BA’s economy fares varying between £74 for the 0650 to Heathrow and £151 to City (there’s also a £38 for the 0735 to Gatwick), I’d be very tempted by VTEC’s £74 AP fare. For first class, that’s good value when compared with BA’s economy offering.
For how long VTEC will remain operating East Coast Main Line services remains to be seen. It bid too much back in 2014 and inherited an operation that was performing worse than expected. Passengers may not care which company’s logo adorns their train but staff do deserve to know.
Rail union RMT recently surveyed its members working for VTEC. The results are not pretty. The RMT makes no secret of its desire for a nationalised railway and I suspect those who answered its survey (560) are closer to this view than others (1,140) who did not, which makes it very likely that the results are biased against VTEC. Even so, the comments do not make easy reading. Try this: “Style over substance every time. If anyone with influence is reading this please look behind the shiny facade they [VTEC] present. They are by far the worst of four companies I have worked for on the ECML and do not deserve to be rewarded for failure.”
Or this: “At the time of joining I felt valued, the customers were well looked after, and the overall service ran well and efficiently. When Stagecoach and Virgin took over, they promised staff that they would help us provide a better service for the customers and would help ‘take us to amazing’. It became clear very early on that this was never going to be the case.”
Set against this is the latest National Rail Passenger Survey from last autumn that puts VTEC top of the franchised operators with 92% overall satisfaction (beaten only by ECML open access operators Hull Trains and Grand Central). VTEC sits top of the league for value-for-money (63% satisfied) with long-distance franchise operators. Top of the table too for punctuality (87%). What about overcrowding? Again, VTEC sits at the top of the franchised, long-distance operator table on 83% satisfaction with crowding.
And as Transport Focus never tires of saying, passengers’ top three needs are punctual trains, a seat and value for money from their ticket. VTEC tops the tables in all three areas.
It’s also profitable but VTEC promised government too much of its revenue to make the franchise sustainable. A realistic bid could still deliver large sums to government, harness staff support and bring an even better service to passengers. It might even convince me to drag myself from bed for that 0540 instead of flying.

This article first appeared in RAIL 852, published on May 9 2018.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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