Group says open access London-Edinburgh service would offer travellers ‘significantly lower’ fares than Virgin Trains East Coast, Easyjet and Ryanair


First’s existing open access operator, First Hull Trains


FirstGroup has applied to run 10 new open access services per day from London to Edinburgh on the East Coast Main Line.

The proposal is designed specifically to take passengers from budget airlines. As such, the trains would have standard class seating only. First said average prices would be “significantly lower” than current fares offered by Virgin Trains East Coast, Easyjet and Ryanair.

Trains would stop at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth. The call at Morpeth would target 180,000 people living within 20 minutes’ drive of Newcastle airport to the north of the city. Stevenage is half an hour from Luton airport and 45 minutes from Stansted offering an alternative to air travel in a large catchment area.

The service would operate with new-build trains “comparable” to the IEP stock Virgin Trains East Coast will introduce, although options other than IEP will be considered.  Journey times from London to Edinburgh would be “close to four hours”, compared to around four hours 25 minutes on current VTEC services.

First also anticipates running an early morning train to arrive in Edinburgh by 10am to appeal to business travellers. Trains would be equipped with free Wi-Fi and onboard catering.

If approved, the services would start in 2018.

The Office of Rail Regulation will determine whether to approve First’s application which will compete for paths on the East Coast Main Line against proposals from VTEC and Arriva-owned Alliance Rail. Virgin’s franchise plan includes running 26 London-Edinburgh trains per day with journey times of around four hours by May 2019. Alliance has applied to run an hourly London-Newcastle-Edinburgh service taking as little as three hours 43 minutes, with some trains calling at Stevenage.

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole said his company’s proposal, alongside the growth of its existing Hull Trains operation, demonstrated the potential for open access to “add value and create passenger loyalty by serving niche markets”.

A deal with the Department for Transport protects Virgin Trains East Coast against the majority of revenue lost should ORR approve open access services rather than its plans (PT098). However, VTEC said that while limited open access completion would be possible, FirstGroup’s proposals would have major implications for its ability to deliver its planned service expansion in 2019 and 2020.

“Any open access application should be considered as part of the whole network and ensure that what’s on offer is in the best interests of passengers,” a VTEC spokesman commented.“We don’t believe what has been proposed would be compatible with our timetable proposals, which will deliver extra and new direct services to London from key locations in Scotland and England and more weekend services.”


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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