11 APRIL 2011


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Article from BTNews 11 APRIL 2011

COMMENT: From planes to trains

Figures issued by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) last week confirm that both business and leisure travellers in the United Kingdom are using the railways for long distance travel more and more.  Catching the train could soon be more popular than going by air on the main routes between the UK’s big cities if the shift from flying to the railways continues at its current rate.  The fact that air travel is taxed (APD) whilst this is not the case for railways may have some influence.

The findings are based on a comparison of rail industry figures with those published by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and confirm a long-term change in the nation’s travel patterns.

According to this analysis rail’s market share on the 10 most popular domestic air routes in 2010 grew to 44% – up from 29% in 2006.  If the trend of recent years continues, train companies say that rail’s market share on these routes combined could rise to above 50% within the next 12 months, heralding a ‘turning point’ in how people travel between the UK’s main cities.

The assessment shows that rail has the largest market share on the London to Newcastle and London to Manchester service and rail’s overall market share on many of the remaining city pairs has seen increases over the same period, some of them significant.

Between 2006 and 2010, total journeys by rail on the routes rose by 42%, increasing by 2m to just over 7m journeys.  Over the same period, the total number of comparable air journeys fell by 27%, or 3.25m, to around 9m in 2010.  Over the last two years, there has been a particular surge in rail travel on these sectors with train journeys rising by 25%.

Sir Richard Branson took on British Airways and bmi with regard to international long haul air routes.  He chose never to do so with regard to airline short haul operations instead using Virgin Rail as his flag bearer.  After an unsteady start he is clearly winning, destroying bmi’s London to Glasgow service.  As a result, bmi now operates just four domestic routes from Heathrow (Aberdeen, Belfast City, Edinburgh and Manchester), down from nine back in the summer of 2007.

Tough financial times, the increasing availability of cheap Advance fares – around 800,000 are sold each week – and the fact that train travel is often seen as a ‘greener’ option than flying, have all prompted the shift. 

For example on London to Manchester, rail’s market share rose from 69% in 2008 to 79% in 2010.  Long gone are the days when VLM (now CityJet Air France) could operate up to 12 daily sections between London City Airport and Manchester’s Ringway with very high load factors.  The route has now been abandoned.

For Birmingham to Edinburgh, rail’s market share rose from 14% in 2008 to 31% in 2010.  Here again the air services have been decimated now with only Flybe on the route, offering just five frequencies with a Bombardier Q400 service.  On Birmingham – Edinburgh the road distance is 300 miles and five hours driving, as against a one hour flying time.  But the train goes to the city centre saving time and money. 

The more difficult the journey the more popular the air travel has been the rule in the past.  This is changing too.  Inverness to London survives but only to Luton and Gatwick.  Plymouth, the West Country’s major city, and with notoriously difficult access to London by both road and rail has lost its air services (although a case could be made for a PSO (Public Service Obligation) route. 

For London to Glasgow, rail’s market share has risen from 12% in 2008 to 20% in 2010.  Here the road journey is seven hard hours and 400 miles.  Virgin could bring the rail journey down to less than four hours in 2012, a tremendous breakthrough heralding an even greater transfer of allegiances.  With the contract up for grabs next year and four European rail operators challenging the incumbent what a better way of demonstrating 14 years of real progress on the route and no change with the franchise.

On the East Coast the Government still has not issued a tender for the main charter following the collapse of National Express East Coast in November 2009.  Currently the services are operated by a division of the Department for Transport with a nullifying effect on both marketing and investment.  One can argue this licence should have taken priority for its future rather than the West Coast.

Planes v Trains.  The battle will rage on.  What will happen when/if High Speed 2 arrives.  Nobody ever predicted planes would give way to trains as they surely will next year.  Someone would have to be very brave to forecast the figures by the end of the decade.

Malcolm Ginsberg

Editor in Chief

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