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Train vs Plane: which is fastest between London and Edinburgh?

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It’s the race I really don’t want to win. At 10.45am, I will wave off the very first passenger train from the new Anglo-Scottish train operator, Lumo, from London King’s Cross. Just over four-and-a-half hours later the shiny train is scheduled to arrive at Edinburgh Waverley. And I may be there to meet it, after a journey by rail, bus, air, bus or taxi and rail.

My opponent is the UK’s leading rail expert: Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who founded the Seat61.com website for international train travel. While he sits back and enjoys the scenery on the East Coast main line, I will be stressing about catching the train to Luton Airport Parkway, the bus up the hill to the Bedfordshire airport, going through security, finding the right gate and (hopefully) strapping in for my £25 flight to Glasgow.

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Yes, I appreciate that is technically the wrong city, but given the currently sparse flight schedules from London to Edinburgh it is the only way I might feasibly reach the Scottish capital first.

A bus along the M8 into Glasgow city centre, and a train from the newly refurbished Queen Street station to Edinburgh should, all being well, see me reaching Waverley Station in time for a cup of tea while I wait for Mark. But plenty of jeopardy awaits …

Follow my live updates as we race to the finish line.

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It’s a tie!

Thursday 21 October 2021 16:05 , Simon Calder

Amazingly, my walk delivered me to Edinburgh Waverley at exactly 3.15pm – the same moment that Lumo arrived from London King's Cross, bearing The Man In Seat 61, Mark Smith.

A dead heat. I believe in the Olympics these days we would both get a medal.

Each of us had taken exactly four and a half hours to travel between the English and Scottish capitals. But Mark claimed a moral victory.

“ I certainly arrived a lot less stressed that you, “ he said. “It was a fantastic journey on the East Coast main line in the lovely sunny weather through the scenery of Northumberland and Scotland.

“So I know which way I'd prefer to head to Edinburgh.

“I will definitely be using Lumo in the future – sometimes I will still use LNER, but it's always good to have a choice.”

Journey’s end: Simon Calder and Mark Smith at Edinburgh Waverley (Simon Calder)
Journey’s end: Simon Calder and Mark Smith at Edinburgh Waverley (Simon Calder)

Sightseeing stroll

Thursday 21 October 2021 15:55 , Simon Calder

After my lucky escape from Glasgow, I realised I was on course to arrive well ahead of the Lumo train. So after a stressful journey I decided to unwind by taking a stroll and doing some sightseeing.

So I hopped off at the station before Edinburgh Waverley – Haymarket – and enjoyed a 15-minute walk along Princes Street, with superb views of Scotland’s leading tourist attraction: Edinburgh Castle.

Autumn gold: Edinburgh Castle, Scotland’s leading tourist attraction (Simon Calder)
Autumn gold: Edinburgh Castle, Scotland’s leading tourist attraction (Simon Calder)

Back on track

Thursday 21 October 2021 14:54 , Simon Calder

As the sun bursts through the clouds to illuminate the autumnal scene to the north, I am doing what I like best: watching Scotland unfold from a train window.

Rail travel is a special joy. Each of the 300 or so people on this train have their own motives for making the journey; their own thoughts; their own way of filling the time – the gentleman opposite me is knitting.

Yet collectively we are racing through spectacular landscapes, covering a mile every 40 seconds, using Victorian infrastructure to the full and causing minimal environment harm. The rail traveller is in touch with the world.

More practically, the train is clean, calm and spacious, with the added advantage of on-board electricity to resurrect my laptop and decent WiFi to keep in touch with the world beyond the window.

Oh look, there’s Edinburgh airport. If only it had a decent rail link …

Blue sky thinking: from a train, near Linlithgow (Simon Calder)
Blue sky thinking: from a train, near Linlithgow (Simon Calder)

Minute man

Thursday 21 October 2021 14:28 , Simon Calder

“C. Spratt Multi Utility apologises for any inconvenience,” reads the back of the truck whose urgent repair work is blocking our progress on Bothwell Street.

“I will do my best to get you there,” promises Michael, the friendly taxi driver who knows a stressed traveller when he sees one. “It all depends on the lights.”

At 10 seconds before 2.14pm he drops me at Glasgow’s splendidly refurbished Queen Street station. Ten seconds before 2.15pm, the express to Edinburgh pulls away from platform 4.

Handily, I am aboard. Croy, Falkirk High, Polmont, Linlithgow and Haymarket await, with the train terminating at Edinburgh Waverley at 3.03pm – 14 minutes ahead of Mark, I calculate.

I would crack open a bottle of something to celebrate, except that (a) I have been on a plane, and therefore am subject to the “liquids rule”, and (b) alcohol is banned across the ScotRail network.

All aboard: platform 4 at Glasgow Queen Street station (Simon Calder)
All aboard: platform 4 at Glasgow Queen Street station (Simon Calder)

Hopes fading

Thursday 21 October 2021 14:09 , Simon Calder

All gone Tango Uniform in the past few minutes.

Wheels down at Glasgow 1.41pm, followed by a brisk three-minute taxi and on stand six minutes early. But then there was a 10-minute wait for a dispatcher before anyone could leave the aircraft.

Add in that the plane was at the furthest gate from the exit, and even though I ran right through the terminal I reached the taxi queue only at 1.59pm – 16 minutes before my train from a station eight miles away.

“Are you in a hurry,” asks Michael, from Krakow, Glasgow’s finest cab driver. He suggests I pay in advance: £26.

Waiting game: easyJet flight 65 at Glasgow airport, gate 8 (Simon Calder)
Waiting game: easyJet flight 65 at Glasgow airport, gate 8 (Simon Calder)

Clear skies

Thursday 21 October 2021 14:04 , Simon Calder

Here at 1.07pm and 31,000 feet (nearly six miles high), with Leeds to the left-hand side, I calculate that Mark Smith is about to start enjoying the fine scenery on the East Coast main line – which I reckon starts at Durham.

But I can see for miles further – all the way to the west coast of England and the curves of Morecambe Bay.

Captain Carlo Tomaso says he expects to get us to Glasgow five minutes ahead of schedule. If correct, that gives me three minutes to leave the aircraft and reach the 1.48pm bus to the city centre – and Queen Street station, where the 2.15pm train to Edinburgh is my last hope.

View from a plane: easyJet flight 65 (Simon Calder)
View from a plane: easyJet flight 65 (Simon Calder)

On your marks ...

Thursday 21 October 2021 12:31 , Simon Calder

So far I have travelled 30 miles from London King's Cross in 105 minutes. Time to accelerate, with easyJet flight 65 from Luton to Glasgow fully boarded and the doors closed five minutes ahead of schedule.

A total of 168 passengers are on board, a “load factor” of 93 per cent. It is rather ironic that so many people are choosing to fly to the city that is hosting COP26.

An Airbus A320 can fly at over 500mph, four times faster than the Lumo train. The journey is scheduled to take 75 from gate-to-gate.

easy does it: Flight 65 is ready to go (Simon Calder)
easy does it: Flight 65 is ready to go (Simon Calder)

Easy does it

Thursday 21 October 2021 12:17 , Simon Calder

The route I am flying from Luton to Glasgow has some historic significance. On 10 November 1995, it was the very first departure of a start-up airline called easyJet. Obviously I wasn’t there because I presumed it wouldn’t last more than a few weeks.

The lowest fare then was £29. I have paid £25, of which more than half goes to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as Air Passenger Duty.

First mover: Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the maiden flight of easyJet from Luton to Glasgow in November 1995 (Tony Anderson)
First mover: Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the maiden flight of easyJet from Luton to Glasgow in November 1995 (Tony Anderson)

‘Boarding now’?

Thursday 21 October 2021 12:12 , Simon Calder

From the gates into the security area to emerging – after my torso, possessions and shoes have been closely examined by hard-working and professional staff – takes exactly 10 minutes.

Mark did not have to endure a good frisking before boarding his train.

Just past security, life imitates, well, life – in the shape of a restaurant called Friska. I am reminded of my earlier life, frisking people at Gatwick airport*.

Boarding zone: Gate 2 at Luton Airport (Simon Calder)
Boarding zone: Gate 2 at Luton Airport (Simon Calder)

(*As a job, not a hobby.)

At 11.47am, the Glasgow flight is shown as “Boarding”. It is departing from Gate 2, which as a well-known law dictates, is the furthest away – technically, I believe, in a different county.

I pause to refill my water bottle and buy lunch at Pret a Manger, and then stride to the gate. It turns out that “Boarding” actually means “Your plane has just arrived and you can all stand in line to watch the passengers getting off”.

At the adjacent gate, passengers to Amsterdam are told they face a two-hour delay due to poor weather in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, I rummage around the walls in an unsuccessful bid to find some electricity. I hope Mark’s train has enough.

Transfer window

Thursday 21 October 2021 12:02 , Simon Calder

“Don’t rush,” reads the sign on the stairs of Luton Airport Parkway station, as I sprint up the stairs two at a time. “One step at a time.”

The train arrived six minutes late, leaving just 120 seconds for the scramble up a flight of stairs, along a corridor, down four escalators and through the ticket gates to the bus stop.

Three of us are racing for the transfer bus, and the driver kindly waits an extra 15 seconds before setting off for the airport – and still arrives a minute early, at 11.35am – giving me one hour before my flight.

‘We’re not actually chasing LNER’s business at all’ – Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo

Thursday 21 October 2021 11:24 , Simon Calder

Just ahead of the train’s departure, I caught up with Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo.

Her train operation is going head to head with state-owned LNER, which runs two trains an hour between London and Edinburgh for much of the day.

“We’re not actually chasing LNER’s business at all. We’re after the airlines. And what we want to do is bring people off those flights, which are so polluting, and get them using the railways. And if that benefits LNER as well – great to hear.”

First mover: Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo, awaiting the departure of the maiden journey from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley (Simon Calder)
First mover: Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo, awaiting the departure of the maiden journey from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley (Simon Calder)

At King’s Cross a couple of LNER people confided to me that they have been running a great electric train service for years, covering the ground in four-and-a-half hours, and could not really see the need for Lumo’s trains to add capacity.

Ms Wylde responds: “They do hybrid trains [electric with diesel motors also fitted] to Edinburgh in about four-and-a-half hours.

“We are 100 per cent electric. That’s a different service. And also we’re doing something completely different – we have no first class here, this is for everybody.

“And we’re trying to produce fares that are fair – so you don’t have to pay for the privilege of being green.”

Lumo is late, and so am I

Thursday 21 October 2021 11:06 , Simon Calder

The first passenger-carrying service of Lumo from London to Edinburgh sets of one minute late, at 10.46am. Immediately it leaves from platform 8, I have to break into an undignified sprint to the adjacent station of St Pancras – for my Thameslink train to Luton Airport Parkway.

I need not have rushed: the departure is four minutes late.

“You’re lucky it’s only four minutes,” a helpful (and anonymous) member of staff tells me.

“Everything’s gone wrong this morning because of last night’s storms. There’s a landslip in Kent and the wires are down further north.”

If the train keeps to time, I will still have four minutes to transfer to the bus to the airport itself. I am seated at the rear of the train, closest to the station steps on arrival.

I reflect that if I know that level of detail, perhaps I should get out more.

Meanwhile I note that my train just 30 miles north from London will stop at more stations (if you must know, West Hampstead, St Alban’s City and Harpenden) than Mark’s Lumo train – which pauses at just Newcastle and Morpeth.

I notice there is no charger for my laptop or phone, which does not bode well for those of us in the communications business.

Late notice: destination screen at London St Pancras International (Simon Calder)
Late notice: destination screen at London St Pancras International (Simon Calder)

Why is The Independent’s travel correspondent flying to Glasgow when the train is heading for Edinburgh?

Thursday 21 October 2021 10:00 , Simon Calder

That’s the question on Twitter from Alex Jayre: “Out of interest, why the flight to Glasgow and not Edinburgh as flights are available to Edinburgh?”

The reason is simple: timings don't work. To give the train the maximum possible advantage, I am leaving at exactly the same time from King's Cross. The only feasible departure (at least at a fare I am prepared to pay) is Luton-Glasgow.

Sign up to Simon Calder’s free travel newsletter

Thursday 21 October 2021 09:59 , Lucy Thackray

Want to know about all of this week’s key travel rules updates, plus great deals on fares and holidays, and predictions for what’s next in the uncertain world of travel?

Sign up free to Simon Calder’s Travel Week to get the expert steer of The Independent’s travel correspondent sent direct to your inbox each Friday morning.

Whether it’s updates on entry rules for reopening countries such as the US and Thailand, great offers on weekend breaks or tip-offs on new rail and flight launches, our newsletter will help you stay informed for all of your travel bookings.

To sign up, simply enter your email into the sign-up box for Simon Calder’s Travel Week at the link below:

Newsletters

Unlike planes, trains give discounts to railcard holders

Thursday 21 October 2021 09:55 , Simon Calder

Lumo, the new cut-price rail link between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh will deliver even better value for the UK’s millions of railcard holders.

The lowest-price tickets are selling for £14.90 one way, but that cost comes down to £9.80 for railcard holders.

The fare cut applies to 16-25, 26-30, Disabled Persons, Family & Friends, Two Together and Senior railcards.

During the opening phase of the service - between Lumo’s launch on 25 October and 1 December - railcard holders need not pay more than £13.10, so long as they book at least a day before departure.

More here.

Lumo: all you need to know

Thursday 21 October 2021 09:15 , Simon Calder

The new train operator is promising high-quality, low-cost service in competition with the existing state-run operator, LNER.

From 25 October, Lumo will offer two services a day each way between London and Edinburgh, calling at Stevenage (close to Luton airport), Newcastle and the Northumberland town of Morpeth. As more new trains are delivered, the frequency will increase to five daily trips each way.

The service is aimed squarely at price-sensitive travellers. For the first five weeks – from opening day on 25 October to 1 December – every journey that is booked by the day before travel will cost £19.90 or less. Longer term, Lumo says that 60 per cent of all single fares will be available for £30 or less. The most expensive “walk-up” ticket for an on-the-day purchase is likely to be £69.

LNER, which currently has two trains an hour between the capitals, sells its cheapest tickets between London and Edinburgh at typically around £50 – though railcard holders can reduce that fare to £33.

Lumo also aims to attract passengers away from the airlines: British Airways and easyJet currently have more than 20 flights each way to a total of five London airports, with fares typically starting at £47 and £25 respectively.

Mark Smith, The Man in Seat Sixty-One, points out the environmental benefits of train vs plane

Thursday 21 October 2021 08:28 , Simon Calder

“I’m looking forward to a journey on Britain’s classic London to Edinburgh east coast main line, on a new operator that promises airline-beating fares from £14.90 – less than the £18.40 train fare from London to Luton airport - on a train producing 85 per cent less CO2 than a flight.

But can a four-and-a-half-hour train journey beat Simon’s 75-minute flight? Simon seems confident, but I don’t think it’ll be the walk-over that those numbers suggest.”

Sitting comfortably: Mark Smith, The Man in Seat Sixty-One (Mark Smith)
Sitting comfortably: Mark Smith, The Man in Seat Sixty-One (Mark Smith)

Time sensitive: the key milestones between London and Edinburgh

Thursday 21 October 2021 08:04 , Simon Calder

Mark Smith will depart from London King’s Cross at 10.45am – first stop, Newcastle, 269 miles north, at 1.47pm.

A pause at the Northumberland town of Morpeth, a further 16 miles on, is scheduled for 2.01pm.

Arrival at Edinburgh is set for 3.17pm, after a journey of four hours, 42 minutes.

After seeing off the train, I will sprint across to St Pancras station and catch the 10.51pm to Luton Airport Parkway, That train should arrive at 11.22am, with an eight-minute wait for the connecting bus to the airport – which is scheduled for six minutes, arriving at 11.36am.

That leaves 59 minutes to get through security and find some lunch before the 12.35pm departure to Glasgow.

The 322-mile flight is scheduled to take 75 minutes, arriving at the airport serving Scotland’s largest city at 1.50pm.

This is when things get tight and/or expensive: in order to reach Edinburgh ahead of the Lumo train, the only possible departure from Glasgow Queen Street station is at 2.15pm. Should the flight arrive five or 10 minutes early, Ishould make the 1.48pm bus, which reaches George Square (a few minutes from the station) at 2.09pm. Otherwise, it’s a taxi.

Even with five stops en route, that 2.15pm train is due to arrive at 3.03pm, comfortably ahead of Mark’s train.

In terms of cost: the rail/bus ticket from London to Luton airport costs £18.40. I booked my easyJet flight two weeks ahead for £24.99.

I hope to pay £8 for the bus into Glasgow but it could easily be twice as much for a taxi. The fare from Queen Street station to Edinburgh is £13.50.

At a minimum, the journey as planned has a total cost of £64.89.

All Lumo tickets between London and Edinburgh are selling for £19.90 or less until the end of November.

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