My 91-year-old Grandma lives alone in Tynemouth, a coastal town outside of Newcastle. I used to see her a lot more when I lived in the area, but living in London for the last four years I’ve seen her less and less. The reason? The prohibitively high cost of East Coast trains.
When news broke that the Virgin Trains franchise on the East Coast Mainline (running from London to Edinburgh) would be cut short three years earlier than planned, it came as little surprise to me. In 2014, when bidding for the franchise, they had factored for an increasing level of passenger demand that never materialised. Ending the government contract early, and removing the premiums that they would have been paying, effectively amounts to a government bailout.
I am under no illusions that me going to see my Grandma more often would have saved this franchise but I feel that I am not alone in being priced out of rail travel.
Looking at the time and cost of a one-way journey on a Friday booked a month in advance, what are the options?
Going straight from work in Covent Garden, I could leave at 5pm and be at Kings Cross for the 5.30pm train. I’d arrive into Newcastle before 8pm and over to my Grandma’s for a fish supper by 9pm. Result! Unfortunately, the single costs £82 and the cheapest return on the Sunday, £54. This is the same cost of a return flight to see my parents in Cyprus. Considering the eternal winter we’ve been experiencing, I’m sorry Grandma, I need that vitamin D.
Total travel time: 3 hours 40 minutes (15 minute tube to Kings Cross, 2 hour 50 minute train to Newcastle, 35 minute Metro train to Tynemouth)
Pros: time (no need to book any time off of work) and comfort (if you’ve booked a seat)
Cons: price (I can travel two thousand miles to a place with a different time zone and climate for this)
National Express, god bless them, provide a coach for the measly sum of £6.40. And you get a hell of a lot of coach for that price - 7 hours and 45 minutes to be exact.
Last time I took it, I vowed I never would again. It is a soul crushingly long journey and obliterates my weekend; I spend the time I do have dreading repeating the whole thing in reverse. My Grandma deserves to see me at my best, rather than a shadow of the bright young chap she remembers.
Total travel time: 8 hours 35 minutes (15 minute tube to Victoria, 7 hour 45 minute coach, 35 minute Metro to Tynemouth)
I don’t have a car myself but something I have done before is booking a ride in someone else’s. The positives are that, over the coach, you might get more legroom and by not having to make numerous stops along the way, transport time is reduced. If you are lucky enough to be the only passenger, you can ride up front like a big boy but if there are other passengers you could draw the short straw and be in the middle seat in an uncomfortable stranger sandwich. Journeys depend on the driver’s start point and destination, which are unlikely to be from central London to Newcastle. There are many unknowns with this option.
Total travel time: variable but likely to be under 8.5 hours
Cost: Approx. £35 for BlaBlaCar
Pros: potential to meet interesting people, could get lots of legroom
Cons: limited availability
Flying to Newcastle seems wholly unnecessary but should be considered as a possibility on the basis of its short travel time and comparatively cheap price. For those travelling to Edinburgh this becomes even more of a viable option. That said, if I’m going to fly, I’d rather save it for a place that I can’t really get to any other way. But sometimes it’s just too darned expensive to be principled.
Total travel time: 3 hours 55 minutes (55 minute tube to Heathrow, 1 hour 15 minute flight, 45 minute Metro to Tynemouth – includes additional hour transit time at Heathrow security, boarding plane etc.)
Pros: some price improvement
Cons: lots of CO2
Price aside, train is the overwhelming favourite. I actually bloody love rail travel and stepping out of London reminds me that people are generally a lot more pleasant up north and maybe any ill-feeling towards those down south is entirely justified.
I experienced a temporary rush of affection for Philip Hammond when he announced in last year’s budget that the young person’s railcard would be extended to age 30. That feeling has now faded after trying, unsuccessfully, with scores of others to snap one of the initial 10,000 that were made available last week.
When the East Coast line was taken into public ownership between 2009 and 2015, fares were kept down and it actually turned a profit. Perhaps it’s time it did again. Grandma would be pleased.