Why train is the cheapest way to get from London to Edinburgh

Simon Calder

At Euston station, platform 6, the train to Edinburgh is boarding. This is the 6.43am express that will take me from London to the Scottish capital. But not just yet.

First, I must step aboard the adjacent train, on platform 7, to field test some research. It contradicts the oft-quoted notion that it is cheaper to fly between key British cities rather than to travel by rail.

Well-publicised stories over the years have even suggested that flying via a third country is cheaper than going by rail from London to key cities in Scotland and northern England.

Common to these accounts is a failure to compare like with like: typically comparing a book-ahead air fare with an on-the-day rail ticket. So at noon on Monday I checked a dozen options by train and plane between London and Edinburgh for travel early the following morning.

British Airways led the field with a £49 one-way hop from Gatwick (leaving aside, as those plane-vs-train stories tend to do, the cost of reaching the airport).

On the East Coast main line, from King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley, the cheapest advance fare on LNER was £73. That Virgin Trains express preparing for the West Coast route at platform 6 from Euston came in at a painful £143.

Happily, I found a train trick to undercut the BA air fare. It involves getting out of bed a quarter-hour earlier to board the London Northwestern train from platform 7 to Crewe, which leaves punctually at 6.28am.

In sharp contrast to the punitive peak-hour fares on the inter-city train operator, my advance ticket cost just £9 for 160 miles.

While the Crewe Cheapie (not its official name) uses rolling stock described dismissively as “outer suburban”, the train is quite comfortable enough for a two-hour journey – and swift enough, at 110mph, to compete on the fast track of the West Coast main line.

At Rugby we stand aside so that a 125mph Virgin Trains express to Manchester can race through without stopping. The service then follows in its slipstream, ferrying commuters and schoolchildren along the Trent Valley line.

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An “anytime” ticket for the 20-minute hop between Nuneaton and Lichfield costs the same as I paid for the whole London-Crewe journey.

Meanwhile the 6.43am Virgin Trains service to Edinburgh plods through the West Midlands, with pauses at Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. So it arrives in Crewe more than half-an-hour behind my train. This is where a £33 advance ticket for the remaining 240 miles to Edinburgh takes effect – undercutting BA by £7, and getting me from city centre to city centre into the bargain.

The station staff at Crewe keep us on our toes, mind, by suddenly switching the platform from 11 to 6.

The Edinburgh train and its timetable has come adrift somewhere around Birmingham (haven’t we all?). By Preston it is running 10 minutes late and being chased by a following Virgin Trains service to Glasgow.

At Lancaster the platform signs increased the confusion by announcing that the Edinburgh train was, actually, bound for Glasgow Central.

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Once into Scotland, the scenery steps up a gear and so does the train, climbing effortlessly to Beattock Summit – more than 1,000 feet above sea level and the austere beauty of the Borders.

The descent to Edinburgh brings glimpses of the three Firth of Forth crossings (don’t try saying that after a Virgin Trains croissant). The driver has made up time to arrive at Waverley – the only railway station named after a novel – right on schedule.

Yes, it has taken almost six hours to reach the Virgin berth on platform 10. And I expected to have been beaten to it by the 8am LNER express from London King’s Cross, due in two minutes earlier. But the East Coast train is delayed by 25 minutes – long enough to be annoying but not enough to get some “delay repay” cash back. Perhaps west is best.


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