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

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 GBP25 flight to Glasgow.

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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Back on track

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)

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:54

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Minute man

“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.

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

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

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:28

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Hopes fading

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: GBP26.

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

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

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:09

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Clear skies

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.

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

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

Simon Calder21 October 2021 14:04

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On your marks …

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.

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

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

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:31

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Easy does it

The lowest fare then was GBP29.

I have paid GBP25, of which more than half goes to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as Air Passenger Duty.

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

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

Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:17

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‘Boarding now’?

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*.

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

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. Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:12

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Transfer window

“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. Simon Calder21 October 2021 12:02

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

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.”

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

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.” Simon Calder21 October 2021 11:24

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Lumo is late, and so am I

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.

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

Late notice: destination screen at London St Pancras International

(Simon Calder)

Simon Calder21 October 2021 11:06