The direct London train link that never was

— Editor’s note: The following article is reprinted from the Expert Comment Blog under the original title “Train link goes off the rails – before it’s even started“. Brian Milner is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s Business School.

Lincoln has been campaigning for a regular rail service to London since it was removed in May 1993 after the early 1990s recession. As part of a massive rewrite of the East Coast Main Line timetable, Lincoln was promised seven 125 mph trains in each direction between Lincoln and Kings Cross per day as from May 201.

Currently, many people from Lincoln drive to Newark instead and catch a fast East Coast train to Kings Cross. To attract businesses and tourists from the South-East, it is argued that Lincoln needs a regular fast rail service to and from Kings Cross.

So it was quite disappointing yesterday when East Coast, the nationalised train operator running most Inter City services between London Kings Cross and the North, announced that their new timetable would only include one through train between Lincoln and Kings Cross. The recession and the concomitant reduction in income from rail (especially First Class) passengers are clearly the reasons for this.

The new timetable, which East Coast is marketing under the Eureka! brand, was designed to provide much needed additional capacity on the route. For most of the day, services will run to a regular interval plan – something which has never been attempted on the East Coast Main Line before. This will be much more efficient and will enable more trains to run.

It was planned to operate a through train in each direction every two hours between Kings Cross and Lincoln each day but the plan was even better than that. After arrival in Lincoln, the train would provide a shuttle service to and from Newark before returning to London. In this way, Lincoln would have a through train or connection by East Coast train each hour all day to and from London.

As the seventeen miles between Lincoln and Newark are not electrified, the service had to be operated by diesel train. East Coast leases 13 nine-coach High Speed Diesel Trains but these are fully employed on long distance services such as Kings Cross to Aberdeen and Inverness. There was no spare capacity to provide a Lincoln to London service in this fleet.

First Great Western was operating five-coach 125mph trains but decided to take these off lease and concentrate their long distance services on High Speed Diesel Trains. Although the latter were initially introduced in the late 1970s, they are popular with passengers. Both First Great Western and East Coast re-engineered their High Speed Diesel Trains so that they are far more reliable and, for many, appear to be brand new trains.

So there were five-coach 125mph trains available and East Coast leased five of them for the London to Lincoln service. As there had been reliability issues and they needed a thorough refresh internally, considerable expense would be required for these to match the standard of other East Coast Trains.

Not only that, but drivers and guards would need to be trained on these very different trains. Indeed, additional train crew would be required to operate the additional services on the East Coast Main Line.

As is well known, National Express East Coast ceased to operate this franchise because of the effect that the recession was having on total passenger revenue.

As noted earlier, the new East Coast timetable was designed to provide additional capacity and some wondered if it would be deferred until passenger revenues return to growth.

The advantages of regular interval services are many. Not only is it easier for passengers to understand and remember the timetable but it generally results in far more efficient use of trains and train crew.

So, it was worth introducing the new timetable if at all possible because of the many operational benefits that it would provide.

It had already been decided that in the new timetable most East Coast trains would cease to go to Glasgow and leave the London to Glasgow service to Virgin Trains. This would enable East Coast electric 125mph trains to operate more services in the core routes from Edinburgh, Newcastle to London and Leeds to London. These electric trains have also been re-engineered and are very reliable.

Existing East Coach diesel and electric have nine passenger coaches. Paths for high speed trains on the East Coast Main Line are in short supply and some wondered if the use of five coach trains was making effective use of this scarce resource.

The plan is either to sub-lease these five coach trains elsewhere or to return them to the rolling stock operating company. Some of them have been sub-leased to Northern already to help deal with gross overcrowding on trains in the north-west of England.

East Coast will use one of their nine-coach diesel trains on a 07:22 Lincoln to Kings Cross and a 19:06 return train. East Midlands already operate a through train between Lincoln and St Pancras at similar times leaving earlier and arriving later – taking an hour longer in each direction.

East Coast will also provide four additional through services between Kings Cross and Newark making use of their nine-coach electric trains.

In this way, by making even better use of their existing electric and diesel trains, East Coast will save £9 million per year in this change to planned Lincoln services and will get most of the benefits of their new timetable.

Of course, it may be significant that Lincoln no longer has an MP who is a minister in the Government. Gillian Merron was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport in 2006-2007.

Photo: Samuel Cox