Friday 18th October 2019
There’s rightly a lot of discussion about the impact of travelling by plane in the context of our global climate emergency; it pangs my conscious whenever I take a flight, and I don’t do it very often, and when I do it’s between London and Scotland, the Scottish islands or across the Irish Sea.
With my trip to Edinburgh earlier this week I decided to fly northbound and take the train southbound and see how the journeys compared for convenience, cost and time.
This is pertinent with LNER now running Azuma trains on four journeys a day between Edinburgh and London Kings Cross with many more journeys including to Aberdeen and Inverness becoming Azuma operated during the coming weeks as the old Class 91 and Mark 4 coaches and HSTs are withdrawn.
Living at the southern end of the Brighton Main Line means Gatwick Airport is a handy interchange point to fly north as I’m passing through in any event to get to and from London; this gives the plane an in built time advantage over the train which wouldn’t apply if I was beginning my journey closer to central London and had to make my way out to Heathrow, down to Gatwick, over to City Airport or even Luton or Stansted.
I also am unnecessarily cautious at allowing plenty of time at Gatwick even though I check in beforehand online, never have luggage to drop off, and never experience any delays to get through security. I’m sure I could easily arrive at Gatwick Airport station thirty minutes before a flight departure, even allowing for a transfer to the North Terminal and still easily catch a plane. But I never risk it.
Even though I find hanging around airports extremely frustrating I always seem to over allow time. And so it was on Tuesday afternoon when I was booked on the British Airways flight at 16:55 from Gatwick to Edinburgh; I reckoned I needed to catch the Thameslink train from Hassocks at 15:18 arriving Gatwick at 15:45.
Time for a coffee before going through security (I’ve learnt prices get hiked in outlets airside and don’t like getting ripped off) then to the x-ray machines where there was no queue and I was soon wandering through the walkway maze that houses the duty free perfumeries and oversized chocolate bar sales outlets to find a seat. I was in for a long wait as the departure screens were showing an hours delay to my flight with an expected 17:55 departure and “gate info at 17:02” (very precise).
As I whiled away the hour I worked out had I stayed on the 15:18 train, it would have got me to St Pancras at 16:30 so could have easily caught the 17:00 LNER departure from Kings Cross to Edinburgh arriving at 21:21.
I also mulled over the comparative fares. I’d booked my BA flight way back on 19th July (pretty much three months in advance) and consequently got a bargain price of £34.72. What’s quite extraordinary is £13 of this sum is Air Passenger Duty and BA also state £14.72 is a Passenger Service Charge (whatever that is) leaving just £7 as the actual fare for the journey.
By comparison I looked at the fares for the same journey if I’d booked on Monday, the day before travelling, and the price had shot up to £208 for economy class, and bizarrely a cheaper £169 for Business Class. Interestingly a later departure at 20:55 on Tuesday evening was showing a much more reasonable fare of just £40 for economy (£139 Business class) which for the day before, is not bad at all.
I also checked prices for the following day (ie 48 hours ahead) which quoted £44 on the 07:20 departure; £168 on a 17:30 departure and £208 for the 20:55 departure which just goes to show pricing is all over the place on planes depending on how many other passengers happen to be travelling.
British Airways operate three journeys a day between Gatwick and Edinburgh (one early morning, one late afternoon and one in the evening with precise times varying day by day). There are also eleven departures from Heathrow and ten (sometimes more, sometimes less) from City Airport. EasyJet fly 4 or 5 times from Gatwick, 3 or 4 from Luton and 4 or 5 times from Stansted and have a similar pricing policy. Overall there are around 37 to 40 flights a day from London’s airports to Edinburgh. LNER run 28 trains between the two cities.
Having contemplated all that, boarding finally commenced for my flight on Tuesday at 17:40 and we were all seated and ready to go at 18:00 pushing back ready for taxi-ing soon after that and we finally took off at 18:25 (luckily on the westerly runway so minimised taxi-ing time on the ground). Had I caught the 17:00 LNER train from Kings Cross I’d have been approaching Doncaster on the non-stop part of the journey with first station York (assuming that had no delays).
In the event, it took my BA aeroplane just twenty five minutes to be flying over Doncaster as the First Officer coincidentally announced on the PA that we were making good progress at 18:50 and as we flew over York a few minutes later, that LNER train had just pulled out of that station.
We landed into Edinburgh Airport at 19:25 pulling on to the stand at 19:30 and I was off the plane at 19:35 and on to a Lothian bus on Airlink 100 which left at 19:50 arriving into central Edinburgh by Waverley Station at 20:15.
At 20:15 the LNER train which had left Kings Cross at 17:00 was just north of Morpeth and arrived into Waverley just over an hour later at 21:19. Now, had I lived in London within say, half an hour’s journey from Kings Cross and had to make it out to one of the aforementioned London’s airports the timings would have been remarkably similar, albeit my plane comparison included that hour’s delay – but I’m finding that’s becoming quite a common occurence as airlines go for very tight turnarounds and little slack in the schedules making for delayed departures in the afternoons and evenings.
What time you gain in the air, you lose at the airport and getting to and from the airport (especially if you’re a cautious traveller on allowances for delays as I am).
LNER’s London to Edinburgh’s prices are also comparable to some of BA and EasyJet’s bargain basement rates and can even match that eye-catching £34.72 giveaway I got with BA, especailly if you book in advance as soon as the tickets become available, and have a Railcard, and travel standard class (which has comparable leg room and comfort to a BA or EasyJet plane in economy). For example, I booked the return journey I made on Wednesday at 12:00 from Edinburgh to Kings Cross only four weeks ahead on 16th September when the price quoted was £51 for standard class which is just £33.65 with a Railcard. I choose to upgrade to First Class at £80 and paid £52.80 with my Railcard.
I made a similar comparison with prices quoted if I’d booked just twenty four hours ahead and checked on Tuesday morning what fares were still available for the 12:00 journey. These were £70 Standard Class and £132.50 First Class before Railcard discounts. Even walk up fares are priced competitively with last minute airline prices with a super-off peak single Standard Class at £146.40 and an off-peak First Class £205 on the train.
And, of course, First Class does offer a complimentary dining option with proper crockery and cutlery and hot meals – something I’ll be writing about in more detail in an upcoming blogpost.
So, my conclusion is, pricing is broadly comparable between plane and train, and for me, living close to Gatwick Airport, flying has the advantage over taking the train to Scotland if time saving is important (particularly for onward travel if relevant), but for the enjoyment of travelling you can’t beat the train. for those living closer to central London, I’d say the train wins every time when travelling to Edinburgh.