It is not as though the British rail system has been anything to write home about since Beeching got hold of it. But, add years of financial neglect and recent disasters that forced nationwide rail speed limits, and suddenly travellers were deserting the railways in their droves – much to the delight of the airlines.
Peter Kite, director of client services for travel management company BTI UK, says even loyal rail travellers switched to air on some routes.
“The London-Manchester train service took two-and-a-half hours from city centre to city centre,” he says. “But when the speed limits were introduced in November they added an hour to the journey and British Airways and British Midlands took a lot of business from Virgin Trains. Business travellers will pay for convenience.”
Virgin says it lost around half of its business in November last year as long-term rail problems were exacerbated by floods washing away large areas of railway line and leaving others under water. Spokesman Dennis Lovett says: “That period wiped out three-and-a-half years of growth at 10.5%, and we are still 10% down on passenger numbers.”
Meanwhile, BMI and BA put larger aircraft on their Manchester, Edinburgh, and Newcastle (BA only) to London routes. BMI replaced Boeing 737-500s and B737-300s, with 117 and 132 seats respectively, with Airbus A321s and A320s, with 195 and 150 seats.
Similarly, BA saw an increase of up to 30% in loads (although part of that is usual at Christmas), and replaced Boeing 737s with B767s, giving an extra 100 seats. “We put 12,000 more seats on those routes between 18 December and 1 January,” says BA spokeswoman Sara Jones.
Car rental companies also saw a surge in business. “We benefited in two ways,” says Adrian Duthie, managing director of Connect Car Rental. “We did better from air passengers who would have taken trains into city centres; and from people hiring cars instead of using rail.” Although some of these extra hires will have been by leisure travellers, the increase in medium and large car rental suggests executive uptake as well.