Hands off my favourite railway: a love letter to the East Coast Mainline

Picture a train where you could sit in peace for four hours, with a plug socket (crucial), Wi-Fi (helpful), in a comfortable seat (imagine!), with ample leg room (paradise). I have just described my favourite railway line – and no, it’s not the Orient Express. It’s the East Coast Mainline.

Mine is an odd love affair with what I affectionately call the ECM. I’m not into trains, per se, but it’s not every day that the Government says it is going to renationalise your favourite one – not yet, at least: Jeremy Corbyn is still a long way from Downing Street.

I am no railway expert, but it might be better to renationalise one of the railway lines that actually needs attention

I take the ECM often. I live in London, spend as much time as possible in the Scottish Borders, and my parents live in Lincolnshire. The ECM is the only way to go. Flying to Edinburgh is a faff, and means you can’t take edible goodies from London in your hand luggage and driving is too lonely. So, the train it is. And the ECM cannot be beaten. It sets off speedily from King’s Cross, and, depending on your route, stops at a number of charming cathedral cities, like Peterborough, York and Durham before reaching Edinburgh. If you’re lucky, as I was on Tuesday night, it goes full speed to York with no stops.

Mod-cons

Plus, it has all the mod-cons – comfortable enough seats in standard, not like the Thameslink ones, which are better compared to cardboard boxes. Virgin Trains, who run the ECM, even provide secure tray tables, power sockets and relatively roomy carriages. These elements sound basic, but are rare on the modern railway scene.

The Southern network trains have no plugs; nor Wi-Fi; the high-speed Southeastern trains from St Pancras to Canterbury seem to operate exclusively in “No Service” areas, which means working on the train is a no-go; and the Virgin Trains Pendolino from Euston to Glasgow contains a carriage so narrow that one has to contort oneself to get down the aisle, and so wobbly as to make you feel travel sick. And don’t get me started on the Great Northern train that I got to Retford last week. 1950s bus is all I can say to that.

It’s true that there were no suffocatingly friendly signs in the loos on ECM the last time the Government owned it

Better still, the ECM actually seems to work – for the paying customer. It always turns up and is rarely delayed – by comparison, at least. In the past eight years of regularly getting it up and down the country, I can only recall one occasion on which the service was utterly shambolic – from Edinburgh to London, last summer, when we arrived into King’s Cross four hours late. In return for this bum-numbing journey, the entire cost of my ticket (£45) was returned efficiently by cheque about a week later.

One friend commutes into London every day on it, from Peterborough, and cannot commend it enough. Of course, this is “anecdata” – but for the real McCoy, you only need compare it to Southern Rail’s customer satisfaction ratings. In the National Rail Passenger Survey for Autumn 2017, the overall satisfaction of Southern customers was 72 per cent, while for ECM, it was 92 per cent.

Skewed priorities

Alas, Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC), which runs the franchise in a joint venture with Stagecoach, is not in as rude health as those boarding the “party train” from King’s Cross to Edinburgh on a Friday night. The operator has lost £200m since 2015.

This is the third time in 12 years that the ECM will be rebranded. Bless its heart, it is clearly a problem child.

But why fix what isn’t broken, from a consumer perspective? I am no railway expert, but it occurs to me that it might be better to renationalise one of the railway lines that actually needs attention. Where was all this government fervour for nationalisation when Southern Rail customers were queuing 15 deep at East Croydon?

And where is the long-promised investment for Northern Rail? Not only is the Government promising to fix a problem that isn’t really much of an issue, to the end user – who Mr Grayling says won’t be affected by these changes at all, let’s see about that – but it is as ever prioritising the wrong issue. Given that it can’t seem to sort out railcards for 26- to 30-year-olds, I’m not sure I trust them with the management of my favourite railway.

The ECM actually seems to work always turns up and is rarely delayed

Plus, they’re changing the name. Obviously, they can’t call the supplier VTEC any more, so now the railway will be called London and North Eastern Railway – LNER for short, which is what people call me (Eleanor) when they’re a bit tipsy. It’s not a catchy name, nor terribly accurate, given that while it goes through Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle, it ends in Edinburgh, which isn’t in England or the North East. And as Jim Pickard from the Financial Times put it, there’s “something wonderfully Brexit-retro about renaming East Coast Mainline as LNER, a brand last seen between 1923 and 1948”.

Chris Grayling says that he doesn’t want his changes to “cause passengers any anxiety at all”. Hmm. It’s true that there were no suffocatingly friendly signs in the loos on ECM the last time the Government owned it – the Virgin Trains sign reads “please don’t flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet”.

So perhaps there we could return to the good old days, I suppose – as long as the route doesn’t change, and nothing stands in the way of the ECM’s main selling point – the view out of the window between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh.

For that, I’d do anything.

@brushingboots

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