Hot topic: Will Lumo change the face of train travel in Britain? Everything you need to know about the new London-Edinburgh service

For a new brand of transport, that’s a good problem to have: During the first five weeks of the Lumo rail link between London and Edinburgh, almost all seats were sold out before the first train even operated. It helped that no one needed to pay more than £ 20 for a one-way ticket in advance on the 393 mile one-way journey on the east coast main line between the two capitals.

Since the initial promotional campaign ended on December 1, prices have increased. But First Group – the giant transportation company behind Lumo – believes it has a profitable future while changing the face of intercity travel.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new service.

What’s the big idea?

Smart blue trains now run daily on the East Coast Main Line between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. They only stop at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Morpeth in Northumberland and, on some services, at Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

Lumo started on October 25, 2021 with two daily trains in each direction. By early 2022, that number will increase to five per day. It is a “free access” rail operator, competing with the state-owned LNER.

FirstGroup claims that the Lumo brand combines “illumination and movement” and that its slogan is “Travel well, beyond expectations”. But for passengers, the main attraction is the price.

How much do the tickets cost?

One-way advance tickets (known as LumoFixed) between London and Edinburgh start at £ 14.90, though most are likely between £ 20 and £ 30. The company promises 60% of tickets will sell for £ 30 or less.

In test bookings I made about a month in advance for the 10:45 am main train between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley, one-way fares averaged £ 40; the most expensive day was Friday (£ 53.90), the cheapest was Tuesday (£ 30.90) and Wednesday (£ 31.90).

Child fares for ages 5 to 15 are around half (on test bookings, some LumoFixed tickets represented 54% of the adult fare). Discounts on train tickets apply (except veterans train tickets), reducing fares by 34%. Anyone under the age of 31 or over 59, as well as couples traveling with the Two Together subscription can benefit from it. This average £ 40 rate I found drops to £ 26.40.

Lumo also offers an interesting Anytime ticket, valid only on its trains, without time constraints, and which can be purchased a few minutes before departure. The price from London to Newcastle is £ 59, and £ 10 more to Edinburgh.

All tickets are sold at lumo.fr, but other rail operators also sell them at identical prices.

Same tracks, faster trains?

No. Lumo works on the line familiar to millions of travelers, running north to Doncaster, York and Darlington to Durham, before heading north along the beautiful coast of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, to end with a run west along the south shore of the Firth of Onward.

Trains can travel at 125 mph. Considering the distance of 393 miles, you can assume that the trip should take around 3:30. But even with most stops pulled out, the east coast main line is so crowded that Lumo is expected to take around 4.30 hours, half an hour longer than the LNER’s fastest trip. Once the schedules of other rail operators are changed, however, it is hoped that journeys will be closer to four hours.

How’s it going on board?

The trains are manufactured by the Japanese firm Hitachi, which also builds rolling stock for the LNER and the Great Western Railway. The Lumo fleet, however, feels a cut above it, with plenty of legroom and large windows, plus the now-expected mains and phone charging points and wi-fi.

On my one trip the staff were friendly and professional. While there is no buffet car, you can pre-order meals from three vendors: M&S Food, Upper Crust, and The Pasty Shop. A cart distributes snacks and drinks to passengers who don’t plan ahead.

Among the interesting variations of conventional trains: passengers are kept informed of the progress (or absence) by the person in charge, known as the “client driver”.

Lumo is one class, so luxury enthusiasts should stick with LNER. But all other things being equal (which they hardly ever travel on), I would choose Lumo.

Bad news for the LNER, then?

Not necessarily. Lumo chief executive Helen Wylde insists the company competes with the airlines, not the incumbent. Indeed, all the evidence from the aviation industry is that when a new competitor comes in with a radical proposition such as ‘lower fares, more comfort’, the effect is to develop the market for everyone rather than pinch passengers from existing operators.

For proponents of sustainable transport with the UK, persuading travelers between London and Scotland to switch from air to rail is the holy grail. However, in the fall 2021 budget and spending review, the Chancellor made that challenge more difficult by promising to cut tariffs on domestic flights by half in 2023. But Lumo is showing a way forward.

Were there any hiccups?

Indeed. In the first few weeks, there were many reports of very crowded services. The availability of Anytime tickets (for less than £ 40 from Newcastle to London for anyone with a train card), as well as the right of anyone with a Super Off-Peak ticket issued by LNER to board a service Lumo, means that checking the numbers is almost impossible. The equivalent in aviation would be that EasyJet must accommodate any British Airways passenger who has decided to change airlines and accept their BA ticket.

Lumo aims to do for rail travelers what EasyJet has done for air passengers. There is real hope that the operator can be successful, but only if it behaves less like a conventional rail operator and can have free rein with fares and reservations.

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Lumo in numbers

393 miles
the distance between London and Edinburgh. Newcastle is 269 miles from London and Morpeth 285 miles.

4h29m
the expected average time of a service north from London to Edinburgh, with journeys south taking an average of 4h35m. The fastest LNER train takes four hours and a typical London-Edinburgh flight takes 90 minutes.

5h45
the first departure from London King’s Cross. It arrives in Newcastle at 8:39 am and in Edinburgh at 10:10 am, 62 minutes before the first LNER departure.

85%
CO2 savings between London and Edinburgh, according to rail expert Mark Smith (The Man in Seat 61).

£ 100million
the cost of the fleet of new Hitachi trains to provide five services per day, each way.

14,000
the people of Morpeth, the small town in Northumberland County. It is now the only small market town in the north of England with a one-stop rail link to London and frequent non-stop trains to Edinburgh.

Published in the January / February 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveler (UK)

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