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

At a fraction of the cost of its competitors, the new rail link has turned heads in the travel world. Does this herald a new era in long-distance train travel in the UK, or is it just another operator on an increasingly complicated rail network?

By Simon Calder
Published 24 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT
New train service Lumo launched in October 2021, running between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley.

New train service Lumo launched in October 2021, running between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley.

Photograph by Clare Jackson / Alamy

For a new transport brand, it’s a good problem to have: for the first five weeks of the Lumo rail link between London and Edinburgh, almost all the seats were sold before the first train had even run. It helped that no one needed to pay more than £20 for an advance one-way ticket on the 393-mile, one-way trip on the East Coast Main Line between the two capitals.

Since the initial promotional push ended on 1 December, fares have risen. But First Group – the giant transport firm behind Lumo – believes it has a profitable future while changing the face of inter-city travel.

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

What’s the big idea?

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

Lumo began on 25 October 2021 with two daily trains each way. Early in 2022, that will increase to five a day. It’s an ‘open access’ train operator, in competition with state-owned LNER.

FirstGroup says the Lumo brand combines ‘illumination and motion’, and its slogan is ‘Travel well, beyond expectations’. But for passengers, the key appeal is price.

How much are tickets?

One-way advance purchase tickets (known as LumoFixed) between London and Edinburgh start at £14.90, though most are likely to be in the range of £20-£30. The company promises 60% of tickets will be sold at £30 or less.

In test bookings I made about a month in advance for the prime 10.45am train from London King's Cross to Edinburgh Waverley, one-way fares averaged £40; the most expensive day was Friday (£53.90), the cheapest were Tuesday (£30.90) and Wednesday (£31.90).

Child fares for five-to-15-year-olds are roughly half (on test bookings, some LumoFixed tickets were 54% of the adult fare). Railcard discounts apply (except for Veterans Railcards), reducing fares by 34%. Anyone who is under 31 or over 59, as well as couples travelling using the Two Together railcard, can benefit. That £40 I average fare I found falls to £26.40. 

Lumo also has an interesting Anytime ticket — valid only on its trains, with no time constraints, and which can be bought minutes before departure. The price from London to Newcastle is £59, and £10 more to Edinburgh.

All the tickets are sold at lumo.co.uk, but other train operators also sell them at identical prices.

Same tracks, faster trains?

No. Lumo is working the line familiar to millions of travellers, racing north through to Doncaster, York and Darlington to Durham, before heading northwards beside the beautiful Northumberland coast and Scottish Borders, finishing with a run west along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

The trains can run at 125mph. Given the 393-mile distance, you might infer that the trip should take around 3h30m. But even with most of the stops pulled out, the East Coast Main Line is so congested that Lumo is scheduled to take around 4h30m — a full half-hour more than LNER’s fastest trip. Once other train operators’ schedules are tweaked, though, there are hopes that journeys will be closer to four hours.

What’s it like on board?

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

On my single trip, the staff were friendly and professional. While there’s no buffet car, you can pre-order meals from a trio of providers: M&S Food, Upper Crust and The Pasty Shop. A trolley dispenses snacks and drinks for passengers who don’t plan ahead.

Among the interesting variations from conventional trains: passengers are kept informed on progress (or the lack of it) by the person at the controls, who goes by the name of ‘customer driver’.

Lumo is one class only, so luxury-seekers should stick to LNER. But all other things being equal (which they almost never are in travel), I’d choose Lumo.

Bad news for LNER, then?

Not necessarily. Lumo’s managing director, Helen Wylde, insists the company is competing with the airlines, not the incumbent. Indeed, all the evidence from the aviation sector is that when a new competitor comes in with a radical proposition such as ‘lower fares, more comfort’, the effect is to grow the market for everyone rather than the upstart pinching passengers from existing operators.

For proponents of sustainable transport with the UK, persuading travellers between London and Scotland to switch from air to rail is the holy grail. However, in the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021, the Chancellor made that challenge tougher by promising to halve Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights in 2023. But Lumo points a way forward.

Have there been any hiccups?

Indeed. In the first few weeks, there were many reports of seriously crowded services. The availability of Anytime tickets (for under £40 from Newcastle to London for anyone with a railcard), together with the right of anyone with a Super Off-Peak ticket issued by LNER to step aboard a Lumo service, means controlling numbers is almost impossible. The aviation equivalent would be EasyJet having to accommodate any British Airways passenger who decided to switch airlines, and accept their BA ticket.

Lumo aims to do for rail travellers what EasyJet did for airline passengers. There’s genuine hope the operator can succeed, but only if it behaves less like a conventional train operator and can maintain free rein with fares and reservations.

Keen to embrace rail travel? Discover 52 of the best flight-free weekend escapes

Lumo in numbers

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

4h29m
the average scheduled time of a northbound service from London to Edinburgh, with southbound journeys taking 4h35m on average. The fastest LNER train is four hours, and a typical London-Edinburgh flight takes 90 minutes.

5.45am
the first departure from London King's Cross. It arrives in Newcastle at 8.39am and Edinburgh at 10.10am — 62 minutes ahead of the first LNER departure.

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

£100m
the cost of the fleet of new Hitachi trains to run five services a day, each way.

14,000
the population of Morpeth, Northumberland’s small county town. It’s 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 Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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