King’s Cross station in London, 9.30am, and not only is the atmosphere electric, the transport is, too. There is not a puff of smoke or whiff of fumes as the sleek new all-electric Lumo train glides into Platform 8 for its inaugural journey to Edinburgh.
It may not be quite as funky as the Hogwarts Express, due any minute on Platform 9 ¾, but it is writing its own little chapter in railway history. The new train is extraordinarily easy on the eye. Its shiny electric-blue carriages are, by some distance, the brightest things in the station.
Owned by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, Lumo (the brand name is a cunning synthesis of ‘luminosity’ and ‘motion’) is a new open-access operator taking on the state-owned LNER on the East Coast Main Line.
Lumo is competing with the state-owned LNER as well as the airlines, including BA and easyJet
It’s a no-frills train service, without first-class carriages, giving it a democratic air.
And it’s not just one of the cleanest — it’s also one of the cheapest. London to Edinburgh, one way, costs from as little as £14.99 (with 60 per cent of tickets priced at £30 or less).
At the official launch event beside the platform, there are more feel-good slogans flying around than at a Tory Party conference. ‘The Future’ proclaims a banner at the entrance to the concourse. On the train itself, ‘Travel Well’ and ‘Beyond Expectations’ are emblazoned in large letters. There is optimism in the air, a sense of adventure.
Lumo will be running two services a day from Monday, with more planned in the New Year. The project has been five years in the making and attracted more than £100 million of investment. ‘Our brief was to reimagine rail,’ explains Helen Wylde, managing director of Lumo, in a speech of welcome.
It is hard to argue with her that rail travel in the UK is in urgent need of a rethink. We get all sentimental over old steam trains, but we are far less enamoured of their modern heirs.
Eco alternative: The all-electric Lumo train launched this week, making its inaugural journey from King’s Cross station
A mere 8 per cent of the population, excluding daily commuters, use trains regularly, which is surely a national scandal. And, although competing with LNER on the London to Edinburgh route is one key Lumo objective, the real battle, Wylde explains, is with the airlines, including BA and easyJet.
The plan is to wean people off those naughty aeroplanes and on to a cheaper, greener alternative. Will it work? Market forces, as ever, will settle the matter.
But it is certainly a laudable project for all sorts of reasons. Apart from anything else, the East Coast Main Line, particularly the stretch along the Northumberland coast, offers one of the most beautiful train journeys in the whole of Europe.
The Scottish singer Tom Walker, who performed on the inaugural journey, speaks for the thousands who travel regularly between England and Scotland, but currently get a raw deal.
It costs approximately £166.60 to fly to Edinburgh from London with British Airways
‘I’m based in North London, but my family and many of my friends live in Glasgow. When my relatives come to visit me, as my grandmother recently did, they are quite happy to come by train but tend to grumble about the prices and so I can imagine some of them becoming Lumo regulars,’ he says.
How does this ambitious new kid on the railway block measure up to the competition? Having travelled to Edinburgh on Lumo, I travelled back, the same day, on a standard LNER service, so I could compare. Here’s my score card…
Ticket price: In the initial roll-out of Lumo services, one-way tickets can be pre-bought for £19.90, and less with a railcard. On the LNER Edinburgh to London service, I paid £79.
Seats: Lumo has 400; LNER 700. I calculated that there was approximately three-quarters of an inch more leg room on Lumo. The angle of the seats also made them slightly more comfortable than the more upright LNER ones.
Taking into account the hour-and-a-half spent in the airport before the flight, it takes around two hours and forty five minutes to fly to Edinburgh with easyJet
Toilets: The Lumo loos were not just spotless, which was only to be expected on a maiden journey, they were also twice the size of the cramped LNER ones. A bonus.
Wifi connection: The connectivity on LNER was fractionally better on the day, but this may have been because of teething problems on Lumo.
Refreshments: Prices were broadly comparable, although Lumo undercut its rival on most staple items (orange juice £1.60 on Lumo, £2 on LNER), while also underscoring its commitment to environmental sustainability with a range of plant-based foods.
Journey time: The journey to Edinburgh on Lumo took just over four-and-a-half hours, the return journey with LNER just under four-and-a-half.
Max paid £79 for his LNER ticket to London, with the journey taking just under four-and-a-half hours (file photo)
Stops: Lumo’s standard London to Edinburgh service will stop at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth only. LNER services more stations. The train I took stopped at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Newcastle, Darlington and York.
Entertainment: Lumo boasts its own free on-board entertainment system, of the kind with which Virgin customers will be familiar.
Films and TV shows range from Joker to Peaky Blinders. Stressing the green agenda of the company, there are also documentaries on the environment such as Carbon Conundrum and Australia On Fire. There is no comparable entertainment system on LNER.
Overall verdict: A clear win for Lumo. Regular travellers between London and Edinburgh have every reason to celebrate.
But how well have the owners of Lumo done their sums and judged their market? And will the airlines come up with their own response? Only time will tell.