Almost 14 years after I made a dawn departure from Sunderland on Tuesday, 18 December 2007 aboard the first scheduled passenger train to be operated by Grand Central it is time to sample our newest “open access” operator on the East Coast Main Line, with a trip on the first Lumo service from King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley.
Back in the days when I was helping to launch the Grand Central service a key requirement for any would-be open access operator was satisfy the ORR that a new service would generate new traffic to the railway and be “not primarily abstractive”, in other words would not be devaluing a franchised operator by stealing its fare-box.
Things on our railway seem rather different now, and the company behind the new Lumo service, FirstGroup, seems to have won approval simply on the basis that it would provide a low-cost alternative to LNER between the two capitals and help win back to rail passengers who would otherwise have travelled by coach or air.
In marked contrast to the early days of Grand Central, when reliability problems plagued its original HST fleet, Lumo services will be operated by a fleet of five new five-coach Hitachi AT300 electric trains, which are identical in appearance to those operating on GWR and LNER, as well as at FirstGroup’s other open access operator, Hull Trains.
When Grand Central ran its first service there were only a few dozen fare paying passengers aboard, but Lumo seems to have got off to a flying start with the first northbound service having sold out more than a month before it ran, no doubt helped by the bargain price single fare of £19.90, or just £13.10 for those with a railcard.
Price and green credentials seem to be the main selling points of the new standard class-only Lumo service, with its electric fleet and one-way fares of £19.90 or less for any advance purchases up to 1 December. The walk on fares is capped at £69.00 and the operator says that by the time its full timetable of five round trips a day is operating in early 2022 60% of all single fares will be £30.00 or less.
Taking a seat on the inaugural 10.45 departure from King’s Cross on Monday, 25 October 2021, my first impression was that Lumo had lived up to its promise of providing “comfortable seating” in marked contrast to the experience of travelling on the Hitachi IET units operating with GWR and LNER, with the seat-back reading light a welcome bonus.
Things got off to a slightly chaotic start when set 803001 arrived slightly behind schedule for its inaugural departure and the seat reservation system was not working, so causing problems when those with reservations found their seats occupied by other passengers.
Our departure was a couple of minutes late at 10.47, but we were on schedule by the time we passed Potters Bar at 10.57 and running at maximum speed of 125mph by the time we passed Stevenage two minutes ahead of schedule. We continued our northward journey at full line speed, remaining 2/3 minutes ahead of schedule as we passed Huntingdon (11.21), Peterborough (11.31) and Grantham (11.46).
Despite a signal check on our approach, we passed Doncaster five minutes ahead of schedule at 12.15 and made up even more time as we took the avoiding line around the west side of York – a rare bit of new track for me – reaching Skelton Junction, where we rejoined the ECML, 11 minutes early at 12.38.
We continued to make good progress, passing Northallerton 10 minutes ahead of schedule before being brought to a halt south of Darlington, where instead of taking the down fast line we ran non-stop through platform 4, which seemed slightly odd.
After the delay and detour at Darlington we were then checked again, passing Ferryhill five minutes ahead of schedule at 13.20 and Durham at 13.27 before we made it to our first stop at Newcastle at 13.38, still five minutes ahead of the booked arrival time.
Leaving Newcastle on time at 13.47 we somehow managed to lose a couple of minutes on the short stretch to our second and final intermediate call at Morpeth. But we were back on schedule by the time we passed Berwick-upon-Tweed at 14.32 and a minute up at Dunbar before our arrival into Edinburgh Waverley at 15.15, two minutes early.
On-board service is always going to be an important feature of a four hour plus journey, so sampling the at-seat offering from Lumo I was slightly disappointed to have to wait a whole hour for the trolley to bring me a coffee, and having totally failed to understand how to access the on-board menu from my iPhone, could not understand why it is not shown on the Lumo Go app or the wi-fi sign-in screen.
The new service is scheduled to take four hours 32 minutes for the trip to Edinburgh, with intermediate stops at Newcastle and Morpeth, the latter being a place that is poorly served by LNER, so the only obvious place where Lumo could logically claim to be “not primarily abstractive”. Certain services will also call at Stevenage.
First impressions of the new service are that it is comfortable, cheap and almost as fast as the quickest journeys on offer with LNER. The on-board service seemed pretty dismal, with just one sighting of the trolley in a journey of well over four hours, but that can certainly be fixed, and the success of the two existing open access operators on the ECML suggests that Lumo is onto a winner with its new service.