A Lost Train to London: The Highwayman

The cheap yet slow way of getting from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London

Road and rail competition, whether private car versus train or scheduled coach versus train is far from new. The private car was, and remains, a threat to the viability of any communal transport options due to its convenience and perceived economy. The opening of the M1 and M6 motorways was also attractive for coach operators as well as motorists.

This wasn’t lost on the Conservative government nearly twenty years after The Reshaping of British Railways when they chose to deregulate scheduled coach services. Without this change, there certainly wouldn’t be Megabuses and Flixbuses across the UK and Mainland Europe. Not least any competition between rail and coach operators for cost-conscious travellers.

Fifty years ago, British Rail’s Eastern Region faced competition within a regulated and nationalised environment. Biting into the market share of its Newcastle Central – King’s Cross services was United Automobile Services’ London link. In 1970, they were the North Eastern constituents of the National Bus Company.

With the opening of the A1(M) motorway, United’s coach services from Newcastle to London gave BR a run for their money. Before then, they served principal stops along The Great North Road. By 1972, all but two services within the 200 series of numbers went along the A1(M). Those two exceptions were the overnight 202 route and its daytime sister on the 203 route.

British Rail’s ace up its sleeve was speed, comfort, and being able to have a bite to eat en route to King’s Cross. In 1970, their Class 55 Deltic locomotives roared their way along the East Coast Main Line. They ran crack expresses from Edinburgh Waverley down to King’s Cross, via Newcastle Central and Doncaster. What BR Eastern Region had lined up for 1970 was “something completely different”. Something that took its name from miscreants that used to ply their trade on The Great North Road.

The Highwayman

The summer of 1970 saw the introduction of a new London to Newcastle train. Known as The Highwayman, it was an Inter-City train by dictionary definition. In reality, it fell somewhere between an Inter-City train and a regional express route. A fine line between what later became BR’s Regional Railways and InterCity business sectors. Or a former regional operator running inter-city trains (see also Transpennine Express’ Anglo-Scottish operations).

Instead of using King’s Cross, the London terminus was Finsbury Park station, a few miles short of many passengers’ desired destination. If there was one consolation, the station was accessible enough by buses, local trains and tube services.

Why was The Highwayman an inter-city train with provincial sector rolling stock? Firstly, the service catered for a value-led demographic. Today’s equivalent would be choosing Megabus over National Express on the A1(M). Or Ryanair over British Airways for your scheduled flight. For British Rail, its competition was the motorway coach.

Compared with other services on the East Coast Main Line, it used older rolling stock. Instead of the latest Mark II carriages, the older Mark I carriages were used. Its buffet cars predated British Railways. The Thompson buffet carriages from the original LNER were used, albeit with a limited range of drinks and snacks. As well as competing with the A1(M), BR Eastern Region didn’t want to abstract revenues from its more glamorous Inter-City services.

To avoid undercutting their own flagship routes, The Highwayman took a different route. Between Newcastle Central and Darlington, it eschewed Durham and Chester-le-Street in favour of Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Eaglescliffe. South of Eaglescliffe, the train’s next stop was Stevenage.

Between Eaglescliffe and Stevenage, there was a further stop at Doncaster. This was advertised as a crew changeover point in the Working Timetable, though not stated in the passenger timetable. From Doncaster to Finsbury Park, the journey time on The Highwayman was three hours. A standard Inter-City train for King’s Cross in the early 1970s took two hours and ten minutes with an intermediate stop at Grantham.

After stopping at Potters Bar, the train terminated at Finsbury Park. A modern day equivalent could be a London St. Pancras to Manchester service calling at Bedford, Sheffield, Penistone, and Huddersfield before terminating at that well-known central Manchester station called Stalybridge.

The fares were cheaper than standard BR fares at the time, though had to be booked in advance. In spite of this, The Highwayman service was an object lesson in the maxim of “you get what you paid for”. Its rolling stock was inferior to other trains on the ECML; instead of Deltics, its Mark I carriages were hauled by Class 40 locomotives. On the other hand, standard BR fares were charged on Trans-Pennine express trains using similar locos and carriages.

The biggest bugbear/trade off/disadvantage was its journey time: three minutes short of six hours from Newcastle Central to Finsbury Park in 1970. The year after, eight minutes short of six hours. The norm was four hours along the ECML via Durham. 58 minutes were allowed between Newcastle and Hartlepool with a four hour trek to Stevenage. From there, 40 minutes to Finsbury Park.

Nevertheless, BR’s proud boast was that it stole two hours off the equivalent coach journey. Even so, that statement may have been disputed given that United’s coach service would have got you to Victoria Coach Station. Had their terminus been Judd Street or the down-to-heel King’s Cross Coach Station used by British Coachways a decade later, their claim would have held some weight.

As for the fares, there were no further concessions for senior citizens and children, nor was there a premium for First Class ticket holders (The Highwayman only had Second Class carriages). In 1970, it was 35/- (or £1.75 in decimal currency) – roughly £30.00 in 2020 prices. In the following year, the fare went up to £2.25 – about £31.00 in 2020 prices. The special fares were only valid on The Highwayman trains, which left Finsbury Park at 0925 on weekdays and 1520 on Saturdays. In the opposite direction, 0915 on weekdays and 1435 on Saturdays.

The Highwayman service only ran for two years, in 1970 and 1971. In both years, the named train operated during the summer season: from the 04 May to the 03 October in 1970, and from the 03 May to the 06 November in 1971. There was no service in the Spring and August Bank Holiday weekends.

Forerunners of The Highwayman

The Highwayman may be forgotten these days, but its two-year presence should be seen as a precursor to today’s value-led road and rail travel options. Back in the early 1970s, it was an efficient way of maintaining elderly rolling stock. Carriages and locomotives that would have been used on relief trains at busy times. Also for rail tours and rail charters, football specials and the odd private hire engagement.

Whereas The Highwayman wasn’t particularly well received in 1970 and 1971, its use of the no frills approach was before its time. The Advance Purchase Excursion ticket (APEX fares) would become the norm on InterCity services twenty years on. For many people, the only way to get a reasonably priced rail fare is by booking weeks in advance. The Highwayman‘s no-frills catering approach would be the norm several years later thanks to the downgrading of buffet services on inter-city routes.

On the 11 May 1992, the no-frills approach inspired Stagecoach Holdings’ first foray into rail travel. Under the Stagecoach Rail name, their entry onto the permanent way was a seated sleeper service from London Euston to Aberdeen. Six Mark 2D carriages were refurbished in Stagecoach Rail colours – a version of the Starsky and Hutch stripes as seen in the original bus and coach livery. From Perth, Aviemore, and Inverness, you could take a Stagecoach connecting coach service down to Edinburgh Waverley.

Though the seated sleeper service lasted a year, Stagecoach’s Megatrain revived a similar concept in 2005. This built upon the Stagecoach Group’s successful Megabus operation. Though London remained the draw, Megatrain worked with Cross Country, Virgin West Coast, and East Midlands Trains’ inter-city services. Also with South West Trains’ commuter services from Bournemouth, Weymouth and Bristol Temple Meads stations.

After losing the South West Trains and East Midlands Trains franchises (and its near majority stake in Virgin West Coast), Stagecoach Group scaled down its operations to cover the Midland Main Line’s inter-city services. In spite of losing its MML franchise, you can still get a Megatrain to St Pancras International. As Megabusplus, passengers can transfer from a coach at Hull Paragon Interchange or Huddersfield bus station to a train at East Midlands Parkway.

Fifty years on from The Highwayman‘s introduction, the value-led approach to domestic travel has co-existed with more premium priced options. Convenience and easy availability means higher fares; the use of yield management means higher fares if you book the day before compared with booking a month before you travel. Or at certain times of the day.

As we speak, recent events following the Coronavirus pandemic might change things again. The UK’s period of near lockdown and pent-up passenger demand could be favourable for leisure travel. Should working from home and communicating between colleagues over videoconferencing systems become the norm, the rush hour could be less of a crush hour.

Perhaps we might rediscover our love of trains by cycling to the station along quieter streets. On the other hand, Coronavirus might intensify our anxieties over using communal transport of any description. Social distancing measures on trains will test our pre-lockdown rail network due to rolling stock shortages. Buses could revert to pre-lockdown schedules with social distancing measures and increased use of double decker vehicles. Yet, reduced patronage wouldn’t be conducive to profitability – even on trunk routes as well as local services.

At this moment in time, any operator with a value-led approach, or yield management based pricing might have some difficulty in filling its seats. Turn up and go travellers wouldn’t want to queue two metres apart at station ticket offices for an urgent business trip. Once Coronavirus deaths and/or cases are down to single figures, thanks to social distancing measures, our faith in public transport will be restored. Whether premium priced or value led, it would be a hard sell.

S.V., 07 May 2020.

D6700 Class 37 locomotive image by Calflier001, 2012 (Creative Commons 2.0 License: Attribution-Share Alike).

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