The new Hitachi Azuma takes its first test trip north of the border
As part of Hitachi’s test programme for the new Virgin Azuma, the 9-car bi-mode train has made its inaugural run north of the border into Scotland. The journey from Doncaster to Dunbar and back included crossing the iconic Royal Border Bridge in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The 65-strong Azuma fleet is being manufactured by Hitachi at its purpose built £82m facility in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, and is due to be rolled out on the east coast route between London and Edinburgh next year. The new trains will reduce journey times between the two cities by 22 minutes, bringing the total journey down to just four hours.

The name Azuma is taken from the Japanese word for East, a recognition of Japanese bullet train technology upon which it is based, and the iconic east coast route where it will operate.

Virgin Trains gains highest ever market share against airlines on Scotland-London routes
More people are choosing the train over plane for travel between Scotland and London than at any time over the last 20 years.

New figures reveal an 18% year-on-year growth in passengers travelling by train between Glasgow/Edinburgh and London in June, giving Virgin a 33% share of the air/ rail market, beating the previous record set in 2014.

Virgin Trains has lowered fares on both its routes to Scotland, to compete more aggressively with the airlines. It has also introduced BEAM, an onboard entertainment app that allows customers to stream hundreds of hours of leading films and TV to their devices.

In June, 180,000 customers travelled on by train between Edinburgh and London on the east coast route and Glasgow and London on the west coast route, up from 152,000 a year earlier. Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show this represents 33% of the total air/rail market, up from 32% in June 2014.

On the east coast route Virgin’s market share against airlines reached 37%, up two percentage points on its previous peak in 2014. On the west coast route, its market share was 27%.

At the same time there has been an increase in the overall travel market, with air and rail travel between Glasgow/Edinburgh and London increasing from 6m in 2014 to 6.7m last year.

Virgin Trains aims to win 50% of the air/rail market share between Edinburgh and London by 2023 after the introduction of its Azuma fleet, which will reduce regular journeys to four hours.

Local councils step up to help shape rail services in West Midlands
West MidlandsWest Midlands Trains Ltd, a joint venture between Abellio, East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui, has been awarded the franchise to run rail services in the West Midlands. As part of the deal, trains running only in the West Midlands area are to be jointly managed by the DfT and West Midlands Rail (WMR), a consortium of 16 local councils.

It is the first time that West Midlands authorities have had such a level of influence in setting out what a train company needs to deliver for local passengers.

Under the terms of the franchise, which will run from 10 December 2017 to March 2026, nearly £1bn is to be invested in more services and more space for passengers.

There will be 20,000 extra seats during rush hour passengers in Birmingham, 100 new carriages on the Cross City line, 80 new carriages for the Snow Hill line, compensation if services are delayed by more than 15 minutes, free WiFi on all main line services and a roll out of smart ticketing and live passenger information.

Across the wider franchise from December 2018 there will be more trains between Birmingham and Shrewsbury, 2 trains/hour between Birmingham and Rugeley, a new direct hourly service between Birmingham and Stokeon- Trent. The Cross-City line will be extended from Longbridge to Bromsgrove, and an hourly shuttle between Leamington Spa and Coventry will serve the new station at Kenilworth. More rush hour and Sunday service are also to be introduced.

South Western Railway takes up the reins after CMA accepts proposals to address competition concerns
Concerns were raised, earlier this year, about reduced competition on the London- Exeter route after the FirstGroup and MTR joint venture, South Western Railway (SWR), was awarded the South Western franchise. The FirstGroup already operates Great Western Railway (GWR), the only other service between London and Exeter.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has accepted a set of proposals made by FirstGroup and MTR aimed at addressing these concerns, The decision means the franchise has been awarded to SWR without being referred for a phase 2 investigation.

Under the proposals, a price cap will be imposed on unregulated fares between London and Exeter on both South Western Railway and GWR services. Ticket prices on the route are to be linked to those on a number of other comparable services to ensure they are kept in line with the market. SWR has also agreed to maintain the availability of advance fares on both services.

Under the terms of the franchise, SWR is to invest more than £1.2bn on improvements between now and 2024. These include fleet refurbishment and the introduction of 90 new Aventra trains (750 carriages, in five and 10 car formations). More services will be introduced from December 2018 with quicker journey times. Through services are to be re-introduce between Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth and Weymouth to improve regional connectivity.

More than £90m will be spent on station improvements, including the refurbishment of Southampton Central and Wimbledon.

In Brief
Cable theft chaos
Cable theft is still causing major rail delays despite a drop in reported incidents, according to the British Transport Police. Figures show that cable theft occurs 5 times a week, causing 23,670 minutes of delays and disruptions – the equivalent of over an hour a day. There are wide disparities between regions. In TfL, Eastern, and Western divisions cable thefts doubled, whilst Scotland’s incidents halved.

Paddington sales boost
As part of the continuing development of Paddington station in preparation for Crossrail, the aptly named £13m Paddington Lawn upgrade, named after the former site of the station master’s garden, is paying dividends. With 16 newand- improved retail units along with food outlets, total station retail sales at Paddington have soared by 40% between April and June 2017.

Automatic compensation
GTR is introducing a scheme to automatically compensate Southern and Gatwick Express passengers for delays of 15 minutes or more through its Key smartcard. Algorithms using the card tap-in and tap-out data calculate whether the train was delayed. A compensation claim is automatically made, once the passenger confirms the claim is correct and the preferred payment method.

Low price ticket tool
East Midlands Trains has launched a new low price ticket tool enabling passengers to sign up for email alerts and search a route and travel date, before the tickets go on sale. Every night the company’s database checks until that journey goes on sale. As soon as Advance tickets become available the customer is notified with an email from East Midlands Trains.

Virgin Trains top on reputation
Virgin Trains emerges as the top UK rail brand with the highest level of customer advocacy, according to BDRC’s latest Rail Reputation Index. Chiltern Railways records the strongest performance among commuters, and Grand Central rates highest among leisure passengers. Of the 23 TOCs benchmarked, only five score positive results. For the remainder, brand detractors equal or out-number their promoters.

Tube smoke alert
Oxford Circus was evacuated and Bakerloo line services suspended during the morning rush hour on 11 August when an electrical fault under one of the Bakerloo line carriages caused a fire. Emergency services were called. Four people were treated and two taken to hospital. The station was operational again within 2 hours. An investigation is now underway.

Transport links valued
Good transport links are more important than good schools and job prospects for those moving house, according to new research from Exterion Media. Other key findings include: 43% of rail users would be interested in a free app sending promotions for cafes, bars and restaurants near the station, and 31% of Brits use their local station to shop, even when not travelling.

Parking made simple
GTR is introducing automatic number plate recognition at 25 of its station car parks. Passengers simply enter their registration number at the payment point, and walk straight on to catch their train. Payment can be made at the machine with cash or card, by phone or on line up to midnight on the day. Season ticket holders are automatically registered on the system.