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Martijn Gilbert On "Lumo, New Kid On The East Coast Track": Thursday 4 May 2023

During his 23 years in public transport, Martijn Gilbert has spent time in London Underground scheduling, then a decade in bus. At Arriva he brought bus expertise to rail operations as the Group expanded to admit more operators. Returning to buses at the 2012 Olympics, he went on to head Reading Buses then Go-Ahead North East before being attracted into the world of rail open access which has never been more relevant than now for the freedom that it offers to innovate.

Joining FirstGroup as MD for Open Access and Non-Franchised Operations which includes Croydon Tramlink in September 2022, Martijn heads up both Hull Trains, Britain's original open access operator started under a Labour Government 22 years ago, and also Lumo, its latest where he has fallen heir to some great work put in by his predecessor.

Launched in October 2021, Lumo now provides five return journeys in each direction daily between Edinburgh Waverley and London Kings Cross with intermediate calls at Morpeth, Newcastle and sometimes Stevenage. Its fleet of five 5-carriage Hitachi trains is all-electric, emulating East Coast's 1991 launch of InterCity 225s, and is thus even greener than the bimode Azumas because it doesn't have to lug around diesel engines.

Newcastle is Lumo's home where it is on the Orchard Street site of George Stephenson's original locomotive works that celebrates its 200th anniversary at the end of June, which will be the prelude to a build-up of events towards the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 2025. Scotland is key too: FirstGroup is ultimately a Scottish company, two crews overnight at Edinburgh and the fleet is maintained by Hitachi at Craigentinny Depot.

Lumo aims to provide a customer experience that people want, and represents an investment of £200M in achieving that. It relies on Driver Controlled Operations and multiskilled onboard teams which represent new good long-term jobs in rail that are the result of a £2M investment in training, with 90% of its 105 new staff starting as apprentices and contributes over £0.75M to the national economy.

Lumo aims to be both green and affordable. Taking the train generates one-sixth of the carbon dioxide released by flying, which pre-CoVid accounted for 74,500 journeys each month between Edinburgh and London. With over a million passengers carried, already there has been a 15% swing towards rail, which now accounts for half of the rail-air market, and this shows the success of Lumo's appeal for customers to lose their flight shame. However it is not a selfish drive for this operator's benefit alone since other open-access ones Hull Trains and Grand Central are growing too, which shows what happens when customers are given a choice.

With no First Class which represented a tiny slice of the market, fares are simple, offering great value at an average price of £37 - cheaper than the airline equivalent at the same booking horizon. Seats are better than on other equivalent train designs with more legroom for all, and retail is 100% digital through both app and web, with onboard operations 100% cashless. Catering delivered by a trolley can be purchased at the journey-planning stage, which reduces waste. Luggage limits are more generous than on low-cost airlines, but an allowance of one bag and one suitcase is needed to hold down the price per seat.

Customers do tell Lumo that they are going by train to be green, and the company is active on social media in furtherance of its offer to Travel Well, Beyond Expectations. An unexpected acclaim as a result of research into how it was rated was a win at the 2022 World Passenger Awards.

Staff comprise 34 drivers, 46 customer service ambassadors and 25 office staff who are all colocated in the same office, an aid to communication and thus industrial relations.

The route to delivery was a long one that began back in March 2015 with the first application to run a new service. There was then a need to demonstrate to ORR that it wouldn't simply abstract from other operators, and once this had been accepted it took five years to procure trains, recruit and train staff and get through lockdown before the first services could run, initially twice-daily. Schedules had to be slotted in between existing paths, taking advantage of space at the beginning and end of the day, and the result is inevitably not clock-faced but does provide some new journey-opportunities which include on the 2027 departure the fastest London-Newcastle journey-time.

Travel by Lumo is 100% reserved, encouraging people to trade flexibility for a guaranteed seat at an attractive price. The open access format may not be suitable everywhere, but its combination of lower fares and a reimagined product is surely of greater relevance in regrowing the market post-CoVid. The environmental benefit is reflected in paperless systems and in support for the Tree of Life at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Other uses of new technology include the C-DAS driver advisory system and Lumo's participation in the East Coast Digital Project for direct communication between the signaller and the train. Next steps could include introduction of Artificial Intelligence and application of Big Data, with next generation industry systems that could cushion the impact of disruption that in a small operation is inevitably disproportionate. In evolving the digital experience, a particular benefit could be embracing luggage as part of the booking flow.

Lumo will continue flying the flag for rail, but its success wasn't guaranteed: another open-access operator Wrexham and Shropshire went down at short notice with loss of jobs. It is important to stay realistic - additional stops such as York cannot be contemplated when the train is already full - and there is little point in awaiting policy initiatives such as emulating the French ban on internal flights when the UK Government has reduced Air Passenger Duty in the belief that domestic flights feed into long-haul connectivity. Having a small team enables Lumo to stay responsive, and a recent example has been scanning of Northern travelcards for local Morpeth-Newcastle journeys. For Martijn the experience has taught him that rail is slower and more expensive to develop than bus, but the results can be satisfyingly profound.

Report by John Yellowlees.

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