BritRail urges London visitors: Get out of town

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HOBOKEN, N.J. -- BritRail here is pulling out all the stops to get Americans visiting the U.K. out of London and onto rapidly modernizing railways.

"Sadly, up to 70% of the 4 million Americans who visit each year never leave the capital -- despite the best efforts of the British Tourist Authority," said Tim Roebuck, managing director for BritRail in the U.S.

Even worse, he said, only 5% use the railway system to reach other U.K. destinations.

Those figures jibe somewhat with the experience of Britain specialist Lynn Parker, leisure manager at Carlson Wagonlit Hillsdale in Hillsdale, N.J., although about four in 10 clients do buy U.K. train tickets.

"I think Americans aren't used to train travel, so it doesn't even enter their minds," she said. "But once they realize how easy it can be, they do it."

For her part, Helena Marks, a travel consultant with Rich Worldwide Travel, New York, finds clients prefer motorcoach travel to rail.

"What's beautiful about Britain is its countryside," she said. "And when you take a bus tour, you're usually seeing more of what you want to see."

Only 10% of her clients buy train tickets of any sort, Marks said, usually for long-haul trips from London to Scotland.

Though day-trip product for London-based travelers might be an easy sell, she said, Americans are less interested in spending more than one night in other British cities -- save perhaps Bath and Bristol.

"They just feel there isn't very much to do" in cities such as York, she said.

Have train, will travel

To disabuse Americans of that notion, BritRail is distributing a free, 128-page Best of Britain guide packed with discount offers and information on attractions throughout the U.K. that are accessible via rail.

As previously reported, the railpass distributor also froze both its 9% agent commission and BritRail Pass prices for the second year running.

And while BritRail continues to offer its Classic and Flexi passes good for cross-country travel, it's also pushing day passes and excursions for die-hard London devotees.

Virgin Trains will begin tests of high-speed, tilting Pendolino trains later this year; full service across Britain should begin in 2003. The Days Out From London pass lets clients visit top sights near the capital on nonconsecutive days, priced from $59 for two days within any eight.

One-day minitour packages that combine rail fares with attraction admissions and/or mass-transit passes are available to Leeds, Stonehenge, Salisbury -- and even Paris.

Britain's National Rail Network operates 18,000 daily departures to 2,400 destinations in England, Scotland and Wales -- and higher service frequencies are on the way.

Also, state-of-the-art train sets that travel at higher speeds are coming on line, transforming what was Europe's most troubled rail system -- unique in that service is provided by 26 private operators -- into a fast and comfortable alternative means of travel.

"We've got great roads in Britain, but they're very overcrowded," Roebuck said. "When you get journey times between city centers of two hours, that's competitive with car and plane," Roebuck said.

While Rich Travels' Marks finds her clients prefer leisurely bus tours, Parker of Carlson Wagonlit Hillsdale agreed there's a market for speed.

"It's an individual choice; some people don't want to sit on a bus for five hours, stopping at every gift shop," she said. "If you've got only a few days, want to see Edinburgh, and the train from London is a a couple of hours, that's great."

Fewer rail travails

Virgin Trains, the U.K.'s lar-gest rail operator, is upgrading its fleet with new train set types starting this year. By summer, half of Virgin's nationwide service will be aboard high-tech, diesel Voyager trains that feature at-seat audio entertainment, onboard shopping and roomier seating.

Thanks to Voyager's higher speeds, Virgin is dramatically increasing frequencies. For instance, 14 daily trains will depart Birmingham for a two-and-a-half-hour ride to Brighton, up from the mere four trains that crawled along the same route for four hours and 10 minutes only last year.

Even more dramatically, there now are 23 daily departures from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, up from nine in 2001.

Later this year, Virgin begins trials of high-speed, tilting, electric Pendolino trains on the West Coast Main Line serving Manchester and Glasgow, Scotland, from London.

Some $290 million worth of upgrades to 300 miles of track will enable speeds of up to 125 mph, shaving valuable minutes from travel times.

While the U.K. Pendolinos can't match France's flashy 185-mph TGVs for pure velocity, they represent a serious service upgrade for once delay-ridden British rail, which took a media hammering after flood and accident setbacks in 2000.

"Those of us in the rail business have had a rough time in the past 18 months, and some of the good news has been overlooked," said Roebuck, adding that on-time performance for British trains now surpasses the 90% mark.

For example, a ride from London's Euston station to Manchester will take two hours come June, 30 minutes less than in 1999. By 2005, the trip will be whittled to one hour, 50 minutes; full Pendolino service is expected next year.

Great North Eastern Railway -- which serves York from London's King Cross Station -- is leasing surplus Eurostar trains to improve its White Rose service to Leeds, with 11 departures a day.

"That means travelers can turn up at King's Cross at any time and never have to wait more than 29 minutes for a GNER train," said Roebuck.

Meanwhile, First Great Western Trains next month rolls out 125-mph Adelante trains on routes to southwestern England and South Wales; ScotRail spent $10 million refurbishing its Caledonian Sleeper service to Scotland; and Midland Mainline bought 23 speedy Meridian trains -- similar to the Virgin Voyagers -- to be introduced in 2005.

On the short-hop front, Connex Trains spent $675 million on 122 trains in southeast England, and eight trains worth $71 million were added to Gatwick Express airport service.

The plethora of rail providers should not worry clients, Roebuck stressed, as BritRail passes are accepted by all train operators; for more on the 26 companies, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.

For rail pass and ticket information, contact BritRail at (877) 677-1066 or visit www.britrail.net on line.

BritRail product also is available from Rail Europe at (888) 382-7245 or on the Web at http://agent.raileurope.com and from DER at (800) 782-2424 or www.der.com on line.

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