LONG distance rail travellers will be able to collect points towards transatlantic flights when the East Coast franchise returns to the private sector in six weeks time.

Plans unveiled by Inter City Rail, the Stagecoach-Virgin consortium due to take over the majority of services on the London-Edinburgh/Aberdeen line from March 1, reveal that regular customers will have an option to earn Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points under its new loyalty scheme.

These can be put towards the cost of a Virgin Atlantic flight or a ticket on Virgin's domestic Little Red service, although this is due to be axed in September.

Passengers booking an advance ticket for the new Virgin Trains East Coast brand through its website will also accrue Nectar points which, for the first time in the rail industry, can be redeemed against the cost of a train ticket.

The new loyalty club will replace the long-running East Coast Rewards scheme, which has been praised as one of the most generous in the industry.

There were fears that members of the current scheme would see their points wiped out when the franchise switched over from East Coast to ICR in March, with Scottish passengers likely to be the biggest losers since long-distance travel between London and Scotland builds up the most points.

However, a spokeswoman for the Stagecoach-Virgin consortium said passengers with existing rewards points would be allowed to convert them into Nectar points for use under the new franchise. Customers who prefer to retain their Rewards points will also be given until September 30 to redeem them.

There are no details yet, however, on how many Nectar points or Virgin airmiles passengers will accrue per £1 spent.

A spokeswoman for the consortium said: "Our new rewards scheme with Nectar will replace the existing East Coast Rewards scheme on 1 March 2015 and will offer a wide range of benefits to Virgin Trains East Coast customers.

"Nectar points can be collected on any journey with Virgin Trains East Coast booked through our website or mobile app. Customers will also be provided with the option to collect Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points.

"In a first for the rail industry, passengers will be able to use their Nectar points when booking a Virgin Trains East Coast Advance ticket through our website, and the new scheme will offer a range of other exciting rewards for customers to spend their points on, with options for days out, entertainment and charity donations."

Under the existing East Coast Rewards loyalty scheme, members earn one point for every £1 spent booking a standard class ticket and 1.5 points per £1 for First-class tickets.

Points can be collected on any rail journey as long as it is booked via the East Coast website, and exchanged for train tickets, wine, cinema visits, high street vouchers, first-class lounge access or charity donations.

Consumer watchdog Passenger Focus said it was unclear whether passengers would be better off under the new scheme.

Guy Dangerfield, Passenger Focus manager, said: "Passengers will welcome Virgin Trains East Coast's link up with Nectar, but without more detail it's impossible to say if that will offer more or less than East Coast's existing rewards scheme."

Meanwhile, the existing loyalty scheme operated under the current ScotRail franchise is also due to be axed.

The Advance loyalty scheme will end when the ScotRail franchise is handed over from First Group to the new operators, Abellio, on April 1.

Advance members do not acquire points, however. Instead, the 33,000 members benefit from access to ScotRail's first-class lounges, a dedicated booking hotline, and free upgrades to first-class seats at weekends, subject to availability.

A spokesman for Abellio said the operator would replace the scheme with "a range of special offers, discounts and benefits".

ScotRail customers will also continue to earn Nectar points by booking tickets through the ScotRail website, but these cannot be used to purchase rail tickets from ScotRail.