PASSENGERS have launched a last ditch bid to save the popular East Coast loyalty scheme before the franchise is handed back to the private sector.

Members of the current East Coast Rewards club say plans to scrap it in favour of a Nectar points scheme will make it harder to earn points and offer passengers a poorer return on their investment.

The Rewards scheme, which launched in its current form in 2011, is considered one of the most generous in the industry.

However, it is set to be axed from Sunday as Inter-City Rail (ICR), a Stagecoach-Virgin consortium, take control of the Edinburgh-London route.

At present, Rewards customers spending £255 on train tickets accrue enough points for a free standard single-class ticket. In contrast, a £255 spend under the Nectar scheme will only earn enough points to buy a sandwich - with passengers having to spend thousands of pounds before they qualify for free travel.

Passengers will also be limited in how they can earn points. Whereas Rewards members can build up points whenever they book train tickets through the East Coast website - even for reservations on non-East Coast services - the Nectar scheme will only generate points when passengers book seats on the new Virgin East Coast service.

Scottish passengers, who are more likely to be travelling long distance, will be the biggest losers.

Dan Hopkins, a Rewards user and founder of the 'Save East Coast Rewards' campaign, said: "One of the arguments they've used for Nectar is that it has a whole load more partners, the obvious one being Sainsbury's.

"But from April, Sainsbury's are also halving the number of Nectar points that you can earn in their stores, so you'll need twice as many points for items as you do now.

"[ICR] have gone from a brilliant scheme to one that's not going to be much good to anybody. Even if you were interested in earning Nectar points, you might as well book your ticket through a First Group website because they give points for all train travel.

"If they thought the scheme was too generous they should have tweaked it slightly, instead of wiping it out completely."

Although trains operating under the new franchise will be branded with Virgin livery, ICR is actually 90 per cent backed by Sir Brian Souter's Stagecoach Group.

ICR said the switch to Nectar would benefit both regular and one-off leisure travellers, and Rewards points could still be redeemed up until September 30.

They also stressed that the new scheme would offer passengers the chance to collect either Nectar points or Virgin Atlantic air miles.

However, critics are unhappy that perks such as 50 per cent more points for booking first-class tickets will disappear, while trading points for non-rail items - such as cinema tickets, high street vouchers and wine - will cost hundreds of pounds more under Nectar.

Rob Burgess, editor of frequent flyer and loyalty points website, Head for Points, said: "The strength of feeling is not surprising as East Coast Rewards is a fantastic scheme. If you spent a lot on rail travel you were getting a very high percentage of your spend back in free East Coast trips. Even spending as little as £35 would get a voucher to use the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross.

"A handful of Nectar points, equivalent to one per cent of your spend, does not even begin to compare."

Consumer watchdog, Passenger Focus, is due to raise concerns with ICR over the new rewards scheme in the wake of the backlash from customers.

A spokeswoman for ICR said: "Before taking the decision to introduce the Nectar scheme, we used a market research company to survey around 2,000 East Coast passengers and we also held focus groups with existing customers. The results demonstrated that Nectar was by far the most popular loyalty scheme amongst those people who took part in the research."