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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 15:09 GMT
Clear track ahead for new train firm?
By Bill Wilson
BBC News business reporter

Proposed Grand Central route map
Grand Central's North East plans are near fruition but Yorkshire must wait

A new UK train company could be powering ahead by the end of the year if a hearing at the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) gives it the green light on Monday.

Potential newcomer Grand Central has spent 1.5m over the past decade preparing for its debut, and in January was told by the regulator that it was "minded" to give it the go-ahead to operate.

Grand Central plans to run three trains each way daily on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) between Sunderland and London, calling at Hartlepool and Eaglescliffe, on the edge of Middlesbrough, as well as Thirsk.

None of these conurbations currently has a direct link to London and the proposal has been warmly welcomed in those places.

"Three trains a day is a commercially viable number for us, and we have shown that we are capable of running a fourth one too," says Ian Yeowart, managing director of Grand Central.

'New passengers'

Mr Yeowart is a former British Railway employee who once manned Penzance ticket office, and is determined to see his trains in motion, even though Grand Central's plans for a Yorkshire to London route, including Bradford and Halifax, are on hold for now.

The regulator said in January that, in allowing the Sunderland route, plans "from Grand Central to serve Bradford would be turned down".

"We have had support from the councils in Sunderland, Hartlepool and elsewhere in support of our plan in opening up the railways to more than one million people in the region," says Mr Yeowart.

Grand Central train
Grand Central wants to slot into the 2006/07 winter timetable

"These new journey opportunities will attract many new passengers to the network for the benefit of the local communities and the whole industry."

Grand Central plans neither heavy discounts nor high walk-up prices, and tickets will be available on the internet, by phone, text, and at stations.

The most expensive return fares will be 60 from London to Sunderland or 55 to Hartlepool, with anyone made to stand on board promised a 50% refund.

'Core route'

However, rail giant GNER, which 12 months ago spent 1bn to secure the ECML franchise for another decade, has different plans for any spare capacity on the line.

It wants to run a total of 12 additional services each weekday to and from Leeds, to raise the daily total to and from London from 53 to 65.

There are umpteen trains already going to Leeds every day, it is about time other places got a look in
Martin Murphy, Railfuture

GNER says the extra trains were part of its franchise renewal proposals, and also part of a 2001 government request to increase train journeys between London and Leeds.

"We have proved that we can run the extra trains from Leeds with our existing fleet," a GNER spokesman said.

Not surprisingly these plans are supported by the business community and public in and around West Yorkshire, although some local politicians privately favour the Grand Central plan.

"We are a very different operator from Grand Central," GNER says. "We run where our route tells us to run. We had to bid for the whole core east coast route."

GNER insists its proposed expansion has nothing to do with wanting to quash Grand Central's plans.

Privatisation idea

Unlike GNER, Grand Central is a so-called "open access operator" - a train company hoping to operate outside the government's franchise map.

Open access operators were a key idea in the 1990s privatisation programme, but only one - Hull Trains - has come into operation.

The government's Department of Transport appears to have been siding with GNER in the debate over who should get to take up spare slots on the east coast line.

GNER train
GNER has called for the hearing at the Office of Rail Regulation

In January, when the Office of Rail Regulation said it was "minded" to approve Grand Central's North East plans, it also said the decision would mean GNER's Leeds application and another from Grand Central for extra services to Bradford would be rejected.

However, experts say that the government is worried GNER may be unable to pay its promised 1.3bn, part of its franchise deal, to the Treasury unless it gets the extra capacity.

Now the regulator's office, chaired by Chris Bolt, is to hear from all interested parties once again, after GNER asked for a further oral hearing.

The ORR will then decide whether to change or stand by its earlier decision, with a ruling expected at the end of March.

Grand Central is already planning to be ready to run trains for the winter timetable of 2006/07.

'Money obsession'

Pressure group Railfuture is a national body which campaigns for an improvement in rail services across the UK, including passenger and freight.

Its North East chairman Martin Murphy says: "Grand Central has an excellent package which gives a hugely improved deal for people travelling into, as well as out of, the Durham coastal area.

"The argument is all about who should have the 'paths' further south of York, where the line is fairly congested."

He says the Department for Transport seems more concerned about future income from GNER rather than service access.

"Are we going to be obsessed with paying money to the Treasury or are we thinking about communities and people?" says Mr Murphy.

"It is hugely important that we get the regulator's decision that people and communities are just as important as money."

GNER believes its Leeds plan gives the "greatest possible benefit to the greatest number of people".

But Mr Murphy remarks: "There are umpteen trains already going to Leeds every day, it is about time other places got a look in."

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