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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 November 2007, 00:17 GMT
The train you've been waiting for
By Nick Angel
Producer, BBC OneLife

Sean English and Ian Yeowart
Grand Central plans more direct routes from the north to London

It is considered one of the great marketing own-goals of all time. When British Rail rebranded in the 1980s, it came up with the slogan: "We're getting there".

As leaves on the line and the wrong type of snow brought the network to a standstill, the joke was British Rail was getting nowhere, fast.

On the face of it, Grand Central, the soon-to-launch service between London and Sunderland, has fallen into the same metaphorical trap.

Their motto, "The train you've been waiting for", has proved horribly appropriate.

First planned for December 2006, a full service (three trains daily in each direction) will now not start until late November at the very earliest.

By any measure, that is a long time to wait for a train.

Legal hurdles

And yet, whereas baiting British Rail was a national sport, it is hard to feel the same animosity towards Grand Central.

The last year has been exasperating. But the exasperation has always been tinged with affection, and the reason why can be summed up in two words - "pluck", and "Marilyn".

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First, the pluck.

Grand Central was founded by Ian Yeowart, a third-generation railway man and former British Rail manager, who has been trying to start his own train company since privatisation.

"I just felt that given the opportunity we could show what railwaymen could do," he says, although it was from his railway colleagues that the most intense opposition came.

In particular, GNER, on whose East Coast Mainline Grand Central will partially run (they've since lost the franchise), fought a relentless campaign to stop the fledgling rail firm.

It all culminated last July in a judicial review in the High Court, which found in Grand Central's favour.

Costly delays

With the legal hurdles out of the way, it seemed like the fun stuff could begin.

Grand Central train
Are the railways still glamorous?

Together with his operations director, Sean English - the two make a pleasingly Laurel and Hardyish spectacle - Mr Yeowart hoped to be running a service within a matter of months.

Having acquired some rolling stock for 1m (then backed by the transport giant Fraser Eagle), it seemed a relatively simple matter to spruce up the 18 ex-Virgin carriages and three sets of 30-year-old engines that now formed Grand Central's fleet.

That, of course, is where the plan went awry - believing that the British railway industry could accomplish something so outlandish as refurbishing a few old trains.

Progress has been agonisingly, bafflingly slow. And Grand Central - dependent on engineering contractors to carry out the work - has been powerless to hurry it along.

At one point the whole operation was held up, apparently because someone forgot to order the correct seat fabric.

"The problem with the railway industry, particularly on the engineering side, is that it's agricultural," says Mr Yeowart - referring to the workshops where the trains are being refurbished. "It's like going back 50 years."

The contractors were supposed to deliver the rolling stock to Grand Central in July, but only now has the company finally been able to take delivery of the first of their three trains with most of the other rolling stock only now being completed.

All the while, 33 members of staff - conductors and drivers - have been on the pay roll since spring 2007.

Mr Yeowart will not be drawn on the details, but the cost of running a train company with no trains - borne by the consortium of private investors that now owns the company - is mind-boggling.

"Let's just say it is a substantial amount of thousands of pounds to be non-operational," says Yeowart, who has a considerable talent for understatement.

Glamour on track

Oh yes - and then there's Marilyn, as in the iconic film star, whose shimmering image will beam down at Grand Central's passengers from the end of each carriage.

Mr Yeowart alighted on this gratifyingly bonkers piece of branding when his wife, Sue - now working as the receptionist in their York offices: everything about Grand Central is distinctly un-corporate - paid 50p at a car boot sale for the famous poster of Marilyn in Grand Central Station.

For Mr Yeowart, Marilyn Monroe epitomises the "glamorous image" that has been lost with the railways, and which he hopes Grand Central will help restore.

To add to the faint air of lunacy, Monopoly and Cluedo boards will also be etched into the carriage tabletops.

Grand Central is of course a serious railway business but the combination of Monroe and Monopoly suggests it is also the fulfilment of a personal dream.

And that, finally, is its appeal - that it taps into the intense nostalgia that most of us still feel for the railways.

Despite the years of under-investment followed by a cack-handed privatisation process; despite the utilitarian, pile-'em-high ethos of many operators and the cattle-truck morning commutes; despite Paddington and Hatfield and Potters Bar, the romance of the railways remains hardwired into the national soul.

Grand Central is heroic testament to the dream of the railways. But it's also dispiriting evidence of why that dream remains so elusive.

OneLife: The Train you've been waiting for is on BBC One at 2245 GMT on Wed 7 November

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