Posted 7th March 2024 | 4 Comments

Open access approved on WCML, but £24m will be abstracted

Open access services are set to run between London and Stirling next year, after the Office of Rail and Road approved an application for four trains a day from Grand Union Trains, whose managing director is Ian Yeowart.

The ORR has already approved new Grand Union services between Carmarthen and London Paddington.

The regulator calculated that Grand Union will abstract revenue worth £24.4 million a year from existing operators, mainly Avanti West Coast. Established WCML operators like AWC have DfT contracts and currently pay all their earnings to the government, but the ORR said this abstraction would be offset by airline passengers who are attracted to the new services, and that ‘forecast abstraction of £24.4m for this application is within the range of previous applications we have approved’.

Grand Union Trains will introduce four new return services a day between London Euston and Stirling. Trains will call at Milton Keynes Central, Nuneaton, Crewe, Preston, Carlisle, Lockerbie, Motherwell, Whifflet, Greenfaulds and Larbert. Larbert, Greenfaulds and Whifflet will gain their first direct services to London.

Mr Yeowart has been promoting open access operation for more than 20 years. He set up the original Grand Central and tried, unsuccessfully, to launch cross-Pennine services between Newcastle and Manchester in 2003. Although these were rejected by the ORR a year later, the first GC services started running between London and Sunderland in 2007.

The new application has met resistance from some operators on the West Coast Main Line.

The ORR said Avanti West Coast and West Midlands Trains had opposed the application, saying that it would abstract ‘unacceptable levels of revenue’ from existing operators. They were also concerned about capacity and performance.

Grand Union is likely to use off-lease Class 221 Voyagers or Class 222 Meridians, although it added that ‘electric or dual mode trains are planned in the longer term’. Even so Avanti said it was unhappy about the ‘perpetuation of diesel operation’ on the WCML. Transport for Greater Manchester was also doubtful. Although TfGM agreed that the choice of diesel was ‘prudent’, so that services could start sooner, it was ‘regrettable from a carbon neutrality and air quality perspective’.

However, the ORR said ‘we do not view it would be appropriate to turn down new passenger services on the basis of diesel traction, especially on a route which has known electricity power supply constraints. Additionally, the proposal provides opportunities for travellers switching from air to rail travel, which would provide sustainability benefits.’

Stephanie Tobyn, who is the ORR’s director for strategy, policy and reform, said: ’Our decision helps increase services for passengers and boost competition on Britain’s railway network. By providing more trains serving new destinations, open access operators offer passengers more choice in the origin and price of their journey.’

Speaking before the application had been approved, Grand Union’s director of marketing and development David Prescott had said: ‘Each station has been chosen because of the benefits and opportunities it brings. Grand Union’s service will open up tourism opportunities, improve business options, provide new leisure travel opportunities and help reduce people’s reliance on air travel.

‘We will be able to provide people a faster and more comfortable journey and eliminate the need to change trains by avoiding Glasgow and Edinburgh, meaning people will be able to complete the journey from Stirling to London in just over five and a half hours.’

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • david C smith, Bletchley

    This proposed service might be even more of an assett if its internal furbishment were designed for service "round the 24 hours ", with reclining seats and " roomette" provision , to allow rolling stock utilisation through botth day and night.

    That could give a real alternative to the Azuma and Pendolino trains going south from Edinburgh and Glasgow, trading speed for amenity and comfort, whilst giving better economics.

  • Christopher Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    It is interesting to see that ORR have published the figure for abstraction expected from the contracted operators especially WCML operator Avanti. Hopefully competition will stimulate overall demand and grow the Anglo/Scottish market. Also let's see if it will force Avanti's hand, subject to being allowed by it's DfT masters, to raise it's game.

    While some of Avanti's performance problems have been outside it's control, such as the operationally unsustainable timetable recast pre covid for fellow WCML operator LNW, post covid Avanti's inability to resource it's own services consistently is a continuing cause for concern. While Chester/North Wales services are still running at reduced frequency, than pre covid, cancellations, either part or full, are a daily occurance. The recent announcement the Shrewsbury service is to be withdrawn, echoing the BR decision 30 years ago, is an ominous sign especially with another open access operator in the wings looking for paths on the WCML.

    The 'Premier Line' deserves better. Especially so now that the promised relief that was identified & promised after the last protracted & costly route modernisation, HS2, will only now be partially completed. And it is worth recalling that 20 yrs ago when West Coast Route Mod funding became tight northern sections, especially around Stockport and Manchester had to make do and mend. Time perhaps our modern short sighted politicians were given a history lesson.

  • John Porter , Leeds

    Do the 221s have tilting capability and are there any spare driving coaches since the fleet was reorganised into longer units? If so they would be ideal sixth coaches.

  • John Porter , Leeds

    Last time there was a shortfall of work at Derby, DfT reportedly got a price for converting the 222ís to diesel/electric bimodes and were surprised how expensive that was. Presumably Grand Central will also be getting a price for converting 6th vehicles to be spent if they make a success of five carriage trains. The future is bimodes.
    [The future may well be bi- (or tri-) modes, but Grand Union (not Grand Central) is sticking to diesel-only at first -- hence the objections from some quarters.--Ed.]