Eliot Andersen reports on Grand Central.
Open-access operation was heralded as one of the highlights of the privatisation of the British Rail network by the Major government of the 1990s, with independent operators able to offer an alternative service competing with the franchised operator within a certain region.
However, January saw the demise of Wrexham & Shropshire (WSMR), a train company providing direct services between Wrexham and London Marylebone, restoring a link lost in the Sixties. Despite consistently coming top of Passenger Focus’ surveys for customer satisfaction, a number of issues conspired to spell certain doom for the operator, which only began running trains in spring 2008.
I had never had the chance to travel onboard one of WSMR’s services, so I decided to visit Marylebone whilst in London to pay homage on the final day of operations, Friday January 28th. I travelled to the capital with Grand Central, another open-access train company, running services from Sunderland and Bradford to London Kings Cross down the East Coast Main Line, providing a cheaper and more comfortable option than travelling with the currently-nationalised franchise holder East Coast.
Grand Central, who commenced operations on their route from the north east in 2007, follow in the footsteps of WSMR – the latest passenger satisfaction figures show a rating of 95% for Grand Central, undoubtedly due to the value for money, simplicity of the ticketing system and friendly on-board staff.
Boarding the 1053 York – Kings Cross, it was pleasing to note that while WSMR were ceasing operations due to low passenger numbers, Grand Central’s modern five-coach Class 180 diesel train was positively packed, even in First Class. I was glad that I had made a seat reservation prior to travelling, and was greeted by the amiable train guard upon boarding.
My first class fare was a mere £69 return, with a railcard, a significant saving in comparison with the equivalent ticket offered by East Coast – which breaks the bank at a staggering £222! The ticket included a seemingly never-ending stream of complimentary hot beverages from the first class steward, comfortable seats which line up with the windows, for good views, spacious legroom and the cabin has a pleasant ambience. There is a small on-train buffet provided for snacks and light refreshments.
We arrived at Kings Cross bang on time at 1249 and I went about my business in London, visiting Marylebone as the final arrival from Wrexham rolled in, with a great crowd there to greet it. It seems such a shame that a premier operator has failed, though a combination of factors, including faster journey times via Virgin Trains, a lack of a station stop in Birmingham (due to Department for Transport micromanagement) and lack of demand meant a death knell for the company.
Back onboard Grand Central’s 1918 London – York, the train was again well-filled. Grand Central commendably offer an immediate 50% refund to any passengers unable to find a seat and it is hoped that their services will remain well-patronised into the future.
As customers of WSMR were warned, I urge you – use it or lose it, as it would be a terrible shame were Grand Central to go the way of their contemporaries, despite providing one of the finest (and cheapest) services to be found anywhere on the British railway network.