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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Why Open Access Operators Matter

I recently had a lovely day trip to Robin Hood's Bay and Whitby. Having never travelled the Esk Valley line, I took the train from Whitby back to York, via Middlesbrough. I actually changed trains twice, once in Middlesbrough and then again at Eaglescliffe a few minutes later. From there, I took the Grand Central service to York.

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A Grand Central HST at York

So what? Grand Central have been around for years now and I have ridden them before. However, it suddenly dawned on me, while standing on the bleak Eaglescliffe platform, how crucial Grand Central is to the town. The key is that Grand Central is an Open Access Operator.

When Britain's railway network was carved up in the 1990s, the network was divided up into franchises, with each franchise comprising specific routes, (leased) rolling stock, station management and staffing. Naturally, operators favour stopping at their own stations, meaning that out-of-the-way places, such as the North East, often get overlooked.

Here is an example. While many different operators stop at York, it falls under the East Coast franchise: all the signs, station management and staff are East Coast. Virtually all East Coast trains north of Doncaster stop at York. However, Eaglescliffe isn't on East Coast's patch and so passengers need to change at York or Darlington in order to get to London.

Grand Central, on the other hand, has no stations or station staff, only trains and on-board crew. They fill in routes where they see gaps. As a result, Eaglescliffe, a relatively insignificant stop on the way to Middlesbrough, now has direct trains to London King's Cross. No need to change anymore. Not only is this convenient, but it also helps to attract business to the area because easy transport links are attractive. Grand Central has also brought this benefit to other places, such as Bradford, Sunderland and Pontefract.

Grand Central isn't alone. Hull Trains brought direct trains to the port city before East Coast finally began offering a few services. Some of the services to Heathrow Airport are also open access, as is Eurostar.

All of these operators are underdogs in the fight for space on the congested network, but their success shows that certain routes are often overlooked when the big franchises are planned out. Sometimes, taking a chance and running a train is the only way to find out whether a route will work or not. So far, Grand Central has shown that if you build it, they will come.