Ten years ago today (18 December 2007) Grand Central Railway Company (GC) finally got onto the national railway network, when its first scheduled passenger service left Sunderland for London Kings Cross.
While GC has since gone from strength to strength and is now the UK’s largest and most successful Open Access train operator, it was far from plain sailing in the early days, when its operations were beset by reliability issues and cancelled services became a recurrent headache.
My personal connection with GC had begun more than a decade earlier, when I had approached founder Ian Yeowart in 1996 with an offer of public relations support in his efforts at bidding for some of the first railway franchises to be offered in the railway privatisation process.
Having been controversially thwarted in his bid for the Regional Railways North East franchise, Ian’s focus then turned to the potential of Open Access, the mechanism to attract competition with franchised operators that was enshrined in Part 1, section 4 (1d) of the Railways Act 1993.
This required the Rail Regulator and the Secretary of State for Transport “to promote competition in the provision of railway services” so, after a false start with plans for a Newcastle-Manchester service (rejected by Regulator Tom Winsor on grounds that it did not generate sufficient new journey opportunities) and in the light of Hull Trains’ success at becoming the network’s first Open Access operator, Ian identified a potential and poorly-served market from Sunderland and Hartlepool to the capital.
Launch of what was initially a three return trips a day service from Wearside to London proved a tortuous process, with problems in securing rolling stock and a week-long court case when the then East Coast franchisee, GNER, sought unsuccessfully to challenge the ORR’s decision to grant access rights to GC.
Ian’s master-stoke here had been to hire Tom Winsor, former Rail Regulator, author of the rules on competition and by then working in private practice, to fight his corner!
On 18 December 2007, just a week after National Express had taken over the East Coast franchise from GNER, the launch day finally dawned. Having worked closely with Ian and his team, I was keen to be aboard the inaugural train, so had travelled up to Sunderland the previous day and, after spending the night in a guest-house near the station, was walking the city’s deserted street before 06.00 in order to be part of the great day.
Sensing that I would never live through anything like the drama of GC’s birth, I kept a detailed diary of events during the launch years (2006-8) and this is how I recorded that fateful day and the one following:
Tuesday, 18 December 2007: “Rouse myself at 05.00 and set off from the Acorn Guest House in Mowbray Road for Sunderland station just before 06.00. Unlike London, the city’s streets are totally deserted at this time and there is no sign of a newsagent to buy the morning’s papers on my ten minute walk to the central railway station.
“On arrival I meet Ian Reeve and his photographer from BBC Look North, and we are immediately faced with a Northern Rail employed claiming that we cannot film on the platform!
Having successfully launched its Sunderland services, Grand Central won approval for a second route from Bradford to London in January 2009, with services beginning in May 2010. On 21 May 2016 180905 pauses at Brighouse with a northbound service
“This hiccup is sorted out by the time Ian [Yeowart] arrives with Peter Robinson from Network Rail at about 06.20. Ian immediately spies two ladies seeking to buy return tickets to London – he greets them and straightaway offers a free upgrade to first class – our first genuine passengers!
“The two are mother and daughter Val and Judith Stephenson from South Shields, who have decided to take a day trip to London and it is surely a day they will never forget! Not only are they treated to the free upgrade, but they are interviewed by both the Look North and Tyne-Tees television crews, as well as by Kevin Clark for the Sunderland Echo.
“Power car 43067 leads the inaugural GC train into platform 2 at 06.41 and we make an on-time departure at 06.46 with minimum fanfare and just a policeman and a few well-wishers on the platform.
“Our journey to Kings Cross goes faultlessly, though I later learn from Peter Robinson that there is still a problem with the fire detection equipment at the below-ground station in Sunderland. It is heartening to see excellent scene-setting articles in both The Guardian and in the Daily Telegraph, as well as a front page story in the Sunderland Echo by Kevin Clark, who is also on board with a photographer for our inaugural run.
“Ian leaves the train at York, where Bob Howells (a director of Equishare, the private equity backers of GC) and Tom Clift (GC Managing Director) join the train, We have a pleasant and comfortable journey to Kings Cross, which we reach seven minutes early at 10.25 and are greeted by a number of photographers – including Paul Bigland [who had supplied us with some photos for the press] and Chris Milner from Railway Magazine – as well as a good sprinkling of other enthusiasts and well-wishers.
Wednesday, 19 December 2007: “Good to see more supportive coverage in the Sunderland Echo, Hartlepool Mail, and Northern Echo, as well as the helpful news items on last night’s editions of Look North (presented by Ian Reeve) and Tyne-Tees News (presented by Helen Ford, who I briefed on the train and who travelled all the way to Kings Cross with us).
“Equally heartening is a piece in today’s Newcastle Journal headlined ‘It’s been over 20 years (give or take a couple of minutes) but the train from London finally arrives in Sunderland’
“Reporter Neil McKay (who I have not spoken to) was at Sunderland station last night to see our first arrival, which he claims was a couple of minutes late and had around 20 passengers on board.
“He interviews a number of those alighting, who seem universally complimentary about the service, even the bloke – a chemical engineer called Dave Curry celebrating his 50th birthday – who fell asleep and missed his stop at Hartlepool!
“What is really gratifying is this short editorial in the same paper entitled ‘On the right track to a success’: The new rail service to London was such a long time in the making that many, including this newspaper, had begun to doubt it would ever begin. But yesterday saw the first Grand Central train leave Sunderland in the early morning and return from the capital in the evening. If it came back to a lack of fuss, that mattered less than the normality of the service: almost on time and complete with one passenger whose sleep had taken him past his stop. An excellent first day, one has to admit.