Spanish armada to relaunch British open access bid
An ambitious plan for express trains between South Wales and London, and eventually between Central Scotland and London, may be back on the rails. Grand Union Trains, an ‘open access’ operator was initially refused permission to run their trains by the Office of Rail and Road, the independent assessor and regulator. However, European investors claim to have resurrected the bid with a revised plan, and are confident of a new plan, which would eventually see competition with the existing operator, Great Western Railways.
The surprise new interest comes from Spain. The national Spanish operator, and a Spanish private equity firm, have announced their investment in Grand Union Trains. They are planning to support a revised application from Grand Union run passenger services between Carmarthen and London, and also from Stirling to London. Any commencement of services would remain several years in the future.
Proud to work alongside Renfe
Spanish national operator Renfe says it is considering entering into the UK rail passenger market as a strategic partner of Grand Union Trains, an open access operator, that has harbours plans to operate a new commercial service between London and Carmarthen in South Wales. Renfe says Serena Industrial Partners, an independent private equity firm in Spain, is also considering a stake in the business – a tie-up confirmed by Grand Union.
Grand Union Trains were initially shy to confirm the partnerships, but have since issued a statement, confirming the involvement of new partners and a revised application. “We have been pleased to work on promoting this important service which will, for the first time, deliver significant new infrastructure as part of the application process”, said Ian Yeowart, their managing director. “For this goal, we have been proud to work alongside colleagues at Renfe and Serena, whose vision for improved services is close to our own and has enabled us to put forward this ambitious project to the [Office of Rail and Road].”
A new-build station serving Swansea
Grand Union Trains have been attempting to join the British rail passenger scene for some time. An application to run a new rail service between Stirling and London was submitted back in 2019. The proposed service would have run four times daily and, significantly, directly connect communities in Central Scotland, currently only served by local trains with West Coast Main Line destinations including London.
More recently, the company proposed an innovative service, operated by new build bi-mode trains, operating between Carmarthen and London, calling at Llanelli then a new-build station serving Swansea at Parc Felindre, with parking for 500 cars. Further infrastructure enhancements would allow trains to serve Cardiff, Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction, and Bristol Parkway before operating non-stop to London
An early interest in express logistics
So called “Open Access” operators – like Grand Union Trains – sit alongside the complicated mix of franchises (currently being run as management contracts by the UK government); operations under direct control of the UK government where the commercial franchise operator has been removed; and the domestic operations in the hands of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. Although regulated by the same framework as other operators, open access companies stand or fall entirely on their own commercial success.
The extensive infrastructure enhancements planned by Grand Union are an unusual feature of an open access bid. The building of Parc Felindre as a parkway station for Swansea will reduce journey times between southwest Wales and Cardiff and London by around 20 minutes. The company also expressed an early interest in express logistics. Their original Stirling – London bid included a partnership with InterCity RailFreight, and established carrier, to transport light and urgent freight by utilising empty space in the non-passenger parts of their train, including refrigerated space to move urgent NHS biological materials.
A high-performance service
It is understood that Grand Union reached out to Renfe, to support their stated ambitions to provide a market leading experience for customers, with the company claiming better comfort and catering. “One of the main characteristics of the new service will be its high-quality design, including improved on-board comfort – bigger seats, more legroom and increased luggage space – as well as a buffet car available on every service”, says Grand Union.
The revised project is under consideration by the Office or Rail and Road. A statement from Renfe says they would participate in the operation by contributing their experience in commercial services. The Spanish operator also lays claim to extensive knowledge of the liberalised operation offering a high-performance service. “If the project materialises, which is still under review by the British regulator, it would be Renfe’s first project in the United Kingdom”, their statement added.
Grand Union proposes five return journeys each day. Although stating the use of new-build bi-mode trains they have made no public announcement on where they would source that rolling stock. There is speculation that a variant of the Hitachi class 800 series would be considered. The units are already the mainstay of the franchised operator on the route, and are also used by in similar circumstances by Lumo, another open access operator between London and Edinburgh.