Twilight view over Swansea and Maritime Quarter from Kilvey Hill Swansea South Towns And Villages

Green light for new operator to provide services from South Wales to London

Twilight view over City and Maritime Quarter from Kilvey Hill Swansea, South WalesVisitWales / Crown Copyright released for media use

Grand Union has been given a green light for their red dragon services. The UK authorities have granted permission for a new operator to provide services from South Wales to London. Trains will begin running in late 2024, alongside the existing franchised operations of Great Western Railways. As recently announced by RailTech.com, the company has partnered with Spanish operator Renfe, and also proposes a fleet of new bi-mode trains for the service.

Grand Union Trains has successfully reapplied for the right to operate a new intercity train service between Carmarthen and London Paddington. The open access operator will run five return services daily. The new build bi-mode trains will operate under electric or diesel power, as not all of the route is electrified. It is expected that the trains will be procured from Hitachi, as part of their 800-series already operating on the route.

Network Rail objections overcome

The UK regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has opened up the Great Western Main Line to competition and enabled a significant increase in rail services between London and South Wales. The decision opens up the Great Western Main Line to competition for the first time, with potential benefits in terms of lower fares, improved service quality and innovation for all passengers using the route.

Grand Union Trains route diagrams between South Wales and London
Grand Union Trains route diagrams between South Wales and London

The application, submitted to ORR in June 2022, was disputed by the infrastructure agency Network Rail due to concerns about capacity – mainly during the construction of the Old Oak Common site for the HS2 project. Following consideration and analysis, ORR has directed Network Rail to enter into a contract with the new operator. As an ‘open access’ train operator, however, Grand Union will not get paid subsidies from public funds, unlike current operators along the route.

A New Freight Service

RailTech.com reported serval weeks ago that the new operator had entered into a partnership with Spain’s Renfe, bringing extra investment, experience and expertise to the company. “It is great news for passengers who may have the opportunity to use our services”, said Ian Yeowart, Grand Union’s Managing Director. “One only has to look at what happens now on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), where there are three competing operators, to see the significant benefits that arise when operators face some competition. We are acutely aware of the difficulties faced by the ORR in determining these applications, and previous ORR decisions have significantly benefited many users on the ECML. We expect to be able to bring those benefits to the Great Western Main Line”.

CGI of Grand Union Trains interior with red upholstery on seats in standard class configuration
CGI of Grand Union Trains interior with red upholstery on seats in standard class configuration

Grand Union is also set to embrace the express logistics market. They have already made overtures to an existing specialist, currently active on the Great Western Main Line. “Our passenger service could also transport light and urgent freight by utilising empty space in the non-passenger part of our trains”, said a company statement. “Working with rail freight logistics specialists Intercity Railfreight, we will look to provide a reliable freight moving option for business, with no impact on passengers and no delays in service. Importantly, this service would relieve pressure on road transportation and provide a cleaner, greener way to transport fast-moving consumer goods and urgent items between South Wales and London.”

Political support and reduced journey times

The devolved Welsh government, which has executive powers over transport matters, has also approved the service.“The very significant support we have received from the Welsh Government and all areas of South and West Wales has been very important”, said Yeowart. “We are grateful for the cross party support we have had from members of the Senedd [Welsh parliament] and Westminster and from a number of local authorities. We look forward to continuing our work with partners and colleagues as we plan for the introduction of this new service.”

The services will be operated by new build bi-mode trains – expected to be Hitachi 800-series units, similar to the electric units in use by open access operator Lumo on the East Coast. Grand Union trains will operate between Carmarthen and London, calling at Llanelli then a new parkway station at Parc Felindre for Swansea, Cardiff Central, Newport, an upgraded Severn Tunnel Junction then Bristol Parkway before operating non-stop onwards to London The use of Parc Felindre as a parkway station for Swansea will reduce journey times between these parts of southwest Wales and Cardiff and London by around 20 minutes. The new station at Parc Felindre will be close to the M4 motorway providing a park and ride facility for around 500 vehicles.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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