Another Cardiff-Edinburgh rail service proposal
You wait forever for a Cardiff-Edinburgh train operator – then two come along at once. Aspirant open access operator, Grand Union, has initiated industry consultations for its ambitious plan to operate five daily services connecting Cardiff and Edinburgh. Managing Director Ian Yeowart revealed that discussions with stakeholders in Wales and Scotland had repeatedly highlighted the need for improved connectivity between the two cities.
The proposals come just a couple of weeks after the incumbent franchised operator, CrossCountry, announced that they would run a once-a-day service between the two Celtic capitals from the end of 2024. Grand Central has trumped that with their own much more ambitious five-a-day plans, probably starting in 2025. In addition to the Cardiff-Edinburgh route, Grand Union is also already exploring rolling stock options for proposed services between London and Carmarthen, as well as London and Stirling.
Benefit regional business interests
Grand Union has been attempting to enter the UK passenger market for a few years now. The company has put forward various proposals, but the Wales – England – Scotland service, connecting Cardiff with Edinburgh, via most of England, is their most ambitious and complex to date. The envisioned services are proposed to serve Cardiff, Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction (for Bristol), Gloucester, Birmingham New Street, Derby, Sheffield, Doncaster, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. The target launch date is December 2025.
“I am very interested in this proposal from open access operator Grand Union,” said Peter Keenan, Co-Chair of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce South Yorkshire Transport Forum. He already has a meeting in the diary to discuss regional business interests with the would-be operators. “Giving South Yorkshire a new direct connection to Cardiff, more fast train services to Edinburgh, Newcastle, York, and Birmingham, and restoring the Doncaster services lost on the CrossCountry corridor during the Covid emergency, is a really good proposal.”
Real competition and drive-up standards
Tim Yeowart, the managing director of Grand Union, agreed that routing through Doncaster was intended to help fill a gap left by the discontinuation of many CrossCountry services that previously serviced this route. Critics have pointed out that the proposed services would overlap with existing CrossCountry services, at least in part. The question of demand for direct Cardiff-Edinburgh services has sparked debate. Most analysts argue that the service primarily targets revenue generation along the heavily congested section between Birmingham and York.
In most cases, where an open access operator proposes to parallel the route of an incumbent franchised operator, the government’s railway administration (the Office of Rail and Road – ORR) will be minded to decline their application, on the grounds of abstraction of revenue. However, the case here may be very different. Existing services, mainly provided by CrossCountry are demonstrably unable to cope with demand. “An open access operator is one that operates with no government financial support”, explained Keenan. “Approval has to be given to operations and a new service will only be granted the right to operate if space is available on the network and the government is satisfied that there is proper merit in the proposal. Open access really should be a much bigger element of operations as it introduces real competition and consequently should drive up standards.”
Alliance Rail branding
Grand Union’s proposal encompasses the utilisation of either Class 221 Super Voyager or Class 222 “Meridian” train sets. These diesel multiple units can be configured with anywhere from four to nine carriages. They are similar to the rolling stock employed by CrossCountry and are around twenty years into their operational lifespan. Hopes of brand-new rolling stock would depend on delivery dates and many other variable factors.
It is understood that the Cardiff – Edinburgh application is being made under the Alliance Rail name, in order to avoid confusion with Grand Union’s existing proposals for London – Carmarthen and London – Stirling services. The London–Stirling open access service has a provisional start date of June 2025. Meanwhile, the Cardiff – Edinburgh proposal has been officially submitted to Network Rail and the Office of Rail & Road (ORR). A preliminary timetable has been drafted, and detailed information has been shared with the Department for Transport.