Rail Industry Focus

06.05.16

Track access extension opens up growth opportunities for Hull Trains

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

Will Dunnett, managing director at Hull Trains, talks to RTM’s David Stevenson about the recent extension to its track access, the need for a modernised fleet and how open access operators can generate competition in the market.

Hull Trains has managed to secure its long-term future until at least 2029 after the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) approved the open access operator’s (OAO’s) application for extended track access, which should act as catalyst for further growth. 

Speaking to RTM shortly after the permission was granted, Will Dunnett, managing director at Hull Trains, said it was a “fantastic achievement” as the company had never really had “a long-term opportunity” to make real investment. 

Bi-mode fleet 

Describing the extended track access as a Launchpad, he said that the extra certainty this delivers should allow the company to progress with its plans to invest £68m in a new fleet of bi-mode trains. 

Although no official announcement has been made or contract signed at the time of publication, it is widely rumoured that Hitachi Rail Europe will supply the five new units, which are expected to enter service by 2020. 

The units, which First Hull says will have up to 320 seats on each, and a top speed of 140mph, would provide a 50% increase in the number of seats for passengers compared to the current fleet of four Class 180s. 

FH

“We will only ever be a niche operator, and open access innovator, but the extended track has made a real stamp that we can move on with,” said Dunnett. “Clearly, investment in a new fleet is part of that.” 

In its application to the ORR, First Hull said “the current fleet of Class 180s is expensive to operate and maintain, and would require a refit by 2019. Without investment in new trains Hull Trains’ customers face a potential dis-benefit from comparatively slower journey times and relatively older stock”. 

It also stated that the new fleet will “at a minimum” match the performance characteristics of the new Class 800/801 trains, reducing reactionary delays. 

“If we hadn’t got such a lengthy track access, the model simply wouldn’t have stood up,” he said. “It is good times for the business, we hope this is now the Launchpad for even more opportunity.” 

While staying quiet about the new fleet during his interview, Dunnett did note that the new bi-mode fleet would have an increased First Class capacity. “We’ve grown that business really well and there is certainly a demand for it within the region,” he said. “We would hope to expand that.”

Class 180 investment 

However, before any new rolling stock takes to the track for Hull Trains, the OAO is investing approximately £750,000 over the next three years in upgrading its current fleet of Class 180s. 

“Some may see that as quite unusual,” said Dunnett. “But it fits our business model to continue to move things forward. This investment includes everything from CCTV to things like the passenger information system screens we’ve trialled alongside KeTech, which has been very successful. We’ve got good reviews back from our passengers, so we’ll spread them across the fleet. 

“We are also revamping our First Class and buffet areas as well, as customer expectations are becoming wider in terms of the service they receive. We are simply matching that. This will happen in the next year.” 

He added that since he arrived as MD two and a half years ago, the reliability of the Class 180 rolling stock, which has had its doubters in the past, has improved – but only because of continued investment. 

“We have just reached 20,000 miles per technical incident,” he said. “The investment that we have been making in the fleet in terms of the train inspectors and arrangements we make with First Great Western as a maintenance partner at Old Oak have been reaping dividends for us as a business.” 

Service expansion

Asked whether Hull Trains, which has topped the league for passenger satisfaction for three successive years, would look to expand the services it provides, he said the industry is forever looking at the opportunities around them, “and we are no different”. 

In February last year, First Hull started running a direct service to London from the market town of Beverley. Following its weekday popularity, the ORR granted the company permission in December to run services at the weekend. 

“Albeit small, it absolutely fits our model,” said Dunnett. “We are a community-based business where we try to understand the needs of the stakeholders within the region. It is a good example of providing it, slightly beyond our heartland, and provided an opportunity to a small market town.” 

On the potential for further expansions, he said it is “all around rolling stock, which will prevent us from extending beyond the present routes we do”. 

But he added that there is growth around routes, it is just “highlighting them and gearing them up towards the stock that is available”. 

Hull Trains

Hull to Selby electrification

Early last year, the government said that the privately-funded electrification of the Selby to Hull line would be complete by 2024, subject to an “acceptable contribution” from Hull Trains and a business case. 

“We’ve continued to support the Hull to Selby electrification project,” he said. “It started from a wish from ourselves for a long-term track access. I’ve never made any bones about that. It was the first line in our address when I met the secretary of state. We continue to support electrification, it continues to be something that is within our horizon.” 

He added that the project is currently sat with the DfT: “we’ve given them a price to take the project through to GRIP3. All the GRIP 2 is being secured by ourselves and delivered. It is something we would hope to see for the region”. 

Dunnett also noted that due to the private funding model for this electrification project it shouldn’t suffer severe delays, as opposed to publicly-funded schemes such as  the TransPennine electrification, which has seen its completion date pushed back after being ‘paused’ by the transport secretary last year. 

“It is almost with a little bit of irony that I look at things like the Shaw Report and think well actually, surely, that it [Hull to Selby] is a project that could perhaps become a little bit of an opportunity for us to demonstrate the value of private investment within working in and alongside Network Rail,” he explained. 

Asked about the 2024 completion date, Dunnett said: “That is down to the DfT. That would be the absolute wish, and frankly earlier if at all possible.” 

Increased competition 

Recently the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) released its completed ‘Competition in passenger rail services in Great Britain’ report.  

It recommended increased competition in railway franchising, potentially including a licensing system in the future. 

In the final results of the consultation, it suggested introducing option 1 – a greater role for open access on inter-city routes, which it said could be implemented when the East Coast Main Line franchise is next renewed in 2023. 

In parallel, it suggested introducing option 2 (two successful bidders for each franchise) where it has the potential to deliver benefits on the networks. The preferred model for this option would be to have an ‘anchor franchisee’ responsible for the vast majority of obligations, running unprofitable but ultimately “socially valuable services and some other services which together would make for a feasible operation”. 

Asked about the proposals, Dunnett said: “There is still a lot of work ongoing with the CMA review and Shaw Report, which would hint that competition is something that is being more than ever welcomed on the railway. 

“I have to say, as one of the smaller OAOs, the work that we do in tandem with the franchises is, actually, very valuable. I think the customer sees the value of it as well. The model where those two operations run alongside each other does seem to work. Whilst we welcome competition, I think the franchise model continues to provide the strength and backbone to the network.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com 

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