Rail Industry Focus


Grand Central taking a uniform approach: Class 180s replace HSTs

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2014

Grand Central’s chief executive Richard McClean talks to RTM about the open access operator’s plans to invest £7.8m in new rolling stock to create a uniform fleet and station upgrades. David Stevenson reports.

Grand Central, the open access train operator, is to bring five new Class 180s into service by 2017, with the new rolling stock replacing the company’s three HSTs.

RTM was told by Richard McClean, Grand Central’s CEO, that the HSTs (picture below by Alvey & Towers), although being “very reliable to the industry” in the past, will be gone by Q4 2017.

HST   c. Alvey and Towers edit

Once the change-over is complete, it will mean Grand Central will have a fleet of 10 Class 180s of its own, with four from First Hull Trains also running along the East Coast Main Line, assuming its own licence to operate is extended past its current track access date of December 2016.

Back in 2013, Grand Central, which is owned by Arriva, part of Deutsche Bahn, was suggesting a uniform fleet of Class 180s (top image). McClean told us: “This will give us the opportunity to benefit from for a unified technical support and maintenance arrangement.

“We’re focusing on a single fleet type and we’re going to make the Class 180s the trains they should’ve been when they were built. We have to face up to the day when we’ll see the back of our last HST, which is a big wrench but those machines have served the industry very well.

“But as you face things like the PRM-TSI [the disability access standard for heavy rail] and RVAR obligations [the light rail equivalent], they become increasingly difficult to sustain on what is a regular service pattern.

“Also, one of the things we’ve got to consider is the development of the East Coast Main Line route which, by 2020, will predominantly be IEP and, therefore, accelerating and braking performance in order to path with these modern inter-city trains will be crucial. The Class 180s are a good performing train in that regard, and they’re really safeguarding the future of the operation in that changed environment.”

Investing for the future

The new rolling stock, which will be leased from Angel Trains, forms part of a £7.8m investment to improve services on Grand Central’s routes.

However, the investment would not have been possible if the operator had not been granted a 10-year extension to run services back in June by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).

Under the terms of the agreement, Grand Central will continue operating services between King’s Cross and Sunderland and King’s Cross and Bradford until 2026.

RTM was told that £5.2m will be invested in the new rolling stock, and the subsequent upgrades. The remaining £2.6m will be invested in stations.

Discussing the investment, McClean said: “It is still early days, we don’t get hold of the extra trains until 2017, but that is why we have started now in consulting our users and stakeholders as to the key things they’re looking for in the fleet – so we can get the building blocks right.

“We want to know what the right approach is, for instance, to catering on a train doing the job ours do. That’s one of the beauties about our type of operation, because it is so focused – it doesn’t have to do a bit of commuter traffic or peak business and then off-peak leisure – we just do our core trains and we can tailor them very closely to what our passengers want.”

191 edit

By the time RTM went to print, Grand Central had conducted several consultations, but at the time of our interview the operator had only held its first event, in Hartlepool.

McClean told us: “We’ve been to Hartlepool and it was enormously encouraging to see how many people wanted to put the time in to come and talk to us. It was very encouraging and rewarding. People had some very clear messages about what we’re doing and what they appreciate. They had clear messages on luggage and leg room – so the layout of the trains is going to be a crucial factor.

“We really are listening to what people are saying there and are not rushing off to see how we can squeeze more seats in.”

He added that the company is also looking at some technological upgrades, especially with regards to wi-fi capacity and making it easier for more people to connect.

With regards to reliability and performance, RTM was told Grand Central would also be bringing in driver advisory systems in cabs to help drivers with economic driving and braking, to cut down on fuel consumption. “So we further improve the carbon credentials of rail,” added McClean.

That contract was awarded by Arriva to TTG Transportation Technology, whose MD Dale Coleman said: “We will be working closely with Arriva UK Trains and its fleet maintenance facilities to introduce Energymiser DAS so our technology can deliver its full potential for Arriva’s passengers, drivers and operations.”

67 edit


Following its fleet refurbishment, Grand Central will work with Network Rail to run some of its usually five-car Class 180s as double 10-car units, boosting capacity on its busiest services.

The operator has also pledged capital investment to improve passenger facilities at stations on its route. McClean told us: “There is £2.6m of the investment money earmarked for stations and we’re looking to build on the investments we’ve already committed to in our current access contract. So information systems, waiting areas and car parks are really crucial.

“Ticket retailing is also important; most stations we call at are unstaffed regional stations with relatively light passenger volumes – except when our trains turn up and you get a bigger load.

“We’re putting in facilities that are more appropriate for an inter-city type operation and obviously car parking is a key part of that.”

In addition to the improvement work, Grand Central’s award-winning Station Ambassador programme will be rolled out to more Yorkshire stations. 

Station Ambassadors are in place at Eaglescliffe, Brighouse, and Hartlepool – the team there came second in in the Passengers Matter category at the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) 2012 Community Rail Awards. There are plans now to introduce Ambassadors at Mirfield and Thirsk stations in the near future.

Talking about Grand Central’s Station Ambassadors, McClean told RTM: “Partnership working is central to our make-up. We work with local authorities – for example at Wakefield Kirkgate, and at Eaglescliffe we’re expanding the car park in conjunction with the local authority.

“But it’s not just public bodies, we partner with local community groups. In Mirfield we’re working with local business groups to help us with the Station Ambassador project. These local groups we’ve linked up with are crucial, and build on the success of similar groups around Hartlepool and Eaglescliffe. They are crucial because these local groups see the service we provide as being very important to them locally.”

Happy passengers

McClean stated that as Grand Central has no franchise, there was no guarantee to keep its services going.

But passengers clearly like it. In the ‘Passengers’ relationship with the rail industry’ research by Passenger Focus in August 2014, it was voted one of the most trusted long-distance operators in Britain.


It was the top performer in the ‘Trust in Service’ category (covering functional, day-to-day service delivery), with a net score of +8% against the TOC average of -14%.

In the ‘Trust in Relationship’ category too – covering engagement, communication and emotional factors – Grand Central was by some way the best-performing train operator, and one of only three in positive territory (its net score was +18%, against an industry average of -6%).

It was also in the top three TOCs for the final category, ‘Trust in Judgement’ – how passengers see the company’s integrity, motives and reputation.

In Passenger Focus’s main National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS), the most recent figures (spring 2014) put Grand Central on 94% ‘overall satisfaction’: joint second with Heathrow Express, and just behind First Hull Trains (these three open access operators often outperform the franchised TOCs).

Grand Central was the top performer in some categories, including whether trains have sufficient room, and how the operator dealt with delays. Its 84% ‘satisfied’ or ‘good’ rating in this category (based on an admittedly small sample size) was a remarkable outlier, with no other TOCs getting above 60%. Some London and south east commuter operators were languishing in the 20-30% region. 

East Coast: competitive or complementary?

McClean said: “All of our passengers have got alternatives. Most of the journeys people make with us are entirely discretionary – we don’t have a captive commuter market, and we aren’t serving a core business peak service.

“Bear in mind, it wasn’t that long ago that our trains didn’t exist, so we’ve built a market and built it on our reputation and by the service we offer. That will go if we don’t keep it up.”

Most Grand Central passengers board its services at stations that East Coast doesn’t serve, and the “vast majority” of its growth has come at stations like Eaglescliffe, Hartlepool, Mirfield and Brighouse, said McClean.

There is some overlap and competition with East Coast – for instance, at Doncaster, York, and Northallerton – but at these stations the operator plays a small part in the overall service pattern. 

“At York we’ve got five trains per day, while East Coast runs three an hour at most times of the day. We’re in a different place. We complement what they do, rather than compete head-on with it,” he said.

“But we pride ourselves on our customer service, as recently demonstrated in the latest NRPS results, and we are looking forward to a further 10 years of linking with these communities and making continued enhancements to our service for our passengers.”

Richard McClean2 rfit resize 635557874828766000

Above: Richard McClean

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Paul Coenraats   27/10/2015 at 17:08

It would be nice if consideration was give to at least Staff Priv Tickets and I would start using the services again as the service is very good. Whilst I have to accept that HST's are ageing at least the original seats were a lot more comfortable than the modern aircraft bolt upright type !!!!

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