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FirstGroup plans new London-Scotland open access operations

FirstGroup says it is exploring plans to run “several trains a day” from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh via Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth in Northumberland.

It has already submitted a formal track access rights application to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which is considering the proposals, and has promised “brand new, state of the art rolling stock”. These new-build, five-car electric 125mph trains will be ETCS-enabled and have performance capabilities "comparable to the new [Hitachi-built] Class 800/801 trains that the East Coast franchisee will operate from 2018", it says.

The services proposed, with journey times of between four and four and a half hours between Edinburgh and London, are:

  • Five return trains a day, seven days a week between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh, calling at Newcastle, Morpeth and with some trains also calling at Stevenage
  • London King’s Cross to Edinburgh with journey times between four and four and half hours
  • Every service will call at Newcastle and Morpeth with some services also calling at Stevenage (on a pick up and set down only basis to cater for the northbound market)
  • Five services per day spread throughout the day in each direction, seven days a week

Its application says the new services would be "a lower cost model than franchised services" and will therefore "compete directly with air and road markets". It adds: "As well as low fares we will offer free wi-fi and on-board catering on every service."

FirstGroup says that Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) has shared its own proposed service pattern for 2020 (once the full IEP fleet has been delivered) on a "confidential and agreed" basis, and says in its application: "We have identified paths for our proposals (which would commence in December 2018) alongside the VTEC proposals which are consistent with our business model to provide the five return trips per day throughout the week. We are therefore confident that our proposals as well as those proposed by VTEC can be accommodated together alongside the existing long distance high speed services on the route."

FirstGroup already operates open access services via First Hull Trains, which tends to score very well on passenger satisfaction and in the mid-range of operators on punctuality.

FirstGroup will soon no longer be responsible for running Caledonian Sleeper services between London and Scotland, having lost the bidding for the new standalone franchise to Serco. Serco takes over on 1 April.

It currently operates the main ScotRail franchise, which runs services across Scotland as well as to Newcastle and Carlisle. However, Abellio takes over this franchise from 1 April.

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole said: “These innovative plans will give customers travelling between London, the north east of England and Edinburgh an attractive alternative to flying. We hope to entice passengers away from budget airlines through our low fares and high-quality trains.

“Open access operators can really add value and create passenger loyalty by serving niche markets. Our current company First Hull Trains remains an exceptional example of how passengers can benefit from this type of operation. We have put our compelling case to the ORR and we are looking forward to hearing the outcome of our application.”

The application shows that FirstGroup has applied via a company called East Coast Trains Ltd, with the application being handled by First Rail Holdings.

It notes: "East Coast Trains Ltd (ECTL) is a new train operator which will operate under a new travel brand. As such it does not currently hold a valid train operating licence or a safety certification. ECTL will be a wholly owned subsidiary of First Rail Holdings Ltd, which currently operates three GB rail franchises and an open access operator, Hull Trains, all of which have these licences and certificates. With access rights in place that we are seeking, we will apply for the necessary licences and certificates. Given that a decision on access rights is expected in the next 12 months and with our operating experience we believe that we will have the documentation in place well in advance of the commencement of services in 2018."

An industry consultation will take place over the next few weeks.

An ORR spokesperson said: “The ORR has received an application from First Group to run services on the East Coast Main Line. We will review the application in line with our usual process and our decision will reflect the overall interests of passengers and users.”

orr tr resize 635615823374791000

ORR infographic on track access decisions


Neil Palmer   11/03/2015 at 03:47

So now we have both GNER and FirstGroup applying for London-Edinburgh rights. Does ORR have a 3-headed coin?

Mikeb   11/03/2015 at 20:41

Apart from Virgin/Stagecoach's new franchised service, the East Coast may also now have a myriad of open access operators. On the other hand, the ORR denies GNWR access to run services on the West Coast because they would have a negative impact on the revenues of Virgin Trains. So, there will be competition on one side of the country, with passengers having a choice of operators, whereas on the other side passengers will be stuck with one monopoly operator for all services to London from north of the West Midlands.

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