Could a direct rail service to London now be back on track?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 25 Apr 2018

The campaign for a direct rail service from Cleethorpes to London has taken a new turn, explains Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly.

THE collapse of Virgin’s tenure of running trains on the East Coast main line could have an uplift for Grimsby – a direct rail service to London. 

Well, that is what leading Humber business figures and politicians are hoping at least. 

The Virgin Trains and Stagecoach East Coast partnership was allowed to waive its promised payments to the public purse, said to be worth £2bn, when Transport Secretary Chris Grayling recently let the pair escape their contract five years early.

But rather than see it as a gloomy outlook for rail’s future, the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce see the premature end of the East Coast rail franchise as an opportunity for the region.

External affairs manager Dave Hooper said the situation could provide a major opportunity in realising the chamber’s top transport ambition for North Lincolnshire – a direct rail route to London.

He wants the Government, when the franchise is handed back to the Department for Transport (DfT) later this year, to reconfigure its terms and stipulate that any future operator must run direct trains to Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

“There could be an opportunity to re-write that franchise when it comes back to the Government and write-in the direct service to the south bank of the Humber,” Mr Hooper told the Grimsby Telegraph.

The idea follows on from Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers’, pictured right, bid last summer to persuade Virgin Trains to extend some of its additional Lincoln services to Grimsby.

Virgin has agreed to run five services a day from Kings Cross station to Lincoln from 2019, with six going in the other direction. Mr Vickers spoke to bosses in July about the possibility of extending one of those services in each direction through to Cleethorpes.

The elongated service would leave the main line at Newark before stopping at Lincoln, Market Rasen, Grimsby, Habrough, Barnetby and finally Cleethorpes. It would happen to be the same route that last took passengers directly from North Lincolnshire to London 26 years ago, before British Rail cut the service in 1992.

After his conversations with Virgin and ministers, Conservative MP Mr Vickers’ next task was to drum-up the money to commission a study into understanding the economic benefits a direct train route to the Capital could bring to the area.

But that was before Grand Central Rail, a small private train operator, signalled its intention to start running direct daily services to Cleethorpes, using the main line up to Doncaster before heading towards Scunthorpe.

Grand Central’s plan – which it is expected to submit imminently to the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) – is to run a 10-carriage service to Doncaster where the train would split into two five-carriage sets, with one of them venturing to Cleethorpes and the other to Bradford.

However, the Humber Chamber of Commerce’s rail experts have flagged concerns that it could be difficult to persuade the ORR that a split-service operation is viable at such a major station as Doncaster.

In a press briefing, a spokesman for the Hull-based organisation said: “Splitting trains is a common practice in southern England, but can lead to complications.

“If either half of the train was late arriving at Doncaster, it would get held-up as delays to other trains on the East Coast main line would have to be avoided.”

Grand Central boss Richard McClean said previously that the company was looking into how to mitigate against any such problems with the split service. The proposed solutions include locating rail sidings outside of Doncaster station where trains coming from Grimsby could safely wait to join-up with its delayed counterpart or even being prepared to run five-carriage trains straight to London if the delays on the other route are severe.

But yet the chamber, while supportive of both possibilities for resurrecting a direct service, seems to suggest a route written into the next East Coast franchise contract could be the best way of realising the dream of no longer having to change trains.

The chamber’s spokesman said the handing back of the East Coast franchise to DfT “raises the possibility of a [direct] service being included in the next franchise agreement”.

He said: “It would mean the new East Coast operator would have to run trains up to Grimsby and Cleethorpes”.

Mr Vickers said he was prepared to raise the idea of including the Cleethorpes destination in any new franchise with the Secretary of State once more is known about its future.

It is unclear how Mr Grayling plans to run the East Coast, given Virgin/Stagecoach was the third private franchise to collapse while running it in just 11 years.

The Cabinet member is understood to be reluctant to have it publicly-run – as Labour opted to do when National Express folded in 2009 – as it could play into the hands of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who wants to see the UK’s railways renationalised.

Mr Vickers, a member of the transport committee, said: “When Secretary Chris Grayling comes forward with proposals, if it involves re-tendering the franchise then we will obviously push to have an extension through Lincoln put into it.

“That is another option available to us but at the moment we don’t know any more about what the franchise will look like.”

Yet, with Grand Central’s bid to run direct trains by 2020 in full flow, Mr Vickers is keen not to lose momentum behind that opportunity.

“Grand Central have spent the past year or so talking to the regulator about how this [a split-service] could be done so they have done their groundwork,” added the train aficionado.

“The regulator and the Government are more sympathetic to open access operators which wasn’t the case until recently.”

Train companies have submitted open access bids to run Grimsby services in the past but it has been the regulator’s fear that elements of such a service could eat into the franchise holders’ profits, making it a no-go by its criteria.

But, as pointed out by Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, pictured right, Virgin Trains’ recent collapse and subsequent bailout should give reason to put first those communities currently poorly served by the East Coast’s design.

“I have long pushed for a direct line from London to our region and was told that it would be impossible due to the impact on the profits of the East Coast Mainline,” said Ms Onn.

“I pressed the Government again on this after the collapse of the franchise in February and I will continue to put pressure on government ministers to make sure that our town and our region is not forgotten when it comes to vital infrastructure investment.

“North East Lincolnshire deserves a direct train line to London – and it would provide a boost to the Great Grimsby economy if we were better connected to the Capital,” said the Labour MP.

A spokesman for the DfT said there were no plans at present to change the terms of the franchise but that the situation was still under review.

But, with that said, there can be no harm in having a back-up plan and going ahead and lobbying for Grimsby to be included in any new East Coast franchise deal.

The Grand Central open access bid is well-advanced and also well thought through – but if it is rejected by the ORR, North East Lincolnshire must not be left twiddling its thumbs waiting for the next idea to be thought-up.

To  have irons already in the fire when it comes to convincing the Government to write Grimsby and Cleethorpes into a revamped franchise can only stand the region in good stead. It is better to be firing on all cylinders than none at all.



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