Happy 10th Birthday Hull Trains
A history of the open access operator which began services in September 2000
A key plank of the new regulatory rules set up during the privatisation of British Rail was the encouragement of open access freight and passenger operations. The first new company to take advantage of this set-up was Hull Trains, a partnership between GB Railways and Renaissance Trains, which took advantage of the lack of direct trains between Hull and London.
RAIL EXPRESS looks back at the challenges that have faced the enterprise since the idea was first mooted back in the late 1990s.
THE 1993 RAILWAYS ACT contained a framework for new operators to establish rail businesses. With the separation of infrastructure provision and management from train operations, the principle was that a level playing field would be established in the application of track access charges to allow fair competition in passenger and freight markets.
For freight this was straight forward as privatisation was based on asset sales with the transfer of trading risk to the new private companies. In the passenger market, the issues were more complex as the potential for competition would reduce the value of franchises created to run existing BR services.
The Rail Regulator therefore decided that rules described as the Moderation of Competition (MoC) would be established that prevented new open access operators from entering the market unless there was minimal effect on the revenue of the franchised businesses. This was achieved by allowing the newly formed train operating companies to nominate flows where competition would not be allowed.
Changing the rules
The first phase MoC1 allowed any revenue stream where a through service was provided that exceeded 2% of total income to be protected (although this was reduced to 0.5% for Cross Country as its flows were much more dispersed). North Western Trains did promote a new through operation between Manchester Airport and London, which was allowed because no operators provided a service that did not involve changing trains, but because of MoC1 there could be no intermediate stops. This meant that passengers could not join or alight at important interchanges such as Crewe, which in the event meant the service was not a viable financial proposition.
The Rail Regulator was intent on removing the bar to market entry where this provided improved services to meet passenger and stakeholder demand and a second phase in the Moderation of Competition process (MoC2) reduced the amount of revenue that could be protected from the provision of alternative services to 80% of franchise income on nominated flows.
Renaissance Trains looks to Hull
In the meantime, Renaissance Trains (a company established by Mike Jones and John Nelson, both of whom had extensive rail experience) had been formed as a bid vehicle to identify market opportunities under the less restrictive regime and realised that Hull was a poorly served rail market.
Before the introduction of HST fixed formation sets, a regular through service had been offered from Hull to London by attaching/detaching portions at Doncaster to trains serving other destinations, particularly Leeds. When this practice was abandoned, the number of through services gradually declined and the decision not to electrify the route in the East Coast Main Line scheme brought a further reduction.
By the time franchising was introduced, the service had been reduced to a single up working in the morning to King’s Cross and a return evening train. At other times, passengers had the choice of heading by car to Doncaster or travelling on connecting services, which had very low levels of onboard amenities.
As the Hull operation made up less than 20% of income on GNER nominated flows, competition to the minimal level of through services on the route would be allowed.
The search for rolling stock
The immediate issue for the promoters was the lack of suitable rolling stock. Since privatisation, passenger numbers had grown strongly as a result of economic growth, Government policy to limit fare increases to 1% below the level of inflation and improved marketing efforts by the newly created private companies. As a result, there was no obvious spare capacity in the existing rolling stock fleet.
Brush Traction was approached to see if a new build Class 43 power car was viable but, because crashworthiness standards had been tightened since the construction of the original HST units in the 1970s, a complete re-design would have been needed that could not be justified on the basis of a small order.
The growth in overall demand for rail travel made it very clear to Renaissance Trains that there was a sound business case. However if the project was to succeed, a train operating company with suitable rolling stock had to be brought into a partnership deal. In surveying the market an opportunity was identified with Anglia Railways, which had committed to a build of new three-car Class 170 ‘Turbostar’ express units that had some spare capacity. These were well specified for main line services with 29 First and 129 Standard Class seats and a servery, which allowed a complimentary meal service to be included in the First Class accommodation.
While these operational activities were being negotiated, there was the essential task of securing regulatory approval for a track access agreement to allow the newly formed Hull Trains Company to commence services. A decision had been taken to operate the trains via Selby given the rail catchment area served, with calls at Doncaster and Grantham. In East Yorkshire there would be a call at Brough. Later, stakeholders in the Goole area pointed out the proximity of Howden station on the route via Selby and an analysis of potential traffic showed a stop would be worthwhile which has, as a result, seen a car park established by Hull Trains and the station refurbished by Network Rail.
Incumbents argue against
The proposals were strongly resisted by the incumbent operators including West Anglia Great Northern (WAGN), which wanted to extend some Peterborough services to Doncaster but important stakeholders, who included prominent MPs, were enlisted to support a company that would in the widest sense promote Kingston-upon-Hull by providing better transport links. The company would also provide local employment and today some 100 people are employed and based at Hull with traincrew working ‘lodge’ turns that require overnight hotel accommodation in London.
The level of competency within Railtrack in identifying potential paths was poor. It had to be acknowledged that it was made more difficult by the operation of 100mph rolling stock when other main line passenger trains were operating at 125mph, but experienced independent train planners did not find it difficult to find the necessary slots to accommodate the initial train service of three return trips daily.
September 2000 launch
The launch day was September 25th, 2000. There had not been a lot of time between final regulatory approval being granted, which was on the basis of a four-year contract to 2004, and the commencement of services. As a result, to a great extent, the company was running as an offshoot of Anglia Railways with drivers at Liverpool Street undertaking route learning to encompass a roster that now included Hull as well as their traditional destination of Norwich.
The units were maintained at Norwich Crown Point depot so the operational plan involved empty movements between Liverpool Street and King’s Cross to position the rolling stock. At this time, the pool of Class 170 sets (Nos. 170201-8) had diagrams that covered Hull, Liverpool Street–Norwich and a recently introduced service between Chelmsford and Basingstoke, which was subsequently discontinued due to poor financial results.
As a contingency, safety case approval was obtained for the operation of locomotive-hauled services using Class 86 traction with a formation that included a DBSO, with diesel haulage taking over from Doncaster. In the event future circumstances did lead to use of electric haulage between King’s Cross and Doncaster but the trains were not extended to Hull given the lack of suitable diesel locomotives.
It is in the nature of things that plans do not work out as expected and after an encouraging start in terms of passenger numbers using the service, the Hatfield crash on October 17th, 2000 caused a suspension of services on the East Coast Main Line and many months of degrading operations while work required to remove emergency speed restrictions was undertaken. Hull Trains was able to operate some services as there was limited traction current supply on the diversionary Hertford loop, which meant additional diesel powered trains could be pathed.
Nevertheless income was severely restricted and additional funding had to be introduced, which together with compensation from Railtrack, provided sufficient resources to fund the operation until the infrastructure condition was restored.
Four to five times a day
In the 2002 timetable, the service frequency was increased to four weekday return services with three workings on Saturdays and Sundays. This represented a capacity of 425,000 annual seats but with a population of 250,000, Hull continued to have a vastly inferior train service compared to less populated towns.
It had always been the intention to provide 125mph rolling stock to improve timings but the advent of the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001 saw the development of an organisation that was hostile to the type of enterprise pursued by open-access operators. In particular, it deemed that the assets used by franchised operators could not be hired out which meant the arrangements for using the Anglia Railways Class 170 units would be terminated.
The timescale was associated with the start of the Greater Anglia franchise in April 2004 and as 125mph rolling stock could not be obtained by that time, there was no option but to order four new Class 170 three-car sets to replace the Anglia units so that the service could be maintained. These trains were designated Class 170/3 and numbered 170393-6. The rolling stock provided enhanced catering although no onboard cooking was possible other than by using a microwave oven.
While the new ‘Turbostar’ units were being built, a £36 million order, financed by HSBC Leasing, was placed in September 2002 for four Class 222 four-car 125mph diesel electric multiple units, which was possible due to the building programme for similar vehicles on behalf of Midland Main Line. The order included an option for additional vehicles to form five-car sets but this could not be immediately justified. The provision of 125mph rolling stock allowed the four-year track access agreement to be extended to a ten-year period, thereby giving certainty of operation until 2010.
By now, Hull Trains had established a reputation for high levels of customer service. It established a consistent product that provided the same level of onboard service on a seven-day-week basis and encouraged the purchase of tickets on the train to avoid the negative atmosphere of a penalty fare regime.
This was a swansong for the original partnership between GB Railways (as the owner of the Anglia franchise) and Renaissance Trains as First Group acquired ownership of GB Railways in 2003. Renaissance continued to have a 20% ownership stake in the new arrangement, which remains the case.
The 2004 summer timetable saw a further enhancement to the timetable with five weekday return services available. Immediately prior to this, load factors had risen above 80% and 48% of journeys originated or ended at Hull. This indicated the strong generative effect of introducing new through services and was an important part of persuading the Rail Regulator to approve the track access contract that enabled more services to be operated. In addition, the availability of four units meant that busier services could be rostered for six-car ‘Turbostar’ formations, which meant overall capacity increased to 610,000 seats annually.
125mph services begin
Meanwhile, the construction by Bombardier of the new 125mph trainsets at its Brugge works continued and the 2005 summer timetable saw the introduction of services using Class 222 DEMUs. These reduced journey times to two hours and 40 minutes – the 100mph Class 170s had typically completed the journey in a few minutes over three hours.
Immediately before the commencement of Class 222 operation, the Rail Regulator again ruled that an enhanced service providing six return workings on weekdays was not primarily abstractive in terms of franchise revenue and should be allowed. There were also additional weekend services where pathing allocation is subject to plans for engineering work. The total annual capacity was now 766,000 seats. The virtually new Class 170 trains were re-allocated within First Group and provided the opportunity to improve the quality of ScotRail express services between Glasgow/Edinburgh and Inverness.
The concept of open access rail services remain a subject of debate with a belief in some quarters that the operations are aimed at ‘cherry picking’ revenue from existing operators, but this has never been the case for Hull Trains, which has consistently grown a business that has attracted new passengers to rail by marketing innovation and product excellence.
However well a business plans to achieve high asset utilisation to ensure profitability, external events can disrupt what is expected. The London bombings on July 7th, 2005 and the unsuccessful follow-up attempt two weeks later had a severe effect on demand for travel over the school holiday period with a low take up of promotional offers to visit London attractions. As the memory of these atrocities faded, the faster journey times saw very substantial increases in passenger numbers and, despite the increase in capacity, load factors were above 80% within 12 months.
A reconfiguration of the train accommodation was made in 2006 to increase the number of First Class seats. Originally, the DMF vehicle provided 22 seats but this was found to be insufficient for demand and a further 11 seats were provided by replacing some Standard Class seats in the adjacent coach. The product had been successful as complimentary hot meals were served which, although pre-prepared, were cooked onboard in a steam oven of the type used by airlines.
The style of catering adopted was not unduly expensive to provide as the food was cooked by the onboard staff who served the meals. The efficient cost structure allowed a meal service to be offered at weekends, which maintained product consistency and represented a considerable differential from other operators.
In January 2007, an accident at the Bombardier depot at Crofton, where the Class 222s were maintained, resulted in severe damage to unit No. 222103 when a lifting jack collapsed causing extensive frame distortion on two vehicles. Initially it was thought the two vehicles would be written off, but in the event repairs were possible. However, the trainset never ran for Hull Trains again, as when finally operational in early 2009, the fleet had been transferred to East Midlands Trains which enabled this operator to provide an enhanced timetable.
The outstanding reliability of the Class 222s allowed a full timetable to be operated for which there were only three units for three diagrams. This was not a situation that could continue indefinitely and to provide more maintenance time, a diagram using Class 86 operation was instituted.
The unique AC Locomotive Group Class 86/1, No. 86101 Sir William A Stanier FRS was used with Cargo-D Mk. 3 coaches and a DVT to provide services between King’s Cross and Doncaster, where connection was made either with a Hull Trains shuttle diagram or timetabled trains provided by other operators. The formation was an attractive sight as the DVT had been re-livered into BR blue to match the Class 86 and Mk. 3 rolling stock.
A more suitable solution emerged in mid-2008 as Class 180 ‘Adelante’ DMUs had been declared surplus by First Great Western. It is fair to say that these trains built by Alstom at Washwood Heath in 2001 had proved troublesome and had a poor reliability record. Initially two units were prepared for service, which allowed the locomotive-hauled services to be dispensed with and gave more time for maintenance arrears on the Class 222s to be put in hand.
At this time, Hull Trains sought to extend operations by providing through services between King’s Cross and Harrogate, routed via York. The application for track access rights was submitted to the Rail Regulator as part of the bids for future ECML capacity, which were made by National Express, Grand Central, Hull Trains and Platinum Trains – the latter were promoting a service between Aberdeen and King’s Cross with reduced intermediate stops that speeded up timings.
Access rights extended
At the end of January 2009, the conclusion of the regulatory evaluation of ECML capacity was announced. Hull Trains would be granted firm rights for seven weekday and five weekend return services until December 2014 but the application to operate to Harrogate was refused. Grand Central received authority to increase its Sunderland service to four return trips and introduce a new three times daily timetable between London and Bradford Interchange running via Halifax and Wakefield Kirkgate. The Platinum Trains proposal was refused.
National Express received approval to convert all the half-hour frequency trains to Leeds introduced in May 2007 into firm rights but a decision was deferred on proposals to extend six return services between London and Leeds to Harrogate, and six services between Cleethorpes/Lincoln and the Capital.
Hull Trains had intended to operate a mixed fleet of Class 180 and Class 222 trains if the Harrogate application had been approved but, in the new situation, it was decided to concentrate on using the five-car ‘Adelante’ sets as they provided a much needed uplift in capacity and allowed the Class 222 trains to be relocated to East Midlands Trains, which was under pressure to start services to Corby.
The departure of the Class 222 DEMUs prompted a collapse in service reliability. The expectation had been that with detailed fleet management, the performance of the Class 180s would improve but this did not prove to be the case. At the end of the 2009 financial year, the miles per casualty statistic was a mere 9,000 and this was to have a serious impact on performance with an increasing number of train cancellations during the summer months of 2009.
‘Adelante’ upgrades explored
As a result, there was a substantial import of resources from First Group, and Hull Trains launched a recovery programme to gain a greater understanding of the technical issues that were causing the Class 180 difficulties. A review resulted in a decision to return the trains to their original maintenance base at Old Oak Common in April 2010. Reliability has improved although design defects are still in evidence when ambient temperatures are high. Modifications to correct these faults will be implemented with Angel Trains, which owns the vehicles.
A refurbishment programme is also in hand at Brush-Barclay, Kilmarnock. The work will return interiors to an ‘as new’ condition and improve equipment to enhance onboard catering. In recognition of this investment, an extension of the track access agreement has been agreed allowing the company to plan for operations until December 2016. The trains will also be re-livered in First Group house style.
The effect of switching to five-car Class 180 DMUs has lifted annual capacity to 1.25 million seats and the most recent statistics show that Hull Trains is continuing to generate new business and, despite the effects of the recession, is carrying a record number of passengers.
It continues to play a key part in the regeneration of the City of Kingston-upon-Hull, which is one of the poorest centres of population in the UK in terms of per capita income. The company shares the vision of achieving ‘top ten’ city status in the years ahead and providing a world-class train service is part of that.
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