The Humble Opinion : As the sun sets on the East Coast.

Mike Humble:

An East Coast Trains HST set hammers by near Frinkley Lane level crossing Lincolnshire on the last day of public ownership. Image - Andy Wills
An East Coast Trains HST set hammers by near Frinkley Lane level crossing Lincolnshire on the last day of public ownership. Image – Andy Wills

With very little media fuss or hubbub, we have recently seen a very significant milestone in recent railway history – East Coast Trains have passed back into private ownership after a decent stint under the wing of Directly Operated Railways (DOR). If you wondered what DOR actually was, in a nutshell, it’s a Government body that steps in to run a particular franchise on the Network. Should the train operating company (TOC) run into financial difficulties or fail to operate its contracted obligations under the franchise ruling, the TOC can have their operating powers taken off them. The DOR body step in to kick it into shape so to speak while they prepare the franchise for another round of tendering, procrastination and money wasting – the tax payers money by the way.

DOR was in fact first set up by the Department for Transport back in 2009 after the second debacle on the East Coast line. National Express had won the franchise but defaulted on its contractual obligations barely two years after the previous TOC (GNER) ran into a financial crisis with its parent company – Sea Containers. It was a messy and money consuming affair that in my opinion made mockery of the whole privatised railway scene in general and seemed almost criminal on such a historic and proud line. But the East Coast route finally seems to be entering into a new era of stability and without sounding too corny – there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel under new ownership of Virgin Trains.

After some re-tendering, GNER became National Express East Coast who soon went through their own cash shortfall and pretty much handed back the franchise to the Government – hence the DOR scheme. So now we arrive ready for a new journey with Virgin Trains who have taken over the route that is called Virgin Trains East Coast which came into effect at the beginning of March. At long last this historic route to the North (or South) will get some stability and investment it deserves. A privatised railway can and should show a return for the stakeholders and a benefit to the passengers with the right kind of style and corporate branding.

Eastern Glory Days - A Gresley designed A4 Pacific coasts past Peterborough North signal box with an up-fast Kings Cross bound service.
Eastern Glory Days – A Gresley designed A4 Pacific coasts past Peterborough North signal box with an up-fast Kings Cross bound service.

East Coast has always been about speed and its so deep in history that a book could be written about the last decade alone, never mind the past 150 years. Stuff of legend like The Flying Scotsman, Mallard and other great works of art from Chief Mechanical Engineers like Gresley, Peppercorn or Thompson have plied their trade and caused wonderment to many a small child. Locomotive number 4468 better known as Mallard put the UK rail network and the East Coast Main Line well and truly on the global map in the summer of 1938 when a test train reached 126mph thus setting a new world record for steam traction. One can only image how terrifying that must have been – reports of crockery crashing all around in the restaurant car were well documented at the time.

As coal moved over to diesel, the gargantuan fleet of 22 Deltics with their thirty six pistons pummelling out 3300bhp thrashed their way between England and Scotland at speeds of up to 100mph. All of the class were named after British Army Regiments or famous racehorses and despite the mourning of the passing of steam traction, the class 55 Deltic once again caused hundreds of small children to gasp in awe as they loomed from the far horizon with cloud of light grey smoke sounding like a kind of satanic industrial vacuum cleaner. The Deltic also proved that railway preservation was not only an exclusive club to steam either. Since withdrawal, over ¼ of the entire class still exist either as museum exhibits or working locomotives.

Old and the new. An HST and Deltic enjoy a cozy chat at "The Cross" in the summer of 1978.
Old and the new. An HST and Deltic enjoy a cozy chat at “The Cross” in the summer of 1978.

Then we entered the Age of the Train with the high speed train or HST. Originally introduced on the Western region between Paddington and the South West, it was on the East Coast where a real impact on journey times were made. In fact, the HST was probably the most important and game changing introduction the whole British Rail network. Prior to the East Coast electrification programme that was completed in 1991, the HST became the backbone for the Inter-City fleet and it was on this line that the World speed record for diesel traction was set in 1973 at 143mph by the prototype train. By 1987 the record was broken again by the HST at 148mph and more recently a class 91 electric train on test hit an incredible 161mph traversing the same hallowed lines.

Once privatisation of the railway network came along, East Coast went through two corporate re-brandings in little over 10 years. Certainly with National Express incumbency, route history and pedigree was seemingly cast aside in the quest to “run it on the cheap”. To wring every last drop of profit to keep the shareholders happy, the line quickly went from a forward thinking, quality orientated and passenger respected GNER to what a driver told me barely a month after “a bus company trying to run a train company like a bus company”. Virgin will no doubt restore some much needed stability into the East Coast Main Line and add a little bit of flair and dare I say it sexiness into the system with their instantly recognisable corporate branding – will we see Pendolino’s operating across the Vale of York? Who knows?

I doubt if any of the other TOC’s were honestly worthy of taking on board such a franchise. First Group seem to lurch from one catastrophe to another with their main bus business, while over in the east Abelio visually at least seem to be making little improvement over the most forgotten of the former Inter-City line – Liverpool Street to Norwich. Out of all of the operating companies, Virgin Trains seem to have the most vivid, recognisable brand image that has a certain difference about it – and they’re not afraid of taking calculated risks either. There’s some very bold plans afoot for the not too distant future – and some of them may not please dye-in-the-wool train buffs either… as they say… that’s progress!

Will East Coast see tilting Pendolino's replacing the Class 91s under the wires? Whatever happens, trains for the non electrified routes will become brand new Hitatchi units built in the UK so time might be ticking away for the HST. Image: Virgin Trains
Will East Coast see tilting Pendolino’s replacing the Class 91s under the wires? Whatever happens, trains for the non electrified routes will become brand new Hitatchi units built in the UK so time might be ticking away for the HST. Image: Virgin Trains

Sir Richard Branson announced only this week some big plans for future business. Under its 8 year deal with the Government, Virgin East Coast has promised to implement a raft of improvements. From May 2019, they hope to deliver faster journeys between Newcastle and London, introduce a third train per hour between London and Newcastle and operate a new direct service to and from Kings Cross and Middlesbrough. Existing Inverness and Aberdeen services are to use brand new trains that are being built right here in the UK. New stock for the non electrified routes are to be assembled at Hitachi’s new £82m factory in Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington. These all new high speed diesel trains, when built and delivered, could spell the end of the line for the HST for destinations beyond the wires.

Was the Government right to tender off East Coast back into the private sector? I certainly think so, and I scoff at the cynics who still cry “Bring back B.R”. Rightly or wrongly, the railway is so fragmented it would like trying glue a smashed fruit bowl back together – no-one would know where to start or how to do it. But going forward from now, I hope Virgin East Coast do well and embrace what the future holds while at the same time look back to some of the routes history and milestones for inspiration of England’s fastest railway… The East Coast Main Line.

For further information on Virgin Trains East Coast CLICK HERE


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