17 December 2007

Farewell to GNER

8 days ago saw the end of the line for train operator Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). The "East Coast" franchise that the company had been operating since 1996 was taken over by National Express, who at the same time adopted its new livery to be applied to almost all its transport businesses in the UK.

Initially awarded as a 7 year franchise in March 1996, GNER's parent company Sea Containers, based in Bermuda and operator of the Orient Express, began operating the East Coast franchise on 28 April of the same year.

James Sherwood, Sea Containers' chairman, chose the name Great North Eastern Railway in order to keep in with the route's proud history; adopted in this vein was the first and lone example amongst modern rail operators in the UK of a heraldic-style badge or crest and applied these to the centre of each of its coaches. These badges are to be sold to the highest bidders.

The GNER livery was designed by Vignelli, New York stylists (New York in the USA not the one in Lincolnshire) and the livery was initially applied to some mk4 carriages and all HSTs as brass castings rather than vinyls. The GNER lettering was applied over the 'midnight blue' livery in gold though in 1999 there were some white letterings to be seen on some trains where the blue was showing through under the gold, though this was readdressed soon after.

GNER won the franchise in the recently privatised railway by promising to improve the service in the following way:

  • Improve business travel facilities
  • Improve access and security at maintained stations
  • Maintain train mileage operated in 1995/6 for two years with a view to increase it thereafter
  • Refurbish all existing rolling stock
  • Provide a buffet and trolley service on all trains with an on-board restaurant
  • Increase car parking spaces
  • Establish coach links between Bradford-Wakefield and Newark-Leeds

In the LEYTR area, we commented at the time that the setting-up of a coach link between Newark-Lincoln where a good rail service was already being provided seemed very strange and were somewhat concerned that this might be the way of the new privatised rail industry - not joined-up in the slightest.

However, and in addition to the above GNER increased the number of restaurant cars from 66 to 90. The number of train journeys increased too from 100 weekday trains in 1996 to 136 as National Express took over in December 2007.

Sea Containers bought the unique and experimental class 89 (89001), having spent a rumoured £100,000 in restoring it for main line operation in 1996, painting it into GNER livery soon after; it was withdrawn at the end of 2000 and is stored at Barrow Hill now.

Many techniques were employed in the early years of the franchise in order to meet the demand, one of the most interesting (and also forms the front cover photo for all LEYTR magazines during 2005) was the introduction of Eurostar trains (class 373/3) on 20 April 2000 between York-London. Up to five sets were leased from Eurostar, though the pantograph tension needed to be maintained at 300km/h which resulted in trains being limited to 110mph north of Grantham. Three of these sets were painted into GNER livery while two remained in the white, grey and yellow Eurostar livery and were dubbed the "white whales". From May 2002 the trains received clearance to travel north of York to Leeds. I travelled on one of these sets once and thought they offered a very stylish interior, with the air con vent by the passenger window though only one door per carriage (14 carriages per train) saw "dwell times" (I believe the phrase is) at stations increase. The trains returned to Eurostar in December 2005, with additional HSTs replacing them. A Eurostar class 373 is depicted below.

During 2002 the class 91 electric trains and the mk4 sets were approaching 10 years old and so GNER decided to overhaul them in a project named Mallard. The entire 302 vehicle fleet received brighter interiors, at-seat power sockets, air conditioning and disabled toilets. Such was the extensivity of the overhaul that the last set didn't enter service until 9 December 2005.

GNER's maintenance took place at their Bounds Green, Neville Hill and Craigentinny depots, with the two HST sets used on the Inverness-London service being maintained by ScotRail under contract. The Eurostar trains returned to that company's North Pole depot for servicing.

In January 2002 GNER was granted a short extension to its franchise up to April 2005; it had wanted a 20 year extension as Virgin was mounting a counter bid. So keen to keep other operators out, GNER chairman Chris Garnett put in an extremely high bid of £1.3 billion to keep out rival bidders Danish State Railways; Scottish & North East Railway; a consortium comprised of Virgin, Stagecoach and Deutsche Bahn; and First London. GNER retained their contract, running from 1 May 2005 to 31 March 2015, with operation beyond 2012 depending upon performance targets being met.

But the 7/7 bombings in London, increased services operated by open access operator Hull Trains and the setting-up of newcommer open access operator Grand Central plus parent company Sea Containers running into financial problems spelled the end of GNER and on 25 July 2006 Sea Containers filed for bankrupcy protection in the USA. Just under 6 months later, on 15 December 2006, GNER announced it could no longer continue to operate the franchise. Four offered to replace GNER and were First Group, National Express Group, Inter City Railways Limited (comprised of Virgin & Stagecoach) and Arriva Trains. Interestingly, GNER themselves placed a 10% steak in Inter City Railways. National Express were announced as new franchise operator on 14 August 2007, taking over the franchise from GNER on Sunday 9 December 2007 through to 31 March 2015.

At the end of the franchise, GNER operated 31 class 91 electric trains with mk4 stock, 27 HST power cars with 95 mk3 trailers. 11 HSTs are used on non-electrified services to/from Inverness, Aberdeen, Harrogate, Skipton, Bradford and Hull, which enables the class 91s to operate the new backbone of the East Coast franchise: Leeds-London.

National Express' new livery is applied to this ex GNER HST, 43238, taken on the first day of the Company's operation. Eventually the entire GNER fleet will be painted into this livery with a much smaller "East Coast" applied to the sides. NX's other main rail franchise, 'One', is to be re-named National Express East Anglia and painted into an identical livery to the above HST. The Company's coaches are to be painted into a similar livery.

Photos: Shaun Bamford (class 91), Jamie Squibbs (class 89), Carl Hodgkinson (class 373/3), Northumbria Transport (HST-GNER) & Guy Houston (HST-NEEC).