Tuesday 9 May 2006

Ain't life grand?

What does the word ‘grand’ conjure up for you? A hotel, a theatre, a race (horse or motor)? A canal in the world’s most beautiful city, or one of its most awe-inspiring natural features in Arizona? A piano, a duchy, a jury, a slam, a final? A Masonic lodge? A thousand pounds? Maybe all of the above. But not, I venture to suggest, a train.

Yes, I do know about that famous station in New York. In fact, if you’re reading this at the end of a platform while equipped with a flask, a huge Tupperware box of sandwiches and a Dictaphone for reading out all those exciting wagon numbers, I even know that the Grand Junction Railway, opened in 1837, was one of the most important constituents of what is now the West Coast Main Line. But I fear we are in danger of losing our other readers by venturing into the esoteric.

For some reason lost in the mists of time, we in this country decided that, on the whole, we preferred our railways to be Great rather than Grand. But all that is about to change as – barring a successful legal challenge from GNER – Grand Central starts shuttling between Sunderland and London at the end of this year.

Now, I’d always assumed that they stopped running direct services between Sunderland and King’s Cross because they got fed up with the trains being entirely empty on the way back, but this is apparently the sort of prejudice that can get a columnist into serious trouble. So let’s suppose the demand is there. Until I looked at their rather impressive website, I’d been assuming that services were going to be provided using cast-offs from longer-established rail companies, but no – we’re talking brand new trains, restaurant cars and all that. And reasonable fares, too. It’s almost – but not quite – enough to make me toy with the idea of relocating to Wearside or Hartlepool.

In fact, my only remaining niggling doubt is about that name. I’ll allow the Grand, but even its greatest partisan would have a struggle claiming that Sunderland is in any way Central. More North and East, really. I guess they just didn’t want to annoy GNER more than they already have by calling themselves the Grand Northern and Slightly More Eastern.

Like all of us, I’ve had moments I’d rather forget with GNER. I particularly didn’t get the joke this April Fool’s Day when we all had to change trains at York owing to the traditional weekend engineering works, and our connecting service to London pulled out just as about 400 of us, laden with heavy luggage, were struggling across the footbridge towards it. But lapses like that apart, it’s only fair to say that the service has got better since it was privatised. And I’ve seen enough of other train operators in other parts of the country to know that GNER is the best of a rather mixed bunch.

I supported the renewal of their franchise, and I hope they keep it, despite the gleeful reports that the ‘financial difficulties’ of their parent company Sea Containers might lead to it coming up for grabs again sooner rather than later. A suggestion hotly denied by GNER’s Chief Executive. At the same time, Grand Central seems like just the sort of exciting innovation that I thought rail privatisation was meant to encourage. What I don’t understand is how one arm of the rail regulation industry came to sell GNER the right to run trains between here and London for over a billion pounds, but someone else can then come along and swipe a chunk of their revenue. And do their payments go down? Apparently not. In the words of the schoolboy through the ages: ‘It’s not fair’. So how about a bit of joined-up Government thinking to come up with an equitable solution? Wouldn’t that be just grand?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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