Train operators braced for East Coast setback

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The Independent Online

The Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR), chaired by Chris Bolt, is holding a board meeting to determine whether to allow Grand Central to begin operating services from Sunderland and Bradford to London on the East Coast line, which is used predominantly by GNER. Hull Trains, a subsidiary of First Group, has also applied for more services.

Industry insiders say that with the line already close to capacity and GNER committed to a big increase in services to meet the requirements of its new 10-year franchise, Grand Central and Hull Trains are likely to come away frustrated.

GNER has applied to run scores of additional trains on the route, the busiest intercity line in Europe, to meet its ambitious growth targets. It needs to increase passenger numbers by 30 per cent to more than 20 million a year to afford the £1.3bn in premium payments it has agreed to make to the Government.

The biggest increase will be on the London to Leeds route, where the number of trains a day is due to rise from 53 to 65, allowing GNER to operate a half-hourly service throughout the week. There will be other service improvements on the route, which runs from King's Cross to Edinburgh via York and Newcastle.

One source said: "If you think about it, capacity is already constrained, GNER has contractual commitments to meet and there is £1.3bn of money owing to the Treasury. Why would the ORR want to jeopardise that?"

In a submission to the ORR before Christmas, Network Rail warned that without further infrastructure improvements, "it will be difficult to deliver the additional services proposed by GNER and Grand Central". One of the major bottlenecks is at King's Cross, where there are insufficient platforms but no plans to build more until 2012. One option for the ORR would be to use some of the capacity reserved for freight operators to allow an increase in passenger services, but this would be resisted by English, Scottish and Welsh Railways, the country's biggest freight operator.