Grand Union Trains impression lightened

UK: The Office of Rail & Road has approved Grand Union Trains’ plans to launch an open access passenger service between London and southwest Wales using bi-mode trains with a high-quality interior including 2+1 seating in standard class.

On December 1 ORR announced that it had approved access rights for 10 years from December 2024 covering five daily return services between Carmarthen and London Paddington, calling at Llanelli, Gowerton, Cardiff Central, Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction and Bristol Parkway.

Grand Union had asked for a 20-year term, and rights to stop at the future Cardiff Parkway and Felindre (repacing Gowerton) stations once they are built; it now intends to apply separately for rights to serve the two stations.

Grand Union has committed to significant investment in new trains as part of the approval, and told Rail Business UK that it is in discussions with manufacturers and leasing companies about trains with interiors offering a better passenger experience than on other modern trains. It is also negotiating a strategic partnership with Spanish national operator RENFE to operate the services, with financial backing from Spanish private equity firm Serena Industrial Partners.

Grand Union is ‘very pleased’ with the approval which means ‘the uncertainty has gone’, but ‘there is still a lot of work to do’ before the launch.

Weighing the impact


ORR said it supports new open access services where they deliver competition for the benefit of passengers, and it had concluded that opening the Great Western Main Line to competition has ’potential benefits in terms of lower fares, improved service quality and innovation for all passengers using the route’.

Network Rail had expressed concerns about the impact on capacity, but after ‘careful consideration and analysis’ the regulator directed Network Rail to enter into a contract with Grand Union.

The Department for Transport had raised concerns about capacity, performance and the revenue impact. ORR forecasts that the services would abstract £20·4m/year predominantly from GWR, and net of annual Infrastructure Cost Charge payments this will impact on government funds by £17·6m/year. ORR highlighted that as an open access train operator Grand Union will not get public subsidies, unlike current operators along the route.

Director of Strategy, Policy & Reform Stephanie Tobyn said the decision ‘supports more choice for passengers, new direct journey opportunities, more price competition, and new comfortable trains.

‘The added competition should also make a significant contribution to innovation in terms of the routes served, ticketing practices and service quality improvements, by both Grand Union and through the response of existing operators.’

The Welsh government supported the application, and Transport for Wales said it was keen to work with Grand Union to mitigate any potential impacts on its operations. CrossCountry supported the proposal, and MTR Elizabeth Line had no significant objections.

Freightliner raised some concerns regarding capacity and performance impacts.

Great Western Railway strongly opposed the application on economic, operations and market-need grounds, but a spokesperson told Rail Business UK that ‘GWR has always had a very competitive and compelling offer for rail customers between South Wales and London and on our other routes. We also recognise that any additional rail services have the potential to bring choice and benefits for customers and we look forward to welcoming Grand Union to the network in a couple of years’ time.’

Transport Focus supported the application, saying it had a ‘strong case and clearly highlights the potential benefits to passengers that choice can bring, as demonstrated on the East Coast Main Line’.