Operator: Grand Central
Date: Thursday 13th May 2021
In the middle of May we were fortunate enough to get a couple of nights away from home and in true Flights and Times style I ensured this wasn’t just an ordinary trip away. Firstly, Beth didn’t know where we were going, other than it was three trains to get there and two to get back and, that our first change was at York. Having arrived there on an LNER service, we had a short wait before our next train arrived, a Grand Central service to Sunderland.
Grand Central is an operator I’ve been wanting to try out for a while but, with their routes serving Bradford and Sunderland from King’s Cross, with no intermediate stops until Doncaster or York respectively, its been tricky to work them into a plan until now. With our destination Newcastle, a diversion away from the East Coast Mainline (ECML) around the Durham Heritage Coast enabled a journey onboard one of Grand Central’s class 180s for just shy of a couple of hours.
Grand Central are one of Britain’s few Open-Access operators, in that they are not running a franchise set out by the government but have determined the demand for routes little served by other operators. Approved applications for open-access routes are few and far between and operators have to show that their additional routes will not impact on revenue for the franchised operators. Along with Grand Central’s Bradford & Sunderland services, currently the only other open-access routes in Britain are the Heathrow Express service, Hull Train’s Kings Cross to Hull route and, technically, Eurostar services to mainland Europe.
Clearly Grand Central’s timetable has plenty of buffer built in as the train arrived into York’s platform 11 eight minutes ahead of schedule, almost catching us unawares and certainly causing me to forget to take a photo of it. Onboard it was easy enough for us to find our seats and the very friendly conductor advised us that we could move to the empty table as long as we sat in the seats marked with a green tick.
All of Grand Central’s services are now operated by class 180 ‘Adelantes’, part of Alstom’s Coradia family. Constructed in the early 2000s, these five-car trains are now beginning to show their age, with certain aspects of the interior having ‘dated’ designs. First-class is laid out in the standard 2-1 configuration with a usual mix of bays around tables and airline seating. However, unlike many first-class layouts now, not every seat had a fixed table with the airline seating having seat back folding tables. The seats also had plenty of recline, however the upright position required you to lean forward to work at a table and unfortunately the seat adjuster was a lever that dug into my lower thigh.
Despite these issues, on the whole the seats were extremely comfortable, and the train had been updated with both standard and USB sockets and a decent wi-fi service that included onboard entertainment of podcasts, audiobooks, and magazines along with a selection of games. Unfortunately, Grand Central have not yet re-introduced onboard catering on their services, putting them in a shrinking category as many operators have now found Covid secure ways to do this.
On our journey there were four intermediate stops before Sunderland, with Thirsk and Northallerton on the ECML that I have called at before and then the first new station of the day, Eaglescliffe. Eaglescliffe is the crossroads between the east-west Tees Valley Line, and the north-south route of the Durham Coast line and until 2018 was one of only two stations with a ticket office run by an independent company (rather than an operator or Network Rail).
Between Eaglescliffe and our penultimate stop of Hartlepool, we were unfortunately delayed by an issue with the Northern service ahead of us, resulting in us running a few minutes late rather than six minutes early. Hartlepool is a town I had never thought of visiting, however the rigging HMS Trincomalee at the The National Museum of the Royal Navy visible from the station certainly caught our interest and that, along with the town’s location near the Durham Heritage Coast has added it to our list.
Durham’s Heritage Coast is a stunning area of coastline to the east of the city of Durham between Hartlepool and Sunderland. The views out over the North Sea were beautiful and definitely made our diversion away from the ECML worthwhile. Approaching Sunderland, the scenery definitely became more industrial and we were soon diving under the city into the tunnel that forms Sunderland’s joint National Rail and Metro station. Between Sunderland and Pelaw, the Tyne and Wear Metro shares the tracks with National Rail services, giving Sunderland an odd 4 platform layout.
Whilst I was happy to have finally tried out Grand Central’s offering on the ECML, it was disappointing they have not yet re-introduced catering onboard. First-class was comfortable, although noticeably dated in parts, however the onboard entertainment offering via personal devices helps makes up the marks. The Guard/Conductor/Train Manager was friendly and helpful, although this was the only member of Grand Central staff we had any interaction with. I definitely want to give Grand Central another go once they’ve reintroduced onboard catering and perhaps try a journey from Wakefield Kirkgate, the location of their only lounge.
Overall Rating 13/25 (read about my rating system here!)