Great North Eastern Railway - A

Great North Eastern Railway - A

Great North Eastern Railway, often referred to as GNER, was a train operating company in the United Kingdom, owned by Sea Containers, that operated the InterCity East Coast franchise on the East Coast Main Line between London, Yorkshire, North East England and Scotland from April 1996 until December 2007.

During March 1996, Sea Containers was awarded the franchise to operate the East Coast services, it begin operations on 28 April 1996. Initially receiving a favourable reception, the company brought in several service alterations and innovations, including the leasing of Class 373 Regional Eurostars along with the refurbishment of the InterCity 225 fleet.

However, GNER's reputation and passenger numbers were both hit by a pair of derailments during the early 2000s, the Hatfield rail crash and the Great Heck rail crash. Plans to procure a fleet of tilting trains based on the Pendolino were mooted by the company, but were discarded amid a protracted and complex refranchising process.

During March 2005, the Strategic Rail Authority awarded the East Coast franchise to GNER for a second time, however, the terms for this second franchise period were financially demanding, seeing the withdrawal of subsidies and enactment of charges to the British Government. Concerns over the viability of such payments, as well as the general financial condition of Sea Containers were well-founded, with the latter entering bankruptcy in November 2006.

Following its inability to fulfil agreed payments, GNER was stripped of the franchise during December 2006, although it continued to run services on the route for another year via a management contract. The final northbound GNER train was the 20:30 London King's Cross – Newcastle on 8 December 2007, the company was replaced by the new franchisee National Express East Coast one day later.

GNER History

GNER Background and Early Years

The creation of the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) is closely associated with the privatisation of British Rail that was enacted during the mid 1990s, as a result of new government policies, railway operations were to be operated by various private sector companies working under a franchise arrangement.

Accordingly, the InterCity East Coast franchise was one such franchise created to take over operations of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) from British Rail. According to industry periodical Rail, the East Coast franchise was commonly viewed as one of the better franchises to bid for, as the ECML had been electrified only a few years before hand and was being served by the newest intercity stock in British Rail's inventory, the InterCity 225, the line also had a well-established reputation for its high-speed services.

Accordingly, numerous private companies submitted bids to the Office for Passenger Rail Franchising. One such firm was the Bermuda-based transport and container leasing company Sea Containers, whose bid was announced as the winner during March 1996, leading to a seven-year franchise upon the East Coast being awarded to their newly-created subsidiary GNER.

The initials GNER were reminiscent of the historic London and North Eastern Railway (LNER, no relation to the current train operating company), the company that operated the route before being nationalised as part of British Railways in 1948. Additionally, the name combined the initials of two of the LNER's predecessor companies, the Great Northern Railway (GNR), who had built King's Cross station, and the Great Eastern Railway (GER). GNER made further links to the past companies by adopting a dark-blue livery with red trimming lines for its trains, similar to that used by the GER, and using a Victorian coat of arms-style crest on their trains.

The company's image was professionally designed by Vignelli Associates, an Italian design house, it was responsible for the train liveries and interiors, staff uniforms and overall corporate identity. Their website states "The Great North Eastern Railway logo emphasises the NE. The train has a new livery, dark blue with a bright red stripe containing all necessary information. It has a crest, a required tradition, and sober interiors for both first and tourist class."

Operations commenced on 28 April 1996. From its onset, GNER's management had pledged to bring about substantial changes and improvements upon the ECML. Amongst its franchise promises was that the train mileage operated in the 1995/1996 period would be initially maintained for period of two years, along with a stated ambition to increase it in the long term, furthermore, all existing rolling stock would undergo refurbishment, and that all trains would feature an onboard buffet and trolley service. The stations of the route were also to receive improvement packages, these were typically focused on improving access and security alike, while neighbouring car parks were also expanded wherever reasonable to do so.

During January 1997, Sea Containers Chairman James Sherwood announced that GNER intended to procure a pair of two new-build tilting trains, these were claimed to enable the London-Edinburgh journey to be reduced to only 3 hours and 30 minutes, in part achieved via their increased maximum speed of 140mph (225kmh). While GNER's Chief Executive Christopher Garnett stated that he expected the delivery of these new trains within two years, an order having been reportedly placed during October 1997, no such tilting trains were ever introduced appear. The original fleet would be supplemented by additional rolling stock to bolster capacity, such stock included the one-off Class 89 locomotive and a number of Class 373 Regional Eurostars.

Within its first few years of operation, GNER had succeeded at increasing the speed of the fastest scheduled service in Great Britain, the London-York route having a reported average speed of 112mph at its fastest. According to Rail magazine, the operator's customer service was frequently praised, while passengers also warmed received its promises of an increased quality of onboard catering. During May 2000, the leased Regional Eurostar fleet was properly introduced to GNER service, facilitating the inclusion of additional London to York services in a new timetable, however, unlike the Intercity 225, the Eurostars were restricted to a maximum speed of 110mph to reduce excessive wear on the overhead wiring.

GNER Into the New Century

GNER's operations were deeply impacted by a pair of accidents during the early 2000s. On 17 October 2000, the Hatfield crash occurred with the high speed derailment of an Intercity 225 set, which was primarily caused by the failure of a rail that had been poorly maintained. The incident had deeply affected GNER’s business, not only due to a significant drop in confidence amongst its passengers but the rapid enactment of many emergency speed restrictions imposed by the national infrastructure company Railtrack.

The incident was compounded, just as business seemed to recovering, when another serious accident involving GNER occurred on 28 February 2001. The Selby rail crash involved a Newcastle–London service that had derailed after striking a Land Rover that had driven off the M62 motorway, the GNER train was shortly after hit by a Freightliner train, compounding the incident and death toll alike. Although GNER was blameless in both incidents, the travelling public were shaken, by March 2001, the revenue of long-distance operators had declined by an average of 21 per cent.

By this point, the future franchising arrangements of the East Coast route were already being examined. During March 2000, the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority announced that two companies, Sea Containers and Virgin Rail Group, had been shortlisted to bid for the next franchise. 

GNER's submission had included its plan to purchase a fleet of 25 tilting trains, similar to the British Rail Class 390 Pendolinos then being introduced on the West Coast Main Line, this were envisioned to feature multiple types of propulsion, being divided between electric and diesel-powered examples so that they could serve all of the franchise's destinations. In part due to the complexity of the evaluation process and issues with the tender itself, the selection process ground to a halt.

However, in January 2002, the Strategic Rail Authority announced that the refranchising process had been scrapped and that a two-year extension had been awarded to Sea Containers, extending GNER's franchise period to April 2005. During October 2004, the Strategic Rail Authority issued the Invitation to Tender for the InterCity East Coast franchise to the four shortlisted bidders, Danish State Railways/English Welsh & Scottish, First, GNER and Virgin Rail Group. The bidding process was described as being highly competitive, several of the bidders were reportedly determined to dislodge the incumbent GNER.

In March 2005, the Strategic Rail Authority awarded the franchise to GNER for seven years, with a three-year extension based on targets being met, starting on 1 May 2005. The terms of the new franchise had considerable differences from that of the original period, instead of GNER receiving subsidies for its operations, it would be instead paying the British state for the privilege of doing so, there was reportedly concerns over the financial viability of such an arrangement from the onset. In order to meet these payments, GNER assumed passenger numbers would increase by around 30 per cent across the life of the franchise, reaching around 20 million by 2015.

Great North Eastern Railway Overview

Great North Eastern Railway Franchise(s): InterCity East Coast
28 April 1996 – 8 December 2007

Great North Eastern Railway Main Region(s):
East of England
East Midlands
North East England

Great North Eastern Railway Fleet Size:
11 InterCity 125 HST sets
31 InterCity 225 sets

Great North Eastern Railway Stations Called At: 53
Great North Eastern Railway Stations Operated: 12
Great North Eastern Railway Parent Company: Sea Containers
Great North Eastern Railway Reporting Mark: GR
Great North Eastern Railway Predecessor: InterCity
Great North Eastern Railway Successor: National Express East Coast

GNER Route Map

Glasgow Central

Edinburgh Waverley

London King's Cross


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