GRAND Central’s bid to run a fifth daily return service between Sunderland and London has hit the buffers.
As exclusively revealed in the Echo last week, the Office of Rail Regulation (Orr) had accepted Grand Central’s application to add the extra return service to the capital’s King’s Cross station, starting in early December.
However, the company has now been forced to scale back plans after rail bosses were unable to negotiate a suitable path for the train between Sunderland and Hartlepool – a section of the route they describe as “key” to their future plans.
The fifth service will now only run between Hartlepool and London from Monday to Friday.
The new Saturday service will run between Sunderland and London as planned, with the northbound train leaving King’s Cross at 1.20pm and the southbound train departing Sunderland at 3.29pm.
The news will come as a disappointment to business leaders in Sunderland, who had hoped the routes would provide a boost to the city’s economy.
Grand Central’s general manager Sean English said they will continue to work with Network Rail and other operators to find a solution.
They hope to extend the service to Wearside in the new year.
“It is so frustrating because we are so close yet so far away at the moment,” he said.
“In the history of the company, we’ve always found it difficult to find paths, that’s the nature of new operators. When we first came in, we had three paths, then went to four and this will be our fifth, so pleasingly, we have experience of this.
“The one path we could get, the journey times were just not acceptable. We would have been looking at in excess of 40 minutes just to get to Hartlepool.
“Rather than trying to pass blame around, the key is to work with Network Rail and they are actively working with us to find a solution.
“The progress has been steady but obviously we would have preferred to have it resolved by now, it would have been far better.
“Sunderland remains absolutely key for us and there is no deliberate attempt by anyone to sever that link to Sunderland.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) said it was against the plans, arguing that the so-called open access operators such as Grand Central “increase total industry costs by more than the revenue they generate” to the detriment of the taxpayer.
Train bosses argued Grand Central “pays its way”.
Despite these concerns, Orr wrote to Grand Central’s managing director Richard McClean last month to approve the application.