Grand Central MD vows to come back stronger after suspension of services

What a difference a few weeks has made for train operating company Grand Central. It was only last month that its biggest challenge was how to create extra capacity to meet rising demand.

The train operator, which runs services between Sunderland, Bradford and London Kings Cross, was adding extra services to the network, running longer trains and was on the brink of launching a new service along the west coast.

However, just a few weeks later and the company, which operates under an ‘Open Access’ business model and doesn’t receive support from the Government, has had to temporarily suspended all its train services.

The difficult decision was made as the coronavirus crisis restrictions continued to affect passenger numbers.

The company’s Managing Director Richard McClean has spoken openly to railbusinessdaily.com about the decision and how the priority now is supporting the staff and passengers effected.

He said: “It is extraordinary to think that before all this kicked off – just a few weeks ago – our challenge was capacity.

“Our focus now is to look after our people, look after their jobs, and make sure we come back strong for them as their employer, but also that we come back strong as a service provider at the stations where we provide direct Intercity connectivity.

“At the end it was absolutely necessary that we take action and suspend services temporarily because if we had continued to operate without revenue it would have made trading-through the crisis next to impossible.”

Why the decision was taken to suspend services

With travel restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, passenger numbers for Grand Central had massively reduced.

Whilst on an average day a train would carry 250/300 people, in the last few weeks that figure had dropped to about 100 a day across the 10 services – about 2 people per coach.

Although the franchised train operating companies have been offered Government support, the ‘Open Access’ operators in the country haven’t.

“Continuing to operate without revenue was not sustainable and it would have been reckless to continue doing so,” he said.

“It was then that we started to engage in some constructive dialogue with the Department for Transport (DfT) to explore options for how best to keep our services running.

“And we actually did keep some trains running whilst the discussions continued, but in the end we had to take the necessary decision to temporarily suspend services.

“This was difficult, but on a personal level what was even more difficult was asking people in the business not to come in for work and do what they love doing.

“We have only retained enough people in work on a daily basis to keep things safe and secure and make sure we are in a position to restart operations when this is over.”

Next steps

Richard says the main focus is to try and look after all the staff that have been furloughed, keeping them in contact, maintaining communications and answering the questions they have.

He said: “Our staff throughout this process have been absolutely fantastic. The flexibility and the commitment they have shown while we were operating – having to constantly change the ways of working and trains operating – was absolutely amazing.

“The toughest part of making the decision to suspend services was the knowledge of the impact it would have on our people who would be moving into furlough and the difficulties it would cause them and their families.

“We are thinking of them and working hard to help them understand what they can and can’t do and how it all works. We are doing our best to keep them in contact, maintaining communications and answering the questions they have.

“But acting like we did and suspending the services puts us in a place when come the day this is over that we’ll be ready to recommence and come back stronger.”

The future

The temporary suspension of services came at a time when things were looking incredibly positive for the company.

Grand Central was on the cusp of starting operations on the west coast at Blackpool – 9 weeks away from running the first train.

The company had also increased its capacity on the east coast with longer trains and more services.

Richard said: “Nobody knows when restrictions will be lifted, or even how, but one thing for certain is the fact that we will be ready.

“We have some fantastic planners, really flexible people. We’re a relatively small business so we can move quite quickly.

“We were able to shut down in 24 hours, so we’ll be able to come up with a plan to reopen that matches whatever the challenge we are given is.

“We will be able to start operations on the east coast pretty quickly. On the west coast we’ll be able to restart training and recruitment and all the other project aspects that we were in the middle of. So, it’s going to take us longer to get up and operating there.

“It’s enormously difficult to be completely certain what will happen next but based on the scenarios we’ve got we’re ready to come back.

“If we hadn’t done the things we had done, and temporarily suspended the services, that wouldn’t have been the case.

“There are still a lot of things that need to be clarified and confirmed so we can start our path through, but we will be back and back stronger and be ready to resume operations in a way which matches what people need when this is all over.”

Photo credits: Grand Central