G is for Grand Central and H is for Hull Trains

Saturday 8th April 2023

It’s an Open Access duo for the next two letters in this year’s fortnightly A to Z of bus and train companies enabling a ‘compare and contrast’ of two very similar rail businesses.

Grand Central, owned by Arriva, was set up as an independent business in 2000 beginning operations in December 2007 running up to three return journeys a day on the Sunderland to Kings Cross route (increased to four journeys in 2009 and five in 2012). The three journey a day Bradford Interchange to Kings Cross route began in May 2010 with a fourth journey added in 2013. Arriva bought the company in November 2011.

Hull Trains was originally set up by GB Railways (it also ran the franchised Anglian Railways and freight operations) along with two former senior British Rail managers beginning operations in September 2000, seven years before Grand Central. First Group acquired the business in 2003. Originally there were just three return journeys a day but by 2006 this had increased to seven on weekdays, which it still is including two extended to and from Beverley (one at the weekends).

Both companies took a break during lockdown in 2020.

Grand Central’s fleet comprises ten Class 180 Adelantes diesel trains dating from 2000/1 while Hull Trains has five bi-mode Class 802 Hitachi built Paragon units introduced in December 2019.

That’s the background, how do the companies compare when it comes to operations on the track and the all important customer service?

I set about finding out on Wednesday in the week before last when I travelled from Kings Cross to Hull in the morning and, having repositioned myself from Hull to Bradford, back again with Grand Central from Bradford Interchange in the afternoon. The 09:48 is Hull Trains’ first northbound journey of the day (arrives Hull 12:18) and the 14:50 is Grand Central’s last southbound journey (arrives Kings Cross 18:20).

On 21st March (eight days before travel) I used both company’s websites to book an Advanced First Class single.

It’s a fairly straight forward process on the operators’ websites with both also offering an App with similar functions. As both companies were offering what I reckoned were good value fares for first class travel with a Senior Railcard discount I decided to treat myself and also compare the on board refreshment offer. Hull Trains charged £31 and Grand Central £28.70 so less than the price of a cappuccino between the two. And you’d spend far more than that on just petrol alone if you drove.

A couple of oddities I noticed was on the Hull Trains website the seat picker was showing all the seats in the first class coach E as already occupied (other than the unreserved – E17) so I decided to stick with my less optimum allocated rear facing E13 at a table for four. I didn’t look in the next coach D which also has a small first class section.

However on boarding the train there were quite a few single seats showing as vacant. In the event the passengers who’d reserved forward facing E15 and E16 didn’t turn up so I took one of those.

The oddity on Grand Central’s booking was the implied insistence on the e-ticket option by charging what I think is a completely unnecessary £1 to pick up a printed ticket from a station ticket vending machine. I hope this doesn’t become a trend in the industry as some of us like to continue using printed tickets thank you.

I arrived at Kings Cross in good time for the 09:48 departure and saw the train arrive on Platform 2 on time at 09:14 with the first southbound journey (06:05 from Beverley). It had obviously been a busy journey with a good number of passengers alighting.

The doors were locked and as time went by about a dozen switched on passengers who know their train operator and its bespoke livery began queuing by the doors. At 09:34 the doors were unlocked (if it was the same crew – I doubt it, but it could be – a 20 minute break is very minimal following their three hour nine minute run).

As I boarded I was immediately impressed to see one of the crew members using a carpet sweeper on the floors; cleanliness is obviously a priority for the company. It all felt very homely.

At 09:39 came the first welcome announcement which although clearly based on a script was delivered in a very friendly manner by Train Manager Dominic who conveyed the usual ‘make sure you’ve got the right ticket’ stuff in a very personable way rather than the rather officious delivery from some other train companies on the main lines. The second announcement for those who’d just joined came five minutes later at 09:44 as the carpet sweeper also reappeared. It almost felt like a red carpet was being laid and cleaned, the welcome felt so genuine.

At spot on 09:48 we glided out of Kings Cross and a minute later came the third welcome and this time Dominic introduced his team of four (including the cleaner) as well as driver Terry which I thought was a nice touch. It all felt a bit airline style.

Meanwhile I logged on to the train’s Wi-Fi but first had to register with name and email and not tick the usual marketing material option but confirmed terms and conditions as these things insist on, yet I can go to so many other places these days (including most bus companies) and simply log in without any questionnaires to fill in. Why is it always so different on trains?

We made good progress until the two track Welwyn flyover and tunnel where such is the busy East Coast Main Line, a three and a half minute late running Thameslink Letchworth bound train ahead caused us to slow and lose two minutes on our schedule which we managed to get back by the time we’d reached Doncaster having stopped at Grantham and Retford.

The trolley appeared at 10:13 and we were offered tea and coffee in nice proper cups too, together with a biscuit.

We were also offered a hot snack with most passengers going for the sausage sandwich option but I asked for, and received, a vegetarian option of a mozzarella cheese and tomato panini which went it came at 10:25 was delicious although I didn’t attempt to open the tomato sauce sachet as I can never manage to do so without a struggle and the sauce going all over the place.

I’m always puzzled why serviettes are placed under the hot sandwich where inevitably the cheese seeps out!

I wondered why a little menu explaining the refreshment options for first class passengers isn’t added to the tables so the options don’t have to be explained every time but it’s likely the content does change from day to day or week to week. The website helpfully explains there is “a selection of freshly made sandwiches” but for us veggies or vegans it is reassuring to know there will be something to choose from.

From Doncaster the train heads on north before leaving on the line to Selby before also stopping at Howden and Brough as the train then heads east along the north bank of the River Humber which is always a nice approach to the city.

As we came closer towards Hull a member of staff came round to disinfect and wipe all the surfaces including tables, which was excellent to see.

We’d lost a minute at Howden and another at Brough and arrived into Hull just two minutes down at 12:20.

Hull Trains promote their association with their home city.

It had been a very enjoyable journey in a comfortable seat with excellent customer service.

Passengers were already waiting on the platform for a quick turn round with the train departing back to Kings Cross at 12:33.

After a two and a half hour break before catching my train from Bradford Interchange with Grand Central there was the small matter of heading west with Transpennine Express and Northern via Leeds to get there.

I caught the 13:03 Huddersfield train from Hull for which a good number of passengers were waiting to board once the locked doors were opened at 12:55 and inevitably the diesel engine had been running the whole time.

Fortunately the Leeds connection worked a treat with both journeys running to time.

Back to my G and H experience and the Grand Central train forming the 14:50 departure was already in the platform with engine running as I arrived at 14:30 with passengers gathering by the inevitable locked doors as the staff were on board preparing for departure.

Doors opened at 14:40 and I soon found my seat in the second coach from the rear – coach E – as Grand Central have coaches lettered B, C, D, E and F from front to rear in the southbound direction. I’m not sure what happened to A.

The letters aren’t particularly prominent as you look at the train from the outside but inside they’re quite clear to see.

The ambiance of the first class coach is quite luxurious with leather seats which are nice and comfortable and many are lined up with windows – although I’m not that keen on the Grand Central logos imprinted on the glass although it is high enough not to trouble you from a seat.

There’s a disused galley from where at seat refreshments were once served to passengers.

You don’t use Grand Central if you want to travel from Bradford to Doncaster unless you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. It takes an hour and 26 minutes as the train wanders along the tracks usually devoid of a London bound train giving a convenient direct link to the Capital from Low Moor (only opened in 2017 on the southern outskirts of Bradford), Halifax, Brighouse, Mirfield, Wakfield Kirkgate and Pontefract Monkhill.

Unsurprisingly Halifax seemed to be the most popular pick up point and it was interesting to see quite a few boarded at Wakefield Kirkgate even though journey time to Kings Cross is about half an hour longer than the two hours LNER takes from nearby Wakefield Westgate and generally offers similar advanced purchase ticket prices.

Anyway, back at Bradford Interchange we had just the one welcome announcement at 14:44 and we departed on time at 14:50. There was only one other passenger in first class confirming that Bradford isn’t the main pick up/set down point for the service.

I logged on to the WiFi by just needing to tick acceptance of Terms & Conditions and the Train Manager came round to check tickets after we left Halifax with more passengers now on board at 15:02. I overheard another passenger ask if there’s a trolley with refreshments with the answer being you can either visit the counter in coach C or use the QR code under the windows to order from an online menu with it brought to your seat, a system now also used by LNER and Avanti West Coast.

I gave it a try and found a selection of hot drinks and biscuit type options but nothing else.

No sandwiches from Grand Central. But my tea and biscuits arrived within a matter of minutes of placing the order served up by a member of staff who had also come round collecting any rubbish.

Like Hull Trains, there’s an explanation on the company’s website of what’s available and I note the rather mean sounding “you’ll be able to select two items from the list”.

It was a busy journey once we left Doncaster and ran non-stop to Kings Cross – no stopping at Retford and Grantham like Hull Trains does for us. It’s given an hour and 46 minutes for that part of the journey – my northbound Hull Trains journey was scheduled to take an hour and 38 minutes despite its two stops so you can see the amount of pathing time Grand Central has to absorb on the main line. In fact as we passed through Peterborough we had to slow as we were running six minutes ahead of schdule and I got my hopes up for an early arrival into Kings Cross.

Coincidentally Welwyn Flyover did for us again as an on time Great Northern operated stopper ahead meant we had to check our timings and then we lost another two minutes giving an arrival into Kings Cross at 18:10 instead of 18:08 after what had been a very pleasant and comfortable journey.

Grand Central’s Sunderland service has been equally as popular when I’ve made journeys on it in the past providing direct journeys to London from locations in the north east not served by LNER. One thing I’m conscious of is seeing tweets quite often advising passengers a journey has had to be cancelled. It happened to me once when returning home from Sunderland on a Sunday afternoon. We were left with no alternative options so I made my way to Newcastle to travel with LNER instead which in those days was operated by Virgin East Coast who didn’t want to know. Nowadays Grand Central are much better at offering passengers alternatives including options with other operators although you’re not always be able to find a seat at busy times. It’s one of the downsides of travelling with open access operators and their limited resources.

Two cancellations on Friday a couple of weeks ago – at least passengers on social media are forewarned, Interestingly the company deletes all such tweets once the time has passed.

However, on the Wednesday I travelled both my journeys had given a great experience and both operators are clearly doing a good job. Hull Trains definitely wins on customer service and refreshment provision but I do like the seats on Grand Central, albeit the diesel powered Adelante doesn’t give quite as smooth a ride as the Hitachi bi-mode.

Roger French

Previous AtoZ blogs: Avanti West Coast, Blackpool Transport, Chiltern Railways, Delaine Buses, Ensignbus, Faresaver.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

10 thoughts on “G is for Grand Central and H is for Hull Trains

Add yours

  1. Grand Central is a bit dicey at the moment – lots of cancellations due to their 180s falling to pieces (they have never been too reliable). They don’t always arrange ticket acceptance to be on the soonest/quickest/most direct LNER service either.

    Grand Central is suffering from the slow-motion demise of Arriva as DB has just recently renewed its attempts to get rid of that Arriva-shaped millstone around its neck, without much success it must be said. The resultant lack of investment, combined with access rights which expire in 2026, failing rolling stock, and faltering passenger numbers don’t indicate a secure future for the services. Being the last diesel service and using the oldest fleet out of KGX can’t help either.


  2. Last Summer during the height of Avanti’s meltdown, and with time and bags on my hands, I travelled back from London to Middleton via Grand Central to Halifax, thence bus via Rochdale for the scenic ride. A very enjoyable if lengthy journey and cheaper too, though I agree the refreshment options were the weak link. As you observed, the most popular destinations were Pontefract, Brighouse and Halifax.


  3. As a regular traveller between London and Northallerton I have long since decided to avoid use of Grand Central due to frequent cancellations, the awful 180s and poor refreshment options.

    On a recent Saturday southbound journey, while waiting for my LNER train, the Grand Central train arrived and no less than three “security” men alighted and stood on the platform before re- boarding when it was ready to leave! No such measures were needed on the LNER train.

    On another occasion a Grand Central train arrived 10 minutes early having not come via Eaglescliffe for some reason, and proceeded to block the platform for 10 minutes, delaying the following TPE service which arrived carrying transfer passengers for the GC train from Eaglescliffe! The TPE guard was not pleased. But they did make their connection in the end as the GC had a booked 15 minute wait at York for pathing!


  4. May I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy Easter & thank Roger for all his hard work and blogs so far this year & look forward to finally meeting him at theYoung Bus Manager Conference here in Edgbaston literally just yards away from Midland Reds erstwhile Cathedral like headquarters where I spent many happy hours and the sadly now derelict masonic lodge with the conference being held at the newly tarted up Strathallen which until recent welcome investment by its new owners had generally deteriorated into the local knocking shop handily served by the X8 9 X10 12 12A 13 13A & 126 and within walking distance of the terminus of the West Midlands Metro.


  5. Interesting report, thank you Roger. I’ve not travelled with either company yet.

    I don’t like the “order through the app” refreshment option. I have no wish to clutter up my phone with a multitude of apps each for one-off use. It’s such a waste of time to download and then delete afterwards. Still, as you had used the app looking at the options for ticket purchase, you had already been through that palaver.

    I have experience of the Class 180 Adelante trains on EMR and agree that they are tired. Were you able to recline your first class seat? There should be a big lever like a lollipop, but most are missing on EMR with the seats jammed in the slouched position, which presents a risk of injury greater than anything else on board.


  6. Why is catering so poor on most services. All that is really offered is snacks and a very limited choice at that. It should be a good way of upselling


  7. The charge for collecting a printed ticket reflects the one the retailer has to pay the machine operator. I guess Grand Central might drop the free snacks if they absorbed it!


  8. Grand Central definitely feels more of a budget operator than Hull Trains. Although even with HT’s catering being slightly better than GC’s, it’s a pretty limited offer in First and nothing at all in Standard, which doesn’t compare well against intercity journeys of a similar distance on other operators. I was very happy when HT replaced the Adelantes, IETs are so much nicer to ride in! They’ve come a long way from the early days of using Turbostars 😀


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