Andy Comfort reflects on the rise of Hull Trains and Lumo and the future of open access rail under a new Labour government

Hull Trains managing director Martijn Gilbert (centre) and service delivery director Louise Mendham welcomed shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh during the election campaign

Some may still consider them the new kids on the block on the UK rail network, but the first open access operator is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

Before the arrival of Hull Trains into the city’s impressive Paragon Station, there was just one train a day to and from London – a franchise requirement of the East Coast Main Line operator. Leaving Hull at 7am and returning from the capital at 5.20pm, “The Hull Executive” was very much aimed at the business traveller and the fares reflected that.

For most people, a trip to London would involve a ride on the “stopper” to Doncaster – often a Pacer train – and a change onto one of the busy GNER services heading south. I know of people who chose to drive to Doncaster to catch the train there. For a city with just under 244,000 people in the 2001 census, this was not the rail service Hull deserved.

Hull Trains came about after two former British Rail managers, Mike Jones and John Nelson spotted this gap in the market. In 1997 they formed a company called Renaissance Trains to promote the formation of private sector companies on the UK rail network.

Fast forward two years and the company secured a track access agreement to run three return services a day between East Yorkshire and London. As a presenter and journalist at BBC Radio Humberside at the time, I was broadcasting live from King’s Cross as that first train pulled out of the station, heralding a new era, not just for Hull but for the whole network.

The company’s first trains came from Anglia Railways and were only capable of 100mph, so passengers on those initial services became used to sitting in a loop while a couple of southbound GNER trains sped by at up to 125mph. However, many people in Hull and East Yorkshire were enjoying their new direct services and passenger numbers grew. The new operator carried 80,000 passengers in its first three months. That compares with 300,000 customers between October and December 2023.

Today, Hull Trains runs seven services each way on weekdays, with six on both Saturdays and Sundays. Some are now 10-carriage trains, as opposed to those three-car Class 170 Turbostar trains they started with. The five bi-modal Class 802 trains were introduced from the end of 2019 and travel at full line speed of 125mph, meaning journey times are down to two hours 30 minutes on some services – over half an hour faster than those first trains.

That’s not to say that the Hull Trains journey has been an easy one – far from it. The previous fleet of trains, the Class 180, suffered reliability issues and breakdowns became all too frequent. Hull Trains has built up a reputation of sometimes doing things differently and they came up with solutions – one involved hiring in a couple of InterCity 125 High Speed Trains from sister company First Great Western. By this time, Hull Trains had become part of the muli-national transport operator First Group, which continues to run the company to this day.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit Hull Trains hard, with the operator having to suspend all its services and park up all its trains on three separate occasions. Staff were furloughed and Hull Trains received no financial support from the government, unlike franchised operators. Local MPs and business groups feared the company would fail and wrote to the government asking it for help – a mark of how much the company’s services meant to Hull and East Yorkshire.

Open access operators depend on ticket sales. They need people on their trains and have to be quick to react to changing circumstances. That was the case after Covid when Hull Trains realised that its business market had dropped significantly and the company began to focus on leisure travellers.

By December 2021, the operator was bouncing back with 94 return services between Hull and London every week. Of the seven weekday return services, two extend to and from Beverley, the market town of the East Riding. Without Hull Trains, here’s another town which would not have had a direct connection to the capital and to stations along the east coast route.

This year, Hull Trains commissioned independent research by a transport consultancy and a marketing agency which found a 96% satisfaction rating among the 1,000 or so passengers who were surveyed – the highest for any inter-city operator in the country

This year, Hull Trains commissioned independent research by a transport consultancy and a marketing agency which found a 96% satisfaction rating among the 1,000 or so passengers who were surveyed – the highest for any inter-city operator in the country.

Being an open access operator has probably allowed Hull Trains to do things differently at times. The company prefers to avoid rail replacement services during planned engineering works and trains will sometimes divert via Sheffield and down the Midland Main Line into St Pancras, if King’s Cross is closed. Yes, it’s a slower journey but the thinking is that passengers prefer that to using a replacement bus for some of the way.

During one engineering blockade on the East Coast Main Line, two First Group open access operators used a bit of joined-up thinking. Lumo, the open access operator set up in 2021, ran a train from Edinburgh to Doncaster, where passengers could connect onto a 10-carriage Hull Trains service running to London via a diversionary route through Lincoln.

Increasingly these two operators work closely together, sharing some back office functions such as marketing and PR. Hull Trains and Lumo have a joint managing director in Martijn Gilbert, who now also oversees the cable car which crosses the Thames in London’s Docklands.

Both Hull Trains and Lumo have plans to extend their open access operations. As Hull was identified as a gap in the market by Renaissance Trains in the late 1990s, the team behind Lumo and Hull Trains are eyeing up areas close to Sheffield and Manchester.

Sheffield hasn’t had a direct rail link with King’s Cross since 1968 but that could be about to change with plans for a new direct train service via Worksop and Retford. Branded “Sheffield by Hull Trains,” the planned two daily return journeys would serve a population of around 350,000 around Worksop, which hasn’t seen a direct train to London since the 1960s.

In the same way that people in Hull and East Yorkshire saw their service increase from one to eight trains a day thanks to open access operations, a growing population in parts of Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire could enjoy a better train service from the second half of 2025.

Would this happen without open access? Possibly but history tells us it’s unlikely

Would this happen without open access? Possibly but history tells us it’s unlikely. Successive franchised operators on the East Coast Main Line could have introduced more trains to Hull but chose not to. Yes, LNER is to be congratulated for starting services to new destinations such as Lincoln, but open access operators are able to offer more choice.

Lumo has submitted plans to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) for a new train service from Rochdale to London. Ten miles northeast of Manchester, the birthplace of the singer Lisa Stansfield last saw a direct London train at the turn of the new millennium.

The planned services would also run via Eccles and Newton-le-Willows, again both without direct links to the capital, and Lumo estimates its new trains could benefit a wider catchment area of some 1.6 million people. It’s hoped these new services will start in 2027.

Our open access model focuses on giving good value fares and really good quality service and gives customers choice

The man in charge of Hull Trains and Lumo, Martijn Gilbert, told me: “Our open access model focuses on giving good value fares and really good quality service and gives customers choice.”

“There’s a little bit of healthy competition … it keeps pricing keen … it makes the whole railway a more viable option for more journeys.”

Certainly, more journeys are being made on First Group’s open access operators – 2.2 million journeys on Hull Trains and Lumo combined in 2023, up 8% on the previous year. Hull Trains has recorded the strongest recovery of any UK rail operator after the pandemic.

The new Labour government is promising to “achieve high standards in our rail services,” with a new arms-length body, Great British Railways. However, will the government support open access operators, such as Hull Trains and Lumo?

In her previous role as shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh opened Hull Trains’ new driver simulator on May 31, just over a week after the announcement of the General Election.

While in Hull, Louise Haigh said Labour would reform the way applications are made: “At the moment, it’s really burdensome. I’ve heard anecdotes of operators taking months, if not years, to get decisions made – such as stopping at certain stations. We want to speed up those decisions.”

Labour’s manifesto says “wherever there is a case that open access adds value and capacity to the network, they will be able to continue to compete to improve the offer to passengers”.

Whatever lies ahead, it seems clear that Hull Trains and Lumo will have green lights to continue and develop their operations. Open access is here to stay.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andy Comfort is a former BBC Local Radio presenter and news editor and now works as a freelance rail journalist..

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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