The Problem with Open Access…

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Featured image: 180 113 at Grantham (from Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the UK’s train operators are run under contract from the DfT, but there are a few private operators which are operated on an entirely commercial basis – the main operators (there are a couple of others, including metro operators sharing railway tracks with mainline services & a cute little shuttle running between Stourbridge Town & Stourbridge Junction!) which run on an Open-Access basis in the UK are Heathrow Express, Grand Central & Hull Trains. From a passenger perspective, there can be little to no difference between these three operators and the rest of the rail network, however when things go wrong, there can be issues – as Hull Trains has found out recently.

Hull Trains exclusively operates Class 180 (Adelante) rolling stock on their services. Unfortunately, these units have been plagued with reliability issues, and last Friday a unit caught fire for the second time in 5 months (amongst several more minor failures):

As you might imagine, this is going to put that unit out of action whilst the damage – and original cause of the fire – is looked at & repaired. Hull Trains have announced roughly a 50% reduction in service for the next week (at least), with few trains running to/from Kings Cross, most are terminating at Doncaster or being cancelled throughout.

Now, you might think that disruption to passengers not going to/from Selby/Brough/Hull itself (which only has a very limited service to/from London Kings Cross run by LNER, discounting the Hull Trains services) would be limited, but it’s not quite that simple. Let me explain.

As an open access operator, in order to make the service profitable, a larger proportion of the tickets sold for their services are only valid on Hull Trains. The issue here is that, due to being exclusively valid on an Open Access operator, there isn’t any automatic agreement with other operators on the route (mainly LNER, but also including Northern & Transpennine Express) that Hull Trains tickets are accepted in the event of disruption – in this case, not having enough trains available to run the full service. As such, these arrangements have to be negotiated on an incident-by-incident basis.

Whilst it’s unusual (although not unheard of if another operator also has disruption/engineering works on their route) for no arrangement to be put in place at all, ticket acceptance on other operators tends to be more limited than if a DfT-franchised operator had similar issues and can be announced at short notice. For example, at the time of publishing this (around 9pm Sunday), Hull Trains hadn’t yet published alternate travel arrangements for services cancelled/part-cancelled Monday morning on their JourneyCheck page. As such, those with non-flexible tickets (routed Hull Trains Only) may only find out on the day which alternate service they can use.

This also works the other way – for example, when TfL Rail (formerly Heathrow Connect) services have issues between London Paddington and Heathrow (like Hull Trains, they currently have a small fleet so can have major service issues if just a couple of trains are out of action – though this will change once Crossrail opens next year), tickets are not automatically valid on Heathrow Express, which is an open-access train operators wholly owned by the airport itself, which can leave passengers out of pocket.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see a condition of Open Access contracts being awarded in future that these operators do assist the franchised operators in times of disruption, and in return get more guaranteed support from other operators if their own services have issues – unfortunately this isn’t likely in the short term (it would likely require a change in legislation and the appetite simply isn’t there politically to put time & money into redrafting – and to be fair, there’s more important issues for the DfT to be dealing with currently!), but if Open Access remains a business model operators use in the longer term, it may be worth considering.

Have you been affected by the recent disruption? What are your thoughts on the Open Access model? Let me know in the comments below!

(Footnote: Sorry for the blog being less active than usual over the summer! It’s been a busy one for me – normal service should resume moving forward!)

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