Rail passengers travelling between South Wales, Bristol and London will benefit from more trains, quicker journeys and lower fares when a new “open-access” operator starts running from Carmarthen, Llanelli, Cardiff and Newport to Paddington station in the English capital.
Grand Union Trains will run five daily services each way in competition with the existing operator, Great Western Railway (GWR). The newly created rail firm will also be a rival for some Transport for Wales services.
The newcomer promises its trains will feature “high-quality design, including improved on-board comfort (bigger seats, more legroom and increased luggage space) as well as a buffet car available on every service”. It says it is “aiming to offer our users the best experience in the market”.
The five-daily operation is the same frequency as the highly successful Lumo service between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh. It will compete with twice-hourly GWR trains from London Paddington to Bristol Parkway, Newport and Cardiff. Half the current GWR services continue to Swansea, which will be bypassed by the new operator.
Grand Union says the route will cut journey times from South West Wales to Cardiff and London by around 20 minutes. Its trains will also serve Bristol Parkway in the north of the city, Severn Tunnel Junction on the west side of the estuary and Gowerton, four miles northwest of central Swansea.
But travellers will have to wait another two years to benefit: the newcomer will start running trains in mid-December 2024.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) approved the application, which was made in June 2022, despite an objection from the Department for Transport (DfT). Ministers said the new service “will impact the funds available to improve and support the railway in what are already particularly financially strained circumstances for rail finances”.
An earlier but somewhat different application was made by Grand Union in 2020, but was rejected at the time “due to the current exceptional state of rail finances”.
Grand Union had previously planned to run between Cardiff and London using 30-year-old rolling stock, but now intends to acquire new “bi-mode” trains; electrification goes no further west than the Welsh capital.
Stephanie Tobyn, director of strategy, policy and reform at ORR said: “This decision supports more choice for passengers, new direct journey opportunities, more price competition, and new comfortable trains.
“The added competition should also make a significant contribution to innovation in terms of the routes served, ticketing practices and service quality improvements, by both Grand Union and through the response of existing operators.”
A spokesperson for Great Western Railway said: “GWR has always had a very competitive and compelling offer for rail customers between South Wales and London and on our other routes.
“We also recognise that any additional rail services have the potential to bring choice and benefits for customers and we look forward to welcoming Grand Union to the network in a couple of years’ time.”
Experience on the East Coast main line between England and Scotland suggests that the state-owned incumbent, LNER, has not been materially affected by the newcomer, Lumo.
Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who runs the Seat61.com website, said: “Rail-on-rail competition drives up quality and drives down fares, far more effectively than competition between rail and other modes – as we’ve seen on the East Coast Main Line and abroad in countries such as Italy.
“Competition may not be a solution for commuter or rural railways, but on inter-city routes it works, and the passenger is prime beneficiary.”