Rail Professional interview: Ian Yeowart
Once the public face of Grand Central, Ian Yeowart is back with a new open access bid – one that could see the GNER brand reinstated. Katie Silvester met him at his York office
The cover of the first issue of Rail Professional I edited had Ian Yeowart on it, back in July 2006. At the time he was the managing director of Grand Central with 18 months to go before services eventually began running, not to mention a legal challenge under way from GNER. A lot has happened to Yeowart in those four years.
He caused ripples through the rail industry when Grand Central’s proposals to run open access services from London to Sunderland were challenged by GNER. The East Coast operator claimed that Grand Central’s services would be detrimental to its franchise agreement with the government, for which it was paying handsome premium payments.
Grand Central won, but setbacks with rolling stock meant another year of delays before trains began running. Then the unthinkable happened – Grand Central was bought by a private equity group and Yeowart was removed from his post as MD. Initially moved to a development role within the company, he was sacked last year. To anyone who had been following Grand Central’s progress – the company was the subject of a BBC documentary – Ian Yeowart was Mr Grand Central. He started the company and its eventual success owed a lot to his personal endeavours.
In terms of putting bread on the table, things weren’t too desperate – Yeowart also owns a go-kart track, which he bought with his railway pension. But that was never going to be enough for a third generation railwayman like him. So, soon after leaving Grand Central, Yeowart announced that he had formed a new holding company that had aspirations for several open access routes in the north of England.
Even better, as managing director of Alliance Rail Holdings, he had bought the rights to the name GNER (Great North Eastern Railway) as well as GNWR (Great North Western Railway). To add to the historic theme, the new GNER and GNWR logos use a version of the lion logo, which British Rail used in its early days.
In a similar way to Grand Central, Alliance has identified cities that are poorly served by rail – including Bradford, Rochdale and Huddersfield – and is offering to give them direct trains to London. As with all open access services, there will be restrictions on which stations trains can stop at, to avoid too closely duplicating the services of franchised operators.
To begin with, the whole concept looked like something of a publicity stunt – how would Yeowart find the millions necessary to fund something like this? But Alliance now has a major backer. When I met him at his York-based offices, Yeowart was reluctant to name the company that is funding Alliance, which, he explained, was happy to remain in the background for now. But a look at the Companies House website reveals all. The mystery backer is Arriva, which, of course, has just been bought out by Deutsche Bahn. Funding shouldn’t be a problem, then.
Alliance’s plans are broadly this: to avoid the sort of conflict that Grand Central had with GNER, services would not start until 2014 at the earliest, by which time both the new East Coast and West Coast franchises will have been awarded. Both franchise holders, therefore, would be aware of Alliance’s plans before submitting their franchise bids. Rolling stock will be designed specially to run on both electric and diesel traction, with the plan being to source them from China.
In the meantime, Yeowart’s complicated history with Grand Central is not quite over yet. Grand Central’s management tried to derail his new venture last year when Yeowart announced details of the routes he hopes to run. His former company put out a press release saying that it was ‘considering its legal position’ with regard to intellectual property, because Yeowart had been working on some of those routes when he was at Grand Central.
‘There was only one of the routes on their list that there was potential conflict over and that was Cleethorpes,’ says Yeowart. ‘So I suggested we meet to discuss it, but I never heard any more. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid competing with them.’
The press release also made it clear that Yeowart had been sacked. An industrial tribunal is taking place at the time of writing, as Yeowart wants to clear his name. Ironically, he had been on the other side of industrial tribunals as a British Rail manager when staff had been sacked. ‘They’re never pleasant,’ he says.
If the plans do get the go-ahead, Yeowart’s ideas on rolling stock are going to be the next big challenge. His hopes for developing rolling stock that could run on both diesel and electricity are no small undertaking. The government tried to do a similar thing, of course, with the Intercity Express Programme (IEP) and was due to hand a contract to Hitachi, but all that is on hold now.
In his review of the IEP, Sir Andrew Foster pointed out that no other country uses bi-mode trains on express routes. They are used in several countries, including France and the USA, but only on regional routes. Foster also believed that the proposed Hitachi model, which would have replaced the HST, would have increased journey times.
‘A lot of Chinese train technology is the same as Europe’s. And their technology now is light years ahead of where it was. The output capacity of their factories is phenomenal,’ says Yeowart. Have the well-publicised problems with IEP not put him off?
‘From what I understand, because I wasn’t really involved in IEP, the specification kept changing. Now our specification is pretty straightforward: we want any train built to work in the UK and to be built with UK rail engineers involved. That will be Network Rail because it’s a brand new build.
‘It’s got to be able to operate under the wires or without the wires. If we’re going to service places off the main line, then you either go back to a Seventies railway by sticking a diesel on the front of it when it arrives somewhere, or you have a train that’s capable of switching from one to the other.’
Several Roscos have expressed an interest in funding the trains so far. Alternatively, says Yeowart, Alliance could potentially buy the trains outright. If these, admittedly very ambitious, plans for rolling stock come to fruition, they could be very good news for the UK rail industry. There would be nothing to stop the government ordering some bi-mode trains for use on franchised routes, once Alliance had acted as a guinea pig.
‘The investment levels we’re proposing are of such magnitude, that the industry – at a time when its own investment is being curtailed – has the potential to expand through investment purely from the private sector. We are hoping that the government will see this. The argument in the past has always been about abstraction of revenue, but, to be honest, if somebody can introduce a fleet of new trains to the UK at a fraction of the cost of IEP, for example, then the value of that to the UK as a whole is astronomical, compared to whether or not someone loses a few million pounds because an open access operator competes on a flow.’
Another investment plan Yeowart has is to build additional car parks at six stations to attract motorists who would not usually take the train. Alliance would pay for the car parks and negotiate with Network Rail as to how it would get a return on this investment.
‘We’re looking at around about £2m per station. We’ve picked the ones we’d want to do, usually because of their accessibility from the motorway network.’
The design of the car parks will be part of the passenger experience. Yeowart wants car parking spaces to be bigger than the standard size. ‘If we’re going to persuade some guy to bring his 7 Series BMW into our car park, then he doesn’t want to believe that he’s going to be so squeezed that when he comes back it’s going to be covered in dents.’
There are many hurdles to jump through before GNER and GNWR get the go-ahead. Initial talks with Network Rail have, he says, been a lot more positive than last time around, when he was trying to get Grand Central off the ground. But, of course, it’s the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) that really needs convincing.
‘The ORR made it quite clear to us last September that, because it’s such a wide-ranging series of proposals we’ve put together, they weren’t prepared to consider it until we proved that we’d got the investment.’
Yeowart is hoping that the consultation on Alliance’s proposals will start in November and he would like to get a decision early next year, though he knows it could take longer. When it gets the go-ahead, it will be three years before Alliance is in a position to run its first train.
‘The consultation is where we tell the rest of the industry what we’re planning, why we’re doing it and why we don’t think it’s anything other than a good thing. When you think about it, the two routes – the East Coast and the West Coast – miss a huge chunk of population across the north because they don’t go there.’
He believes that the plans could actually help the West Coast and East Coast operators, as they could concentrate on their core flows and send faster trains to Scotland with fewer stops, while GNER and GNWR would fill in the gaps.
The fares will be kept simple and low cost, with no advance fares. Customer service will also be a key consideration. ‘We’ve said we wanted to be better than Christopher Garnett and GNER at its very best. Virgin has set a very high benchmark, but our argument is that they don’t necessarily take people where, ultimately, they would like to go.’
Does he have a plan B, if the proposals don’t get the green light from the ORR?
‘Plan B?’ he scoffs. ‘Well, the go-karts look good!’