By Mike Cowley
It was a rare if not unique occasion when a crowd turned out on September 25, 2000 to cheer a train on its way to London. The train departed from Hull, at that stage the only major UK city without a direct rail link to the capital, so it was quite an occasion for those in the area who had long suffered from a sense of isolation.
Today, a decade and a half later, Hull Trains continue to keep the locals happy, recording the highest customer satisfaction rating of any operator in the country for the third year running. Now part of FirstGroup, the Hull Trains service was launched by two entrepreneurs – Mike Jones and John Nelson – after they spotted a gap in the market during the period when UK railways were privatised. This paved the permanent way for open access operating companies which were not subject to the new franchising regulations, enabling them to purchase slots on the main line infrastructure.
Seeing the opportunity that this presented, Mr Jones and Mr Nelson selected Hull to introduce a daily service to London, which thus became the first operation of its kind not only in the UK but also in Europe. Having worked in the rail industry for decades, the founders saw the project as a runner when a lot of other people did not. At best many were doubtful, while some even tried to block the service.
The opposition was due to open access operations being seen as “risky”, and questions were asked about just how much Hull needed a direct link to London. Even the Government of the day was nervous, plus there was the question of gaining the confidence necessary to finance the rolling stock.
However, undeterred by the initial opposition, the proposed service won huge support from regional businesses, MPs, chambers of commerce and councils – and they had backed a winner, in that Hull Trains ran three daily services and carried 80,000 passengers in its first year. Today, the company is catering for more than 900,000 passengers all told, and the figure is growing.
In 2013, the owners decided it was time for a new leader to revitalise the company, so they appointed Will Dunnett as managing director. “When I came in,” he recalls, “I wanted to make sure passengers were at the heart of the culture of Hull Trains. I also wanted to make sure employees really felt we listened to them and they were proud to work here.”
During Mr Dunnett’s tenure, the business has delivered unprecedented growth and has introduced many industry firsts that enhance passenger experience as well as leading the way for other operators. For example, Hull Trains became the first UK operator to install passenger information screens fed by live real-time train information. It was also the first operator to trial a free 4G single-sign-up Wi-Fi service with free media content.
The most recent success came when the Office of Rail and Road gave Hull Trains a further ten-year period of access from 2019, a decade which will see the company invest £70 million in new bimodal trains to take full advantage of the benefits of the electrified East Coast main line.
The company will also be able to enlarge its fleet to five units with more space on each, thus providing a 50 per cent increase in the number of seats for passengers.