Monday, May 05, 2008

Virgin trains 1st class - don't believe the hype

I have many times caught the train between London and Manchester in First Class. Virgin Trains touts it as the fast, comfortable and environmentally friendly alternative to driving and flying. It is all of those, but just.

Virgin's great achievement was to introduce new trains on the route a few years ago, the swish looking Pendolino tilt trains manage 125mph (200km/h) operating speed, although they could go faster if the tracks permitted it. The fare in first class varies a lot, from £40 to £180 one way. At peak times you'll pay no less than £135 each way, so it's quite something - and remember the taxpayer is subsidising the Virgin Trains franchise to the tune of around £80 million this year, so beardie does well from passengers and the taxpayer. So what do you get for your money?

Clearly the benefit of going by rail is twofold. First, without security checks, you can board the train up to 2 minutes before it departs assuming you already have your tickets (which depending on how soon you booked may have to be printed out at the station). The convenience and ease of switching trains (which run half hourly) beats flying anytime, although you have to pay at least £110 one way for an open ticket, £180 in first class. The second benefit is that it is a relaxing way to travel, once you are on board you can enjoy a good two and a bit hours of working, reading or relaxing, with every table having 2 power points (no good if four are at a table though), and the train swift and quiet enough to enable concentration. However, the quiet coach isn't free from insipid announcements (3 in a row as you leave, and typically loud if you are close to a speaker), and none of the seats recline.

London's Euston station is the newest and the most functionally plain of the London rail terminals. Virgin trains offers a First Class lounge, but don't get too excited. It is not far different than a US airline domestic lounge. There is a big TV, a bar (with an adequate selection of alcohol but at 7.30am it's juice, water, tea and coffee for most) and some seating, although not very much. There only snacks are potato crisps and nuts, hardly first class.

However, when you finally board your train it doesn't look too bad. Three abreast seating, almost all at tables. You're offered a free copy of the Times and a menu for breakfast. The seats are wide enough and adequately comfortable for the 2 hr 10-25min trip (depending on stops). However as most seats are at tables you do face worrying about whether you'll be joined by a stranger or two or three (as in one instance). The inspired decision by Virgin Trains to make 3.5 carriages first class (compared to 4 second class) usually means there is space to spread out, and the quiet coach is helpful (although there is often someone who forgets and uses a mobile phone).

Then the breakfast service starts. Breakfast is very welcome catching a train at 0735, and starts with coffee and tea being brought to every seat. Hot chocolate is available but has to be asked for. This is followed by orders taken for breakfast. The selection includes a full hot breakfast (sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, tomato, hash brown), bacon toasted sandwich, scrambled eggs and salmon, or a fruit plate. Now the full breakfast drips with fat, the sausages are mediocre and sometimes burnt, and the bacon also mediocre. The bacon toasted sandwich is literally bacon between slices of toast - a child could get it right, but not Virgin Trains. The scrambled eggs and salmon is usually ok. Ask for hot breakfast with scrambled eggs and you may get a yes, or a "we don't do that" (when you wonder if scrambled eggs are done with salmon...). However, wait there is more. Out comes the juice, not freshly squeezed or even pressed juice, but from concentrate and only orange and grapefruit. Tomato juice was dropped a month ago. You can get cereals too, but these aren't made obvious - just cornflakes, weetabix and crunchy nut, muesli and fruit n fibre were dropped a month ago as well.

Oh and there is toast and croissants, but the toast might be cold, of course. You'll only have marmalade as well.

Coffee and tea are brought around again, but you wont get juice again. That's it, the service is over for around 2 hours. However, it gets even better on the return train.

You see after breakfast time, it is the "all day snack" menu. You get a choice of a sandwich, a wrap type option and a hot option - but you're only allowed one, and it's a small plate. Yes you'll get to have some wine, beer or spirits, but it is a snack. On a similar length flight in business class around Europe you'd get a full meal, but not on Virgin Trains no (not unless you travel London to Manchester direction ONLY in the evenings and only for about three trains). Hmmm, so first class is a bit hit and miss.
The staff are the hit and miss though. Sometimes there is decent service, other times grumpy and don't seem the slightest bit happy to serve, or wont even try. I once was on a train that broke down, and we were all ordered to get off at the next station where the following train would pick us up. In first class every seat was taken, but the entire service ended - this is despite having twice the crew. The reason given by the nearly useless guard was "we don't have enough for everyone", even though the food and drink from the other train could have been loaded, even though the train could have been full anyway had there been high demand from full open ticket passengers. None of the crew felt they should've shifted the supplies, and so paying a full first class fare meant quite simply you got a crowded seat.
Of course had Beardie been on board I am sure they would have done differently, offering to lick his boots at the same time. In conclusion, Virgin Trains has got it good - it charges near the fully flexible airfare for first class at up to £180 a trip, it gets equal to another 10% on top of that in subsidy from the British taxpayer, the security nightmare at airports (and Terminal 5's recent rocky start) have all made flying less competitive and by and large it is a relaxing way to travel. However, the effort to make it special is rather lame - the breakfast is best described as adequate, ranging from reasonable salmon and scrambled eggs, to burnt fatty second class full breakfast, a joke of a toasted sandwich and poor quality juice and cereal selections, with cold to luke warm toast. The staff can be excellent through to the abysmal.
London to Manchester should be one of the premier rail services in the UK, it competes with National Express at the cheap end, and flying BA and BMI at the expensive end. Without check in luggage, flying may be marginally faster, but the train is definitely the option of least stress and most convenience. So why is it really just quite mediocre? I'm going to try flying - on both of the airlines next time, and let you know what BA and BMI offer.

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