At first sight
Travelling first class by rail offers enviable space and flexibility – but other perks vary widely between operators, so check before you book, says Alex McWhirter.
First class rail customers enjoy the sort of space and privacy that air travellers envy. Lone executives can often commandeer a table to work at uninterrupted through the journey. No other mode of transport allows passengers the freedom to travel and work when and where they want.
The downside is that space comes at a price. First class rail fares can be costly and, in these economic times, where company accountants are scrutinising travel budgets, the TOCs (train operating companies) realise they must provide value for money.
It means snacks or meals are almost always included in the price. Lounges are commonplace at mainline stations, wifi and power points are increasingly available, and loyalty schemes have made an appearance.
All good news – or is it? The problem, says Michael Birtles, managing director of agency European Rail, is that “there is a lack of consistency. Each TOC differs in what benefits it provides first class passengers”.
This can lead to confusion, so you should do your homework beforehand. If you take a business class flight (airlines’ equivalent of first class rail) within the UK or mainland Europe, it’s a given that you will be served a snack or a substantial meal with free drinks on every flight on every day of the week. You know that lounge facilities will be available at almost every airport during the day while flights operate. You also know you will be offered a loyalty scheme by almost every carrier. As regards service, it is true that the airlines are not perfect, but they do get it right most of the time.
By contrast, the offerings from the UK’s TOCs vary. Just two serve free at-seat meals, but only during the working week. Lounges are open only at certain times and are usually closed at weekends. Admission may be restricted to full-fare passengers rather than those purchasing cheaper Advance tickets. Virgin Trains, for example, admits all first class ticketholders whereas East Coast charges Advance travellers £5. East Midlands Trains admits all passengers but prohibits Advance customers accessing the London St Pancras lounge after 4pm.
With restaurant cars becoming unfashionable, the trend is for an at-seat meal service provided either free or for a fee. First Great Western is one of the few TOCs to retain a car service but it is limited to a handful of trains linking London Paddington with the West Country. East Midlands serves light meals and snacks on long-distance routes throughout the day but its “Great British Breakfast” can only be found on trains to, not from, London. Unlike other TOCs, it serves cooked breakfast at weekends – but only on two Saturday morning services to London.
East Coast and Virgin Trains set themselves apart with free at-seat catering throughout the journey. East Coast operates from London King’s Cross to Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen, while Virgin Trains covers London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
East Coast’s publicity chief, John Gelson, says: “Customers travelling the furthest receive the full meal offer. Those travelling the shortest distances, trips of an hour or less, get a lighter offer.”
East Coast’s predecessor, National Express, was losing £20 million a year on its restaurant cars. East Coast invested £12 million when it relaunched its meal service in May last year, and losses were stemmed as passengers took advantage of the added value.
When it comes to catering, the differences between air and rail culture become apparent. On any business class flight to the outer reaches of Europe (a four- or five-hour trip), passengers will receive one full meal and, usually, further drinks or snacks – all served with a smile.
But on a similar rail journey, passenger feedback suggests you’re entitled to one meal with drinks, and that’s your lot. Writing in industry magazine Rail in March, Peter Williams, East Coast’s commercial and customer services director, says: “It has been suggested that one meal is not enough for a four and a half-hour journey between London and Edinburgh. We do not believe that’s the case.”
Virgin Trains has similar catering to East Coast but is expected to lose the West Coast franchise in December (a judicial review instigated by Virgin Trains means no firm date for the handover was available at the time of writing). First Group, assuming it gains the franchise, says it will improve first class, retain at-seat catering and enhance the quality of food.
Another concern is that, unlike Eurostar and Thalys services, reservations are not compulsory for UK trains. The TOCs use historical data when trying to predict catering demand but when services are disrupted, each company carries another’s passengers so numbers can increase, affecting service.
Williams says: “Wherever we can, we bring in extra supplies while keeping food wastage under control. We know we don’t always get it right but the facts [a rise in passenger numbers] speak for themselves.”
Gelson adds: “Some things we can plan for, others we can’t. If the problem [with another TOC] occurred at 4pm or 5pm, it would stretch us much more.”
Eurostar and Thalys differ from the UK TOCs in that reservations are compulsory and they offer the same onboard service daily. Catering is airline style and there are lounges at key stations.
Eurostar has two grades of first class. Besides the free catering, the top Business Premier class comes with airline perks such as fast-track clearance (check-in time is cut from 30 minutes in advance to ten), lounges and the offer of booking a taxi on arrival. This can be a boon at Gare du Nord, where taxi queues can be lengthy. There’s also Standard Premier, a sort of “light” first class product with meals but no lounge access.
Eurostar is used by our readers who travel extensively by air, and fussier passengers may find the service below par. There’s no wifi, but it can be accessed in the lounges and, from last month, trains were being taken out of service to install it. There are also quiet coaches for those not wanting to be disturbed.
Thalys operates high-speed links between Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Paris. UK travellers will encounter Thalys when they change at Brussels for onward travel. Comfort One passengers are served meals when journeys exceed 50 minutes. Wifi is free, and an onboard meeting room can be booked for four people.
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