Rail operator East Coast is set to launch its new upgraded first class food offering next month, including the replacing of restaurant cars in favour of a complimentary table service.
The move, first announced in November last year (see online news November 15, 2010), is designed to attract more first class customers, and is part of a £12m investment programme intended to put the publicly-owned rail company in a good position ahead of re-privatisation bidding wars in 2012.
Besides introducing complimentary food to all first class passengers (at no extra cost), the investment has created new high-speed routes from major business centres to the capital and added 19 daily services to the timetable.
The changes, due to be introduced May 22, are about getting the best value product for the customer and, eventually, the tax payer, according to East Coast Head of Communications, Neal Smith.
“We’re a business,” says Smith, “and we have to pay back the government. It’s about getting the best deal for the passenger and government. Restaurant cars hark back to a romantic era, but they are not well used. We are losing £20m a year – nobody can sustain that. You have to give good value. Some people like [the restaurant cars], and a few MPs have made comments.”
Smith is referring to the parliamentary debate sparked by East Coast’s plans, which prompted Halifax MP Linda Riordan to accuse the train operator of putting “profit before passenger comfort”.
East Coast currently delivers 100,000 meals a year, but is aiming for a million once the changes are brought in. The new service includes table service, a breakfast, all-day, afternoon tea and evening menu, and snack and drinks throughout the day (no alcoholic drinks on weekends).
The on-board staff have been completely retrained, 40 new chefs were hired and new high spec steam ovens installed. Five seats were taken out of first class carriages to accommodate the new kitchen, though none were removed on the narrower, high-speed trains.
The system seems to be working well, and when Business Traveller sampled the new breakfast this April we found the food to be surprisingly fresh and tasty. The cooked breakfast was served from platter to plate at the table, a nice touch, and had been cooked on-site that morning. Local produce from along the route is used whenever possible, including Wensleydale bacon, British chicken, free-range British eggs and cheese from specialists in Yeovil. Cake recipes from National Trust properties along the route are used for afternoon tea and there is talk of introducing Black Sheep Yorkshire ale to the menu.
Research conducted by East Coast showed that customers want airplane-style service, and this, Smith believes, is a good step toward encouraging customers to opt for rail over air travel.
A key route that will help their case is the “Flying Scotsman” which takes four hours from Edinburgh to London, stopping only at Newcastle (weekdays, 5.40-9.40am). By comparison, Virgin Trains offers just over five hours journey time and First Great Western over four and a half hours. Other new services include a two hour Leeds to London route (weekdays, 6.52-8.59), a daily direct service between London and Harrogate (the first in 20 years) and 11 daily non-stop services between York and London.
In addition, a quiet coach has been introduced and a £600,000 investment has delivered free wifi in first class (in standard, the first 15 minutes are free, then it costs £4.95 an hour or £9.95 for 24 hours).
“The ten to twenty year forecast for rail growth is phenomenal,” says Managing Director Karen Boswell, “so we’re making sure we have the capacity.”
East Coast has been subject to some bad press in the past, following a less than perfect punctuality record. However, Smith says four fifths of these delays were down to “external factors”, including Network Rail issues, weather or animals on the track.
“At Christmas there were overhead line problems,” says Boswell, “two weeks ago Network Rail’s computers failed. Temperature changes up and down the route and trains carry tonnes of compacted snow beneath. There have been cows on the line, swans on the line. We’re just waiting for the plague of locusts!”
“What’s in our control, we’ve had substantial success with,” Smith added. “You do everything you can but customers obviously don’t see that.”
East Coast says it is working with Network Rail to overcome the issues, and the latest statistics show the service performed better this March than in the past eleven years.
Report by Liat Clark