Innovative train firm Chiltern Railways will instigate “premium economy” seating when it speeds up its mainline London-Birmingham services on September 5.
Modelled on the airline concept of offering more for the economy traveller, Chiltern’s new Business Zone will provide rail passengers with first class comfort but at a much lower price.
Although Chiltern plies between London Marylebone and Birmingham Moor Street every half hour, the Business Zone will only be found on four “silver train” services linking London Marylebone with Birmingham Moor Street in a best transit time of around 90 mins.
The silver trains use the same locomotive-hauled stock (dating to the British Rail era) which was previously rostered for the highly-praised but ultimately loss-making Wrexham and Shropshire service linking Marylebone and Shrewsbury which was axed last January.
Standard class passengers spend an extra £10 or £20 to access the Business Zone which comprises a separate 30-seater first class coach. You pre-pay for your seat or upgrade on board.
Catering is not offered free of charge but passengers pay for refreshments which are served ‘at seat’. Wi-fi connections are available.
Says Thomas Ableman, Chiltern Railways’ marketing director, “Businesses told us that space to work and a decent internet connection were absolutely essential. They also told us that additional privacy at key times for increased productivity was valuable. What they didn’t value was paying over £100 extra for a sandwich, pretzels and a single glass of wine.
"We believe the premium economy service in the Business Zone creates a new class of travel that could signal the end of first class business travel across the industry.”
With its faster (a result of track improvements) and more frequent trains (twice hourly), Chiltern is aiming to woo passengers from rival Virgin Trains which serves the same route but using two different stations: Euston in London and New Street in Birmingham.
Chiltern’s flexible fares cost far less than those of Virgin Trains with journey times which are not much slower. The main advantage of Virgin is that it offers better scheduling (services every 20 mins throughout much of the day with a journey time of 82 mins) and uses state-of-the-art Pendolino tilting trains (although rail enthusiasts would maintain that Chiltern’s silver trains are better).
Return standard fares between London Marylebone and Birmingham are £75 anytime, £50 off-peak and £25 super off-peak. Note that peak and super off-peak fares can be used on early morning departures from Marylebone.
One point of concern is that the online rail booking sites do not yet indicate which of Chiltern’s services are operated by silver trains. But the train firm tells Business Traveller that the services in question are displayed on its own timetable under the code “M S” and this can be downloaded from Chiltern’s website in PDF format.
For more information visit chilternrailways.co.uk.
Report by Alex McWhirter