Tried & Tested

Rail check: First Great Western first class

13 Jul 2015 by BusinessTraveller

BACKGROUND

First Great Western began refreshing the first class seating on its high-speed trains last summer, with all services now featuring the new seat and carriages. Among the enhancements include the introduction of “a modern interpretation of the classic GWR marquee” (Great Western Railway being the name of the company operating rail services on the network prior to nationalisation in 1948).

First Great Western will be rebranded as GWR in time for the start of the group’s new franchise this September, with uniforms, lounges and marketing / digital communications all being revamped. Trains will also be re-liveried “when it makes good business sense”.

Among other forthcoming improvements include a refresh of the operator’s Night Riviera sleeper service (the first new cabins are scheduled to go into service at the end of this year), and the rollout out of free wifi across the group’s network.

First Great Western GWR

DEPARTURE

There is no first class lounge at Plymouth station (facilities are available at London Paddington and Cardiff), so when I arrived at 1145 I headed straight to platform 7 for my scheduled 1201 departure. The train was arriving in from Penzance, and the information board advised it was expected at 1207.

I was travelling on Friday June 26, one of the busiest days for passengers using the First Great Western network to access Glastonbury Festival (Castle Cary being the closest rail station to the festival).

Plymouth station didn’t feel particularly busy, and my service wasn’t stopping at Castle Cary, so I wasn’t concerned about festival goers trying to wrestle with shopping trolleys full of booze and hogging all the charging points, as media reports had warned.

It seems the festival was having a knock-on effect on our service though, as both standard and first class were very full, and the operator had cancelled its Pullman Dining service due to “the sheer volume of passengers”. The fine-dining option (more of which below) is not limited to first class passengers, but it does take up first class seating, and as a member of staff said “Pullman Dining is subject to availability, and first class passengers come first”.

The service arrived at 1207 as advertised, and left a couple of minutes later. I managed to get one of the last available seats on the single side of the carriage (cabins are configured 1-2, with alternating front and forward facing seats around tables).

THE SEAT

The reclining seats have been reupholstered in smart grey leather, with the GWR branding sewn into the headrests on a green background – the marquee has also been added to the sliding doors into and out of first class, and to the wall partition design at each end of the carriage.

New tables have also been introduced, featuring two power sockets and two USB charging points at each bank of seats, and darkened glass partitions have been added between banks of seats, designed to “reduce noise and give an added sense of privacy”.

First Great Western first class

I was sat forward facing on the single seat side of the carriage, and felt there was enough space on the single table for my laptop and drink, and for the passenger opposite to have his book and snacks out without us encroaching on each other's space.

As part of the first class redesign, First Great Western has reduced the number of first class seats on its high-speed services, converting one carriage per train into standard seating, which it says has increased the number of standard seats on these services by 16 per cent. This has left either one or one and a half (as was the case on our service) first class carriages per train.

THE JOURNEY

A few minutes after departing staff came through the carriage offering refreshments. Several customers had not heard the initial announcement regarding the suspension of the Pullman Dining service, and had clearly been looking forward to a full meal on what was a lunchtime service.

The Pullman Dining option has recently been given a revamp in partnership with chef Mark Tonks (owner of the Seahorse Restaurant in Dartmouth), and is available on selected services for both standard and first class passengers. Dishes include Devon scallops, slow braised Somerset pork belly, and Dover sole. For more information and full menus, click here.

First class customers receive complimentary at-seat refreshments throughout the journey, which consist of tea / coffee, cold drinks, and snacks including crisps, pretzels, nuts, biscuits and cakes, from local producers including Furniss of Cornwall, Somerset-based Mr Pullin’s Bakery, and British tea from Tregothnan in Cornwall. Sandwiches and salads can also be purchased from the cart or at the onboard Express Cafe.

Staff passed through the cabin at least four or five times throughout the journey, the last time being just after we left Reading.

Free wifi has been introduced across the group’s high speed services (in both standard and first class). I logged on via my laptop and used it to access Twitter and my emails throughout the journey – the connection was patchy, and for a large part of the journey my laptop browser showed there being no internet access available although I was always connected. It was just about sufficient for my needs, but anyone depending on a reliable connection would have been disappointed.

First Great Western first class

Around half way through the journey a member of staff brought a lady with a five-month old baby into our carriage, explaining that her intended service had been cancelled, and that although she had only purchased a standard ticket he did not want to make her stand with her child in what was a very busy standard section of the train. No-one seemed to mind this, and the baby slept for most of the journey.

Copies of The Times were available for first-class customers, although I didn’t realise this until I went for a wander up towards the standard class section, and saw them laid out on a ledge. If there had been an announcement stating these were available I hadn’t heard it – perhaps it might have made more sense to have at least a couple of them available on the first class cart?

VERDICT

A smart first class redesign, with the welcome addition of USB charging points. There were plenty of staff on hand to answer queries throughout the journey, but the wifi connection on this service was not great, and certainly wouldn’t have stood up to streaming content or downloading files.


FACT FILE

  • JOURNEY TIME Three hours, twenty minutes
  • SEAT CONFIGURATION 1-2
  • PRICE Advance first class fares from Plymouth to London start from £44 one-way online.
  • CONTACT firstgreatwestern.co.uk


Mark Caswell

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