I decided to test the competing claims of the East and West Coast line services between London and Scotland in a recent trip to Glasgow to give a lecture. ‘Competing’, perhaps, may be the wrong word as oddly both are now run by Virgin, albeit through different companies with contrasting ownership patterns. West Coast is 51 per cent owned by Richard Branson’s outfit with the rest belonging to Stagecoach while East Coast is merely branded Virgin since it is 90 per cent owned by Brian Souter’s company (ooops, I have omitted the ‘Sir’ in both cases).
I decided to go down on the West Coast as my business was in Glasgow, and back up to London on the East Coast. The Virgin press office was kind enough to offer me complimentary first class tickets for both journeys even though they were well aware that I was quite prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth.
So I will off with the good bits. The journeys were both on time, were generally very pleasant with friendly and competent staff, I got lots of work done and, thankfully, the announcements were mostly kept to a minimum – except after we got north of Preston on the West Coast when for some reason the automatic ones were turned on.
I deliberately travelled over the lunch period on both journeys and therein lies an issue that I think has been neglected by the operators. If you travel in the morning, you get a full meal, probably far more than you are used to as most people no longer eat a ‘traditional full English’ at home. At lunch, though, on both trains, and particularly on West Coast, the proferred fare did not constitute a full meal. In fact, bizarrely, West Coast has an obsession with calories. The menu lists the amount of calories for each food item (though oddly not for the wine, gin and vodka on offer) so that passengers were made aware that a tuna nicoise salad is 165, deli snacks are 289 and the evening offering of chicken and chorizo stew is 302. Frankly I find the whole calorie counting and dieting syndrome a ridiculous western fad – eating healthy food and exercising regularly will keep you at your right weight, rather than counting 302, instead of than 289, calories which makes no sense – but what was clear is that none of this amounted to a meal! While I did get a tuna salad later, I left the train at Glasgow hungry as I did not want to fill myself up with crisps and bits of cake. Given that a chap like me needs around 2,500 calories (OK, OK, I could lose a bit) to maintain my body weight (and probably more as I exercise a lot), it simply wasn’t enough. Moreover, dinner is my main meal of the day and had I been travelling at night for the four and a half journey, I would have left the train even hungrier than I did.
I had a bacon roll which shockingly was listed to be nearly as many calories as the whole Great British Breakfast (shome mishtake surely?) and a slice of tasty drizzle cake which was served in a packet (unlike on the EC where it is served without one). The East Coast menu was more imaginative, and the ‘hot-smoked salmon salad’ was served on a plate, not in a plastic box (oddly, though, EC made more use of horrid plastic cups for drinks than WC). EC lost points though on offering a desert fresh fruit choice of ‘an apple or banana’.
This begs a question about who Virgin thinks their business customers are. Remember some of them will have been paying £240 for a single journey and yet when the food comes round they are offered a chicken and bacon wrap or a fruit salad. I asked if I could have both but the crew said no as they did not have many spare on what was a fairly full train.
Contrast this with Business Class on an aeroplane where there is no such limit and people can rightly gorge themselves given what they have paid (or been lucky enough to have been upgraded which has happened to me a couple of times). If I had paid a full fare on West Coast, I would have been incandescent about not being offered sufficient food. The question is whether this has been done out of the recognition that actually few people are paying the remarkably high prices for travelling in business, or is this simply pennypinching? Oddly, as in the air, on the trains, you get offered a constant supply of drinks and it would be quite easy to have far more than the cost of a decent meal.
While I recognise that there is a desire to limit food waste, putting everything in packets and loading the train with a minimum of portions this is also done as part of the process of deskilling those providing the service. Offering only prepacked food, requiring no on board preparation, is clearly a cost cutting measure, as it requires no chefs, but it does not take many people abandoning First Class because of this parsimony to make it a false economy.
On other issues, the EC refurbished trains are undoubtedly far more comfortable than the Pendolinos but at least the latter’s toilet did not smell as has happened to me on so many occasions. Indeed, by contrast, one of the toilets on the EC train was blocked and one of the cars’ air conditioning was out of commission.
Nevertheless, despite these few faults, I have to give East Coast the prize not only because the food was more interesting (and the rather unfair fact that the Pendolinos, as usual, made me feel ill north of Rugby, and on parts of the route north of Preston, preventing me from working) but also because of the little things. For example, at Edinburgh, a cheery attendant came round offering free copies of The Times whereas on the West Coast, it was only because I know where the bundles are stored that I was able to pick one up. This was particularly impressive as the train I was on had started at Aberdeen, and therefore it required a bit of extra thought from the staff to realise that most people got on at Edinburgh. There was, too, more regular trips by the staff through the cabin.
One last remark on the service. Although the staff were helpful and cheery, there is a certain lack of finesse. The food is often somewhat plonked down and they can be too quick to start tidying up because they want to get away on arrival, rather than looking to what passengers want. I recognise the staff do a tough, not particularly well paid job, well and I do not want to be critical, but possibly the customer service aspects should be emphasised in their training.
There is too, the fact that the service is not timed to meet customer requirements. Instead, the various trolleys are wheeled through at regular interval. Surely, at these prices, it would be better for people to be able to order what they want at will, rather than stuff being dished up at times determined by, presumably, central diktat (e.g ‘we will be serving sandwiches after York’ sort of thing). It doesn’t really feel enough like a premium service. There should be unlimited food at all times, and an offer of proper meals, not just endless snacks.
All in all, though, this was a good positive experience and an advertisement for rail – who would want to fly as an alternative having to go out to the airport, crawl through security and generally endure the hassle of flying when the train is a great working environment. But, please, let’s have at least the option of a proper meal…..even at the cost of restricting alcohol.
Landslides are biggest threat
The derailment on September 16 at the Watford Tunnel highlights an issue about which there is increasing concern in the rail industry. I did a few radio interviews about the incident and it was interesting that the focus was principally about the delays caused by the landslip, rather than the safety risks. I tried to correct that impression. It would have taken a very small difference to have turned this into a major disaster, with a high rate of casualties. The affected train stayed upright but if it had not, or even if it had strayed a little bit further onto the down line, the northbound service would have smashed into it at great speed and the near decade long record of no fatalities as a result of train accidents would have been ended. This was, like the Tangmere Signal Passed at Danger incident near Wooton Bassett last year, a very lucky and narrow escape
When I wrote about this previously in Rail (see for example Rail 776), I noted that the Railway Safety & Standards Board reckoned that 7 per cent of the risk on the railway is weather related. In this time of rapid climate change and exceptional weather events, that risk is rising. There has been a series of landslips which have disrupted the rail network in the past three years in places as diverse as North Wales, Yorkshire, Devon, Cumbria and now Hertfordshire, just to mention a few, and each of them could have caused a major disaster. The cost, too, is escalating and there will now be increased pressure on Network Rail to speed up its preventative work, putting further pressure on its investment plan.