Virgin’s First Class? Not So.
EDINBURGH–OK, so here’s my report on today’s train ride up here from London: in a nutshell, some interesting things, some disappointing things, and some things that need fixing.
First of all, this was a Virgin Train … that is, one of Richard Branson’s transportation ventures, another being Virgin America which I’ve recently flown five times back-and-forth between Maui and Chicago. Each flight was a cut above most of the competition. But my experience on Mr. Branson’s train today? Frankly, I expected more.
Just after we rolled out of Kings Cross Station, a woman read an announcement over the public address system describing all the various reasons why you might be forced to pay for your ticket all over again: if you lost it; if you had scanned it into your smart phone and the image was blurred; if the date was wrong; if the name was wrong; or if one of what seemed like an endless list of other infractions should occur. Rather unfriendly in both substance and tone, I thought.
The trip took four hours, 20 minutes, with the train running at speeds ranging from 90 to about 120 miles and hour. It was a very rough ride for pretty much the entire distance–bouncing and lurching to the point that it was often quite uncomfortable.
Of some relevance to this issue, when Britain decided to privatize the railroads, they put one company in charge of all the track throughout the entire country, then awarded a number of other companies the right to operate passenger trains over specific routes. Most of those include both commuter trains and those running over greater distances–the one I took today, for instance.
The train was also noisy. And by that I mean the squeaking of metal on metal and the creaking and groaning sounds which I normally enjoy. But this was a cacophony …and very loud to the point of distraction. The issue of the rough ride is probably beyond Virgin’s control, but surely there is something they can do about the unholy racket emanating from in, around and under the vestibules.
Lunch today, served at our seats from a cart, was a choice between a chicken/Caesar wrap and what was essentially a fancy cheese sandwich. A small bag of chips came with either choice. Soft drinks, coffee, tea or water were free. For a beer or a small bottle of wine, you had to walk–no, make that stagger–through several cars to the “Foodbar”, essentially a Branson version of an Amtrak café/lounge car.
The toilet in the lavatory between my car and the next one didn’t flush, and by the time we got to Edinburgh … well, never mind.
The onboard crew worked quickly, almost hurriedly, and while none of them were rude, no one was friendly either. Understaffed, perhaps?
Finally, an hour or so after lunch, a female crew member came through the car holding open a large plastic bag and saying, “Rubbish? … Rubbish? … Rubbish?”
Bottom line: We left on time, we arrived on time, and we got here safely. But I had a first-class ticket and it was not a first-class experience.
I couldn’t say I was disappointed either about Virgin East Coast, although the trains do start to show their age, I thought they were comfortable and offered a smooth ride. But yes, first class on a Sunday is not first class on a weekday, the sandwich I had last time was tasty, but nothing special. But then again, on a Sunday, you can buy an upgrade for £10, on a weekday, you would probably pay £50 or more extra for 1st class…
I was on the same train in May and the experience was just the opposite. The staff was friendly and helpful from the first class lounge in King’s Cross to the end of the line. I also was in first class and the food was good and they had beer, wine and liquor (even American bourbon) on the cart, although why anyone would pass up scotch…. The train was quiet, comfortable, smooth and a treat. I also recently rode the Southwest Chief–need I say more about relative rides? I have ridden that railway several times and I try to get on that line whenever I can. I am sorry you had a less than stellar experience. Compared to Amtrak what you described was heaven.
That’s interesting. I’m intrigued and wondering how it’s possible you experienced a smoother, more comfortable ride. I suppose the train could have been routed over different track, although I thought the ride was rough for most of the journey. And perhaps the fact that I was traveling on a Sunday could be a reason why there was no complimentary beer or wine. There’s always something interesting to talk about when it comes to train travel, isn’t there!