Saturday, 29 June 2013

Virgin Trains First Class or Chiltern Railways Business Zone?

One of the joys of attending an event such as yesterday's is the chance to talk to rail industry insiders under Chatham House rules. Thus it was I found myself discussing the positives and not so positives of a recent First Class trip on Virgin Trains between Birmingham New Street and London Euston.

A couple of weeks ago, I was needed in Cambridge for a 9.30 meeting. As I have noted previously, it is possible to travel directly from Birmingham to Cambridge on CrossCountry Trains but they tend to be expensive for the speed of journey and often the trip via London is more comfortable and a better use of my time. So the 5.50 Pendolino it was, connecting into the 745 First Capital Connect service from King's Cross.

The 5.29 and 5.50 Pendolino's are both 'off-peak' trains and so one can benefit from the split ticket routing via Birmingham International to reduce the single First Class fare from £127 to £92.70 (£3.70 New Street to International + £89 International to Euston). However, advance fares are excellent value on this train so I was able to book through to Cambridge for £51 First Class.

All was well at New Street and on the journey in terms of timing and overall comfort. Virgin of course give their First Class passengers free WiFi along with tables with power sockets and on the early morning trains breakfast. So far so positive...

Alas, as ever with Virgin, it is the small things that niggle (especially given the price of the fares). First Class passengers are supposed to be offered a Financial Times or a Guardian. I actually saw the papers being loaded into Coach J but of course that is where they stayed. When I asked a paper at my seat in Coach H, I was promised that one would be brought... in the end I walked up to Coach J and picked up the papers from the pile where they had been left.

Coffee or tea is served after Birmingham International and toast offered after Coventry but my full breakfast didn't turn up until nearing Milton Keynes. The breakfast itself was excellent - just a shame everything is back to front. However, my main grouse is that Virgin staff don't smile... I know that it was early in the morning, that the First Class was quite busy, and that their shifts are horrible BUT some interaction with the fare paying passengers would help make the journey pleasanter.

Compare and contrast with the +Chiltern Railways Business Zone experience. I returned from the Awards on the 1815 Silver Set from Marylebone, which was sitting in Platform 3 when I arrived for the train at 6pm. The Business Zone host was busy offering tea or coffee already and she was smiling and chatting with the passengers. Admittedly, the Business Zone is not as busy as the Pendolino First Class and her shift is from Moor Street and back but the difference is marked.

However, Chiltern aren't perfect either... The big weakness of the Silver Sets is the poor WiFi offering, especially if the Set is busy. Yesterday, the signal disappeared after Princes Risborough and didn't return until a reset after Banbury. There are some areas where Virgin can teach the upstart how to do things!

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