Trains

Virgin Trains

February 28, 2017

Journey: London, Euston to Liverpool, Lime Street • Trainline: Virgin • Class: First

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Platform 16 at London’s Euston station was an unremarkable starting point for my journey north. However, with a First Class ticket in hand I was looking forward to free wifi, an abundance of entertainment options and complimentary food to boot!

PRE-DEPARTURE: Once the platform was announced (a mere eight minutes before departure) I rushed to it and promptly located my assigned seat. Having never travelled First Class before I immediately appreciated the extra aisle space as I pottered through the carriage laden with luggage. After settling into my seat and setting up my tablet I looked up to find myself opposite a rather glum looking man with a laptop. This would not have been a problem were we not sat together at a single table, but the battle for space soon ensued.

THE CATERING OFFER: I was treated to the brunch menu onboard which was more than satisfactory. I opted for a bacon roll, Pepsi and pretzels all of which I was very happy with. However, adding more trays, glasses and packaging to the table raised the space issue once again! With all the clutter on the single table my journey soon became an elaborate game of chess with my surly looking companion: I moved my drink to b4, he moved his laptop to d5 and takes my pretzels! Fortunately, a jolly looking steward saw the rising tensions and proceeded to clean up the table quickly.

THE TECH: Virgin’s much-touted BEAM app provides a selection of movies and TV for passengers to stream, for free, via their own devices onboard. The onboard wifi had great upload and download speeds but was tricky to connect to and involved a few ‘turn it off and on again’ moments before I was able to connect. The BEAM app itself is easy to use and offers a reasonable selection of films. I watched the Keanu Reeves blockbuster John Wick from start to finish without any annoying buffering problems or disconnections – a huge boon on a three-hour journey.

THE EXPERIENCE: Speeding across the Midlands was a pleasant and smooth experience, although for much of the journey my eyes remained firmly glued to my tablet and my fellow passenger’s laptop that was inching closer and closer to my side of the table! Disembarking at Liverpool Lime Street station was straightforward and there was clear signage to the taxi rank and station exits.

THE VERDICT: Overall my first time in First Class was first rate! I was kept entertained, well fed and comfortable throughout the journey. Aside from a small scale conflict over table space and a short-lived internal fit of rage at the wifi, everything went smoothly. Next time I’ll be sure to bag myself a space on a table for four.

Eurostar

February 21, 2017

Journey: London to Paris • Trainline: Eurostar • Class: Standard

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The Eurostar terminal at London St Pancras is well-designed, with its galleried ceilings giving an impression of airiness and space. This is a good thing for anyone dreading the long rail journey ahead, packed in a metal tube inside a tunnel. You have to arrive at least 30 minutes before your departure time, but Security is not too strict, and involves simply putting your bag and jacket with phone etc. through the scanner. You clear Customs and French passport control on the London side, and once this is done, you can relax.

St Pancras International has smart bathrooms, several food and coffee outlets, and lots of seating, though not quite enough at busy times. There is a crush when trains are announced to get on the escalators that carry you smoothly and effortlessly up to platform level.

PRE-DEPARTURE: We had a pleasant welcome on the platform from a smartly dressed guard who gave detailed instructions in English for finding our allocated coach and seat.

Everyone has luggage, as you are allowed two suitcases plus hand baggage. The storage space for it is well-designed areas at the end of the coaches, on spacious racks above the seating, and in spaces between the seat backs. This train was not full, however.

There are smart blue and black cloth upholstered seats – adjustable back and forward but not reclining – with leatherette antimacassar, and folding tray, with magazine pouches above. The rather pointless coathooks beside the seat leave your coat hanging by your head and obscuring the view through the window.

At my seat in coach 7 seat 72 I had a forward-facing seat in a suite of four, with a picnic table with four flaps (one per person). This would be useful for a business meeting or if travelling with kids.

THE CATERING OFFER: There is no meal service in Standard class, or even tea trolley. (In Standard Premier class, a meal is served, and in Business Premier Class, there is a menu designed by Raymond Blanc.) The ‘Café Metropole’ buffet car serves tea, coffee (in cardboard cups), juice, water, wine and champagne, plus a limited selection of uninspiring sandwiches such as ham and cheese, egg and cress, and chicken salad. I had a chicken wrap at £3.90. The drink selection also showed lack of imagination, and was expensive. I could also have splashed out with a large Kronenbourg 1664 beer at £4.90, but I would have preferred one of the excellent craft beers now brewed in France, or even a Breton cider.

THE EXPERIENCE: We appeared to travel quite fast at the English end, slowing down through the tunnel and then speeding up again through France. The French countryside is not pretty here, with massive ploughed fields interspersed by occasional industrial farm buildings. The electricity pylons were the main point of interest in a misty, barren landscape, taking all sorts of alien shapes such as Space Invaders and huge angular cats marching across the landscape.

We arrived on time at the Gare du Nord, disembarking onto a wide platform. I did not see any porters, which might have been a problem for elderly travellers.

THE VERDICT: We left St Pancras International on time at 12.43. I adjusted my watch one hour ahead and we arrived at Gare du Nord 15.58. This is the best thing about the service: city-centre to city-centre in 2 hours 15 minutes. This compares with approximately 3 hours 35 minutes for the same journey by air, which is why the train now has a greater market share.

We walked out of the station and 15 minutes down the road to the Gare de L’Est, where we had ample time for a beer before catching the TGV to Reims. This took only 45 minutes. In three-and-a half relaxed hours, we had made it to the heart of Champagne country

THE TECH: The Eurostar wifi was not working properly, with a service until Ashford and then no connection. This was a problem as I had planned to work during the journey. (It was also a problem on the return journey, with no connection in France even after repeated attempts, though some passengers said they got connected.)

The Marrakech Express

February 6, 2017

Journey: Marrakech to Casablanca • Trainline: ONCF •

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Marrakech’s ochre buildings glow in the setting sun and the arched front of the modern station provides a great entrance into the world of Moroccan railways. McDonalds and Segfredo cafes can be found inside along with a more traditional café with a sun terrace so there is plenty of choice whilst waiting for your train.

Many of those arriving from the north to this southernmost station come to stay in the beguiling old city for a short break, although there is some outward traffic to Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers and Fes.

Travel choices include a First Class reservation in a compartment or the cheaper Second Class carriages. Sleeper trains (Voyages de Nuit) called Train Hotels offer three different levels of ticket – couchettes, single or double berths.

THE CATERING OFFER: Daytime train refreshments are served throughout the train by smartly dressed staff from caterers Restaurail. Using trolleys topped with hot water pots they offer instant coffee and a range of tea. Other products include sandwiches, soft drinks (no alcohol) and a variety of sweets and savouries.

On sleeper services, Restaurail’s attendants provide welcome packs with toiletries, handkerchiefs, snacks and mineral water, as well as a breakfast tray before arrival at your destination.

THE EXPERIENCE: Some trains are ageing but all are comfortable. The single line sections between Marrakech and Casablanca mean speeds are sometimes reduced so you get to appreciate the vast green agricultural plains as they glide slowly by, full of sheep herds, vegetables and olive plantations and the occasional pocket of urbanisation.

If you have time before you travel, visit Marrakech’s Medina for an experience you will never forget.

THE VERDICT: The “Marrakech Express” isn’t fast. It’s a relaxing and slightly hedonistic way to travel around this fascinating country with its astonishing blend of old and new worlds. High speed trains between Casablanca and Tangier are planned for 2018 so change will come but, for now, why rush!

On track to Paris

November 8, 2016

Journey: London to Paris • Trainline: Eurostar • Class: Premiere Business

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Having never taken this service before, I came to this trip with an open mind. There’s a lot less waiting around on a train journey, but getting to St Pancras (or Gare du Nord) isn’t always easy. The Business Premiere product isn’t bad but it isn’t the Orient Express either. It also isn’t cheap! The railways still have a way to go to catch up with air travel when it comes to delivering before and after travel services.

PRE DEPARTURE: Check-in at St Pancras is quick and easy. The sparkling new station is really smart and security is fast. You clear UK and French immigration right there. Once inside the waiting area, there is a lounge for Premiere Business. Not bad although catering is sparse and compared to the Paris side, it’s sheer luxury. The main public waiting areas are also clean comfortable. Bizarrely, I could see my train through the window of the upstairs lounge just yards away. However to get to it, you still have to traipse downstairs, then go back up to the platform to the train. No priority access here.

THE CATERING OFFER: Once aboard, the seats are equivalent to a good Premium Economy on a plane. Rather firm. The food comes airline style on a trayset with menu from Raymond Blanc. The hors d’oeuvres of beetroot and goat’s cheese was tasty but small. The mains choice is hot or cold so if you don’t like baked coley with red pepper sauce and aubergine, or a smoked ham terrine, you’ve had it. That being said, the quality was very good. The hot food was hot, it looked and tasted fresh and well seasoned. Shame they couldn’t chill the champagne and whites, they come room temperature.

THE EXPERIENCE: The seat room is adequate but for could be a little softer. The return train was different with more space and better seats oddly. All come with a plug socket. The LON-PAR experience is marred by the arrival to Gare du Nord which is utterly awful. The contrast between the chaos and filth here and the quality and efficiency of St Pancras, both arriving or leaving, is measurable. The facilities in Paris for departing passengers are not good at all.

NB: I was unable to change my reservation on line for reasons they could not explain. I was unable to change it on the phone as the res systems had failed. The meal service PAR-LON was not as advertised due to a strike by the caterers in France.

THE VERDICT: Once aboard, it is a quick run to Paris (or to London) however for €661 return Premiere Business is not great value. If you live in Islington and have to go to a meeting in central Paris, this might be the most convenient way. Otherwise I’m not so sure.

Fast track in Spain

October 10, 2016

Journey: Madrid to Malaga • Trainline: RENFE

FIRST IMPRESSIONS The wonderful glass roof of the old Atocha station provides a grand greenhouse ceiling to the beautiful botanical gardens fronting the modern station, where streamlined AVE trains sit shimmering in the heat, ready to whisk you off to iconic Spanish destinations.

Smartly attired staff meet and greet customers as they board, taking up plush leather seats in Preferente (First) or the smaller, but still comfortable, fabric seats in Turista, and the train leaves bang on time.

THE CATERING OFFER: At-seat refreshments and meals are offered in Preferente (Sunday to Friday) and pre-ordering from the RENFE website provides a choice of 10 special meals to suit every diet.

In Turista, the sociable Cafeteria serving hot and cold snacks and drinks is open on departure, supplemented by a trolley working through the carriages. Grab a tasty Iberian rustic sandwich with Chorizo and Tomato and Olive Relish, and wash it down with Vino Tinto or a chilled Cava – what’s not to like!

Packs for children are available along with drink and snack combo deals to make your money go further, and blockbuster movies on the TV screens with audio feeds to seat add value.

THE EXPERIENCE: Relax in your recliner seat, or stand in the café with its extra high windows, and watch the sun-bleached plains, white-washed villas, sparkling rivers and distant mountains speed past your window as the AVE train smoothly accelerates up to its full speed of 350km/hr, so fast that you arrive at your destination almost too early!

THE VERDICT: Wow! Speed isn’t everything but you cannot fail to be impressed with this journey experience. Whether in ‘First Class’ Preferente or the more economic Turista, the Spanish hospitality onboard and the excellent performance of the AVE make this journey a real winner. Customers agree, with satisfaction ratings of 7.83/10 in the latest survey, +0.43 on 2015.

Clockwork service aboard SBB

September 13, 2016

Journey: Zurich to four intercity destinations • Trainline: SBB

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Switzerland’s national train operator SBB, is famed for its iconic railway clocks and on-time services, but its caterer, fully-owned subsidiary Elvetino, is probably less well known. On a recent visit to Elvetino in Zurich, I discovered efficient logistics supporting high-quality intercity train restaurants, cafes and trolleys. Elvetino also caters various French, German and Italian trains, overnight trains and SBB lounges.

THE CATERING OFFER: The Dining onboard is retail-based and with dozens of open plan restaurants, all with well-equipped galleys, Elvetino delights over 32,000 customers a day. Journeying from Zurich to test the services for myself, I took a different course on each of the four intercity trains I travelled on!

With Lavazza coffee and traditional Amadina chocolate cake on the first train, I swiftly moved to the next for lunch, where I tried the famous Zurich regional dish Zürcher Geschnetzeltes – tasty veal strips in white wine and cream with spaetzli (soft egg noodle) washed down with a Feldschlössen Amber draught beer.

Though not really wanting to leave the comfort of my current dining car, I ‘jumped ship’ and joined another to take the dessert course with a glass of chilled De Faveri Prosecco, whilst my final trip back to Zurich found me in one of the double-deck authentic Starbucks café drinking cappuccino from mugs and salivating over the tempting selection of cookies.

THE EXPERIENCE: Designed by the Swiss National Culinary Team, Elvetino’s menus are redoubtably Swiss but also reflect international tastes. At a higher level still is the Churchill charter train, providing top-class silver service for special events.

THE VERDICT: Congratulations Elvetino and SBB on really great services that went just like clockwork!

On track with Austrian State Railway and Westbahn

September 13, 2016

Journey: Vienna to Linz to Vienna • Trainline: Austrian State Railway and Westbahn

FIRST IMPRESSIONS The majority of intercity trains in Austria are operated by OBB (Austrian State Railway) and are catered by DO&CO but a private railway called Westbahn also operates trains on a single route and these are self-catered. As both run between Vienna and Linz, I was able to compare the services.

THE CATERING OFFER: The OBB trains are Railjets – spacious carriages, with a buffet counter, small galley and about 15 dining seats. A catering trolley was operated through Standard, and waiter service into First, but there was not much evidence of ‘selling’ during my trip. My return journey was on a Westbahn train, with a different and even lower catering specification.

THE EXPERIENCE: Sitting in the OBB Bistro car I ordered coffee, water and savoury snacks, which were served by the DO&CO member of staff with reasonable speed but without any attention to detail. The coffee arrived with no spoon or sugar and the water without a glass or plastic cup or ice being offered. Menus were sticky, tables were grubby and had not been cleaned and the catering offer did not add to the travel experience. Marketing referred to a branded offer – Henry am Zug – promising culinary delights but none of the passengers were buying even though it was lunchtime.

On the return leg with Westbahn there seemed to be an increased staff presence but they were multi-tasking – carrying out ticket checks, cleaning and (in some small way) providing catering. There was no catering vehicle and the only snacks were kept in a locked glass cabinet, which required a host to unlock upon request of the customer. Coffee was from a vending type machine and was of poor quality.

THE VERDICT: Overall the OBB service wasn’t particularly impressive and the Bistro looked in need of refurbishment. With an OBB tender process for a replacement caterer ongoing, perhaps a combination of staff shortages and uncertainty is having a detrimental effect on the service. From a catering service perspective the Westbahn journey was another disappointing experience.

Given Austria is such a refined society with a discerning customer base I was surprised by both OBB’s and Westbahn’s onboard quality which, in my opinion, was below par. I came away feeling that both need to up their game if they are to attract passengers to buy onboard and maintain high levels of customer satisfaction.

An ICE experience

September 13, 2016

Journey: Frankfurt to Cologne, Germany • Trainline: ICE

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Travelling with catering colleagues from IRCG, I recently joined the ICE express train to Cologne and was immediately impressed by the friendly greeting from the conductor and staff in the Bistro car.

THE CATERING OFFER: The Bistro area offered an extensive menu of traditional German dishes including braised pork with dark beer gravy and cabbage, rostbratwürstchen with potato salad, potato stew and currywurst, amongst others. As the journey from Frankfurt to Cologne is only an hour long, we skipped desert and opted for a speciality coffee served in a DB china cup to round of the meal. On our return trip we also tried the golden German Pilsner from the bar, a real draught beer on tap and served in proper beer glasses. So much better than beer from a can!

THE LOGISTICS: German rail catering services are managed by Deutsche Bahn (DB) itself, co-ordinated by the very capable onboard service team in Frankfurt which determines menus, pricing and service standards. There are nine station logistics centres spread across the country.

THE VERDICT: It was impressive to see how DB focuses on traditional dishes which seems to be very popular. They have succeeded in providing a proper onboard dining option, going to great lengths to ensure passengers have a positive experience. A half hour walk around the basement of Cologne station soon confirmed it is a slick operation, with precision planning. Logistics staff help efficiency by providing flasks of pre-brewed coffee, trays of fresh-bake pastries and fresh salads, all prepared centrally and delivered to the train directly before departure.

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