A 21st century rail experience
October 7, 2019
Journey: London King Cross to Leeds * First class
PRE-DEPARTURE: Pre-boarding, there was a small First class lounge near the departure at platform 4. The lounge was small and windowless but carefully lit to give a bright fresh ambiance. The furnishings were in a mix and match, contemporary colour scheme of greys and reds, and it was a quiet oasis within the busy station. Self-service tea and coffee machines and china cups sat alongside a selection of pastries, shortbread, fresh fruit, crisps and other snacks; and there was also a pay bar available. Departure and platform details were clearly displayed and there were plenty of newspapers and magazines available.
THE SEAT: LNER Azuma trains were only recently introduced in the UK, with a design based on the Japanese Bullet trains. Travelling in First, I was immediately welcomed by an LNER hostess who indicated my seat number 26. The comfortable seats were laid out in fours and two with fixed tables. Each had recline functions, USB and power sockets. Seat numbers were well displayed. The bright colours and elegant shape of the train gave a very 21st century feel to British train travel, which has been long overdue. My only challenge was with the overhead racks which I found quite high and difficult to reach. There was communal lower luggage space at the entrance but not close enough to my seat to feel secure.
THE CATERING: We left on time at 1533 and immediately a smart LNER attendant asked us for my meal order. There was a choice of three hot meals and two cold. I ordered the ricotta canneloni which was served by hand from a tray, about 20 minutes later, in an oval china dish with stainless steel cutlery wrapped in a red paper napkin with salt and pepper sachet. An airline style trolley [half size] with drinks in real glasses followed quickly after. The meal was delicious and piping hot. Desserts of lemon posset or fresh fruit were offered followed by an excellent pot of tea and cake. It was interesting to see LNER uses local suppliers with small batch, handmade products such as Corkers Crisps, Fruity Kitchen preserves, Yorkshire taste traditional sausages, and dry cured bacon along with breads from Jacksons of Hull.
THE SERVICE: There were only two attendants serving food, but the hot food and drinks menu was offered to customers who joined at every stop, and I was impressed with the service as well as the speed and comfort of the Azuma train. The staff were hard working and motivated, and the food and drinks service was slick and efficient. The addition of a paper tray mat could have added a little more style.
THE VERDICT: Although the train was not full, the attendants had significantly more passengers to serve than we would see on an aircraft but did a good job and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I never did however get a satisfactory explanation on my return trip as to why only cold options are served on a Sunday. The train also arrived a little late, for which there were profuse apologises.
Veggie with style
June 5, 2019
Journey: London St Pancras station • Eurostar • Business
PRE-BOARDING: Eurostar offers a minimum check in time of 10 minutes but I arrived early for my train so headed to the Business Premier lounge where the new cocktail bar was a buzzing as the flamboyant bartenders mixed drinks, including a bespoke cocktail – Lavendar Dusk – created by Raymond Blanc, and served plentiful rounds of beer and G&Ts (a whole menu of them!). Passengers socialised and sampled the good range of snacks as the weekend got underway. The lounge at Gare de Nord, for the return, was stunning, created from an 19th century building with high ceilings, marble fireplaces and cocktail bar, but had less of a party vibe on a Sunday evening.
THE SERVICE: We were called to the train about 20 minutes before departure and found our reserved seats in business. The staff were welcoming and it was just a few minutes before we had a glass of champagne in hand as we settled in with our complimentary magazines and newspapers.
THE CATERING: Dinner was served within half an hour of departure and our stewardess was efficient and friendly (and kept out glasses well topped up). The menu had been specially curated by Raymond Blanc to celebrate National Vegetarian Week and we were presented with a menu card to whet our appetites. The starter was asparagus, pea and radish salad with pea puree, goat’s cheese and a black olive crumb which was delicious and served with an olive bread roll. And for main I chose the quinoa with cauliflower, kale, raisins and seeds, yellow carrot and cucumber with egg, coriander and pomegranate seeds which was light but satisfying. The hot option was celeriac, spinach and lentil curry, cauliflower and courgette crumble. Both were something excitingly different, tasty and healthy. Dessert was vanilla cream with rhubarb and a ginger crumb followed by a delicious gooey French cheese and a fruity crackers, plus teas and coffees if desired.
THE SEAT: My window seat was forward facing with fold out aeroplane style tables. The seats were a thin, sleek design so reclined easily without intruding on other passengers’ space. It included a headrest, and reading light in the armrest. There were power sockets at every seat. The atmosphere onboard was quiet and relaxed. Staff were readily available if needed.
THE VERDICT: As a flexitarian who loves trying new vegetarian dishes, this experience was brilliant and it is exciting to see vegetarian food as the onboard default for once. Like many foodies I am increasingly thoughtful about the provenance of the food I eat too and it was good to note Eurostar is a two star sustainability champion as recognised by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) for its policies around sourcing local and sustainably produced ingredients. All in all, a great experience. I hope they keep the standards this good beyond the National Vegetarian Week special menu!
Great Western Railway
May 09, 2017
Journey: Great Western Railway Pullman Service – London to Plymouth
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Paddington Station, London – its historic high glass arched roof spans, designed by Brunel in 1854, rise above the platforms. In Platform 8, the 12.05 Pullman to Penzance stands proudly in its new dark green livery of the Great Western Railway (GWR), waiting patiently for its passengers. I’m met at the door by a smart and polite stewardess who shows me to a seat in the dining area, where there are crisp white tablecloths, polished cutlery, sparkling glassware and tall leather menu holders, on tables all laid up ready for lunch.
THE CATERING OFFER: The Pullman restaurant service operates as far as Plymouth (3 hours) with professional waiters and chefs serving dishes freshly prepared on-board, all designed to enhance the travellers’ enjoyment. Menus are developed with Rail Gourmet who also do the logistics. A buffet car is open throughout the 5-hour journey to Penzance and the remaining First Class coaches also have a trolley service of complimentary light refreshments.
THE EXPERIENCE: These refurbished 40-year old trains with their 1st Class leather seat finishes are a great setting in which to enjoy the silver served menu. On departure, I was offered warm freshly baked bread rolls and, with my Cornish Real Ale already poured, my food order was taken. 40 minutes later, as the train chased the low winter sun through the glistening Royal Berkshire countryside, a hot plate was placed before me and my main course was promptly silver served – Prime Somerset Fillet Steak, Café de Paris butter, with roast potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower, all cooked to perfection. After that a cheese plate fit for a King, and coffee to finish.
THE VERDICT: As I chatted with fellow like-minded diners, I really couldn’t think of a better way to travel across land, air or sea. In this one moment in time I felt the real love of dining on a train – I could understand why customers on many long distance intercity trains in the UK and beyond yearn for more restaurants. Certainly eating a meal, whilst sitting with other non-eating passengers in an ordinary first class coach amongst a sea of laptops and mobile phones just doesn’t have the same appeal! Come on train marketers – what about putting some restaurant sizzle back on the menu?
For expert advice and consultancy on all aspects of travel catering and hospitality services, please contact Roger on email@example.com
May 01, 2017
Journey: Hamburg to Berlin aboard Deutsche Bahn
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: There’s a choice of hourly ICE departures from Hamburg to Berlin, taking just over 2 hours, and making it the quickest and most convenient way to travel to the capital.
The ICE is DB’s premier high-speed train and, arguably, the best in Europe, operating at speeds of up to 186mph (300 kmph). Smooth and civilised, it offers more legroom than a plane, power sockets, free Wi-Fi, Quiet Zones and of course great on-board catering.
THE CATERING OFFER: As the Hauptbahnhof is a busy place, using the station’s 1st Class DB Lounge prior to departure provided an oasis of calm. There was a selection of newspapers, tea and coffee, water and biscuits and the ubiquitous ‘free’ Wi-Fi, handy when travelling abroad to avoid too many roaming charges!
On-board the train, in 1st Class we were offered a service at seat, but opted to go into the Bordrestaurant ourselves to savour some good German fare. There is also an excellent café bar with a range of hot and cold snacks, draught beer and bean to cup coffee.
THE EXPERIENCE: As well as an extensive menu, the Bordrestaurant currently has guest dishes – April’s was Lamb meatloaf with carrot puree, yoghurt dip with parsley and mint, inspired by Dorothée Beil, the “Bushcooks Kitchen” blogger.
However, we went for traditional Potato and Leek stew with smoked sausages, washed down with a chilled glass of 2015 Riesling ‘Probus’, from the Palatinate ‘Weingut Bassermann-Jordon’ winery.
On our return trip from Berlin, we once again used the 1st Class Lounge, although I could people watch in this station for hours. Once on-board we just relaxed and enjoyed a swish Dallmayr Cappuccino, served in a smart looking coffee glass.
THE VERDICT: It is always a joy to travel with Deutsche Bahn whenever I am in Germany and the ICE is of a very high standard. If you haven’t been to Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, add it to your list – it is not only the gate way to a great city but also a modern and dynamic interchange. Interestingly the original line of the Berlin Wall runs right through the site, marked by a golden rail set in the floor.
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.
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!