Now, dear reader, despite the rather up-market language I am fond of using, I am in fact a very regular person, living a relatively normal life, with relatively normal friends and so on. I am not in the habit of going to balls, formal dinners, or board meetings. To be quite honest, the concept of brunch I find slightly too upper class, so you could be forgiven for thinking that I travel standard class all the time. And you’d be correct, normally.
However, for my mother’s birthday, since we could get some cheaper advance tickets, we decided to go first class. This is a lesson for all those who seem to think railways are terrifically expensive – book in advance and there are frequently savings to be made. Admittedly, we did not go first for our entire journey, but that is really besides the point, since I’m sure that you’re all familiar with what standard class looks and feels like (though I suppose there are minor differences between operators, but such minutiae are beneath this very up-itself article).
Our story begins in the strangely topsy-turvy world of Birmingham New Street. This is not a place I am unfamiliar with. After all, I have spent many evenings watching trains here, and many hours waiting for trains within its confines. Why topsy-turvy? Good question, glad you asked. The upper reaches of the station are now quite a pleasant place to be, with an interesting bubble roof, natural light, and a pleasing lack of exposed concrete. The actual platforms, while a little brighter than before, are still rather unpleasant, since putting the concourse and shops on the top of the platforms and running lines results in diesel fumes staying down there, despite the improved ventilation (as a side note, I wonder how much my life has been shortened by breathing in said diesel fumes; I assume by at least several minutes).
However, today, I was not going to gawp at trains on the platform or wander aimlessly about the concourse. No. Today, we were heading for the first class lounge, which has an entirely different character to the rest of the station. The first thing you notice is that the lounge is far quieter than the rest of the station. Then you notice the suits, and the lack of anyone who could reasonably be defined as a ragamuffin. One can, of course, in the first class lounge, get complimentary tea, coffee, small snacks, and even Pepsi (not exactly a high class drink, it must be said).
Sitting very comfortably in the lounge is wonderful, but the purpose of a railway station is to get people on trains (and the correct ones at that – perhaps I shall write about that at some point). So on we went towards platform 6, a bit of a faff from the first class lounge, as you must go through two sets of ticket barriers (okay, yes, it is in theory possible to go through only one set of barriers, but it is hardly a logical route). Platform 6 is much like many of the other platforms. Splitting it into a) and b) proved academic since our train arrived in the form of an 11 coach Virgin Pendolino (Virgin Dream was spangled rather nicely on its nameplate, though it had seen better days). It is a sad fact that those in the original livery are looking rather shabby these days, and are in need of a repaint. It is a shame that the new livery is just plain white, but that is another matter.
The interior of a first class coach could almost not be further from that in standard. Seats here are arranged in 2+1 format, with tables at every seat and, joy of joys, the seats even line up with the windows. Each seat is provided with a smart mug and a glass, for hot and cold drinks respectively, placed on a ceramic tray which is also very smart (all these things are smart in the terms of looking smart, to the best of my knowledge they contain no computers, nor would they put on a good show on mastermind)
Of course, the other thing that happened to me in first class was that I was addressed, not with the usual ambivalence or hostility, but as “sir”. Suffice to say, the first time this happened, I was quite taken aback, and almost felt the need to correct them. Alas, as time goes on, you do get used to it, and in this way I think first class is rather bad for the soul, since you end up with an inflated sense of your own importance. That said, worldly indulgence is sometimes a wonderful pick-me-up, and I certainly won’t be telling you never to do it.
I would complain that:
a) We were only served cold drinks once on a journey of several hours
b) There were no newspapers on the train, which you are normally allowed
a) A plethora of cold drinks was available in the first class lounge and
b) Cold water was available from a fridge in the middle of the coach and
b) A choice of regular or financial times was also available in the lounge and
c) I am not that entitled to complain about two very minor problems in an otherwise amazing environment
However, after many happy hours of lounging about in the lap of luxury, we were forced to get off by the arrival at our destination. The other very minor problem with first class is that the first class coaches tend to be on the London end of the train, so if you’re going north you sometimes have to walk past all the standard class passengers on your way to the exit. Now it is tempting to be a massive snob about the everyday hoards, but my next railway journey will definitely be standard class and it really isn’t in my interest to mock my future self (feel free to do that yourself though).
Some days later, that particular trip having run its course, we travelled back, this time via a slightly different route, which would involve travelling first class with LNER. I should mention that this LNER, or London & North Eastern Railway, is not the same in any way (other than running trains on the same route) as the original London & North Eastern Railway, of Flying Scotsman and Mallard fame (though they didn’t actually build Flying Scotsman, but there’s a tangent for another day). The current LNER is just a brand name used by the Department for Transport for the operator of last resort (controlled by the Department for Transport, run by various companies including SNC Lavalin), which took over from Virgin Trains East Coast (which was itself mainly owned by Stagecoach). The point of this paragraph is twofold – firstly, almost every name on the railway is to some extent a lie, and secondly, that I am a huge fan of brackets (or parentheses, depending on your preference).
One must admit that LNER’s first class lounge in Edinburgh is also an incredibly nice place to be, though on this occasion it was slightly shabby, and the choice of cold drinks was rather lacking. That said, conditions on the train counteracted these two problems so I should not complain. Instead, let me tell you of the comfort of the seats, which was, and I don’t use this word lightly, superb, and the quiet ambience that surrounds all such places.
The train southwards was an HST, which I have rambled on about in the past (see this article), but suffice to say, these beautiful machines are 40 years old and still going strong, with relatively minor modifications. One of these modifications was the refurbished interior, which was done by Virgin Trains East Coast, but so you don’t notice all mention of Virgin has been removed. Do not, however, let that distract you from the sheer magnificence of the leather seats, the neat arrangement of tables and the pleasing manner in which you are addressed by staff.
Indeed, I was again called “sir”, and, although I registered a suitable amount of embarrassment, I was beginning to become used to it. I was offered several cold drinks, including a coke, which I gladly accepted. A full fat one too, for why would you go first class and then have some tasteless, characterless diet drink thrust upon you? I certainly have no idea why anybody would do that.
One advantage of travelling by HST is that, at least for now, on most of them, you can open the door windows to let a bit of fresh air into the vestibule, no doubt a lifesaver in a crowded standard class coach, but a mere refreshing change from the air conditioning in first class. A disadvantage however is that the ride quality has rather suffered in the 40 years since these coaches were introduced, and gets almost (but not quite) to the point of spilling one’s drink in several places. On our coach, it must be added, the toilet did not flush properly either, but since I was only urinating, this proved not too much of an issue.
It seemed almost a shame to get off at the rather empty and unfriendly platforms of Peterborough station, but this did at least give us the chance to use a flushing toilet and just catch a late running (every cloud has a silver lining) cross country train home, to sample its first class. While I gather that this is rather better on their Voyager and HST train, the first class on the class 170 (I promise I won’t get any more technical than that) is competent, and nothing more. Seats are comfortable, and recline slightly, but there appears to be little to no actual service to accompany them. That said, at least it was a quiet and stable ride home.
This is the point in the article where I have to issue some disclaimers. Like men, first class sections were not created equal – Virgin and LNER are known for their good service, but other operators may leave you sorely disappointed. In particular, commuter trains in London very rarely have a decent first class section, with usually the same seating layout as standard, no service or catering whatsoever, and just a set of doors to remind you that you are in first (though there are some exceptions, in particular on Greater Anglia’s class 379 trains). The reason for the spartan first class is that you are entitled to a full refund should you fail to get a seat if you are a first class ticket holder, and this really is what you are buying when you pay for first class in those cases.
All that now remains is for me to wish you an excellent day, and to ask, politely, if you know anyone who might enjoy this, that you pass it on to them. Not that it’s mandatory, we live in a free society after all, but it would be appreciated. I really must stop waffling…