Monday, 19 October 2009

A trip on the WCML with Virgin Trains

I’ve wanted to travel on the West Coast Main Line ever since its £9 billion upgrade was finally completed, late and massively over-budget. What fascinated me the most was not so much the thrice hourly London Euston-Birmingham and London Euston-Manchester journeys Virgin Trains introduced as a result, but the end-to-end journey time between the two points furthest apart on their line: Euston and Glasgow Central. Typically, the time taken to travel between the two stations is now a shade over 4½ hours, though the best attained is the 1630 weekdays departure northbound, which calls at Preston only and manages the fastest-ever journey time of 4:10. This equates to an average speed of 96.3mph and from December comes down to four hours and 8 minutes.

Thanks to the nice people at Virgin Trains, I was recently given the opportunity to undertake a return trip between Euston and Glasgow, for the purposes of this blog. I opted to travel on trains that offered the Breakfast and Evening Meal menus. Having travelled for the first time aboard a Virgin Trains' Pendolino during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover with m’colleague, I was staggered to see that every item of food and drink is completely free of charge to those travelling first class. Having grown up on the other side of the country, where Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) and now National Express East Coast (NXEC) operated my Anglo-Scottish train service, the only gratuities those travelling in first class were afforded comprised biscuits, Pretzels, fruit, tea/coffee and bottled water.

It's incredible to think that the London terminal shown here can be linked with Glasgow Central in just 4:10.

As a leisure traveller on Britain’s rail network, I am quite happy to travel the longer way round if it means I’ll enjoy my journey more. As I see it, for the additional money paid to travel first class, the more freebies you receive the better. If you live in Grantham and want to travel to Edinburgh on business, quite frankly my requirements won’t feature and you’ll consequently pay NXEC ’s fare for a direct train journey between the two places and simply appreciate what you’re offered for free while travelling in first class.

Of course gluttony was not my sole reason for undertaking this journey on Thursday 15 October. I’ve only travelled on a Pendolino twice: firstly a return trip between Euston-Manchester Piccadilly that formed part of our Railrover trip and secondly a single trip between Euston-Birmingham New Street in March 2008. I particularly enjoyed the ambiance within the first-class carriages, with their airline-style narrow windows and free radio channels. Bringing things up-to-date, free wi-fi is now offered to first-class passengers, so too are free papers on weekdays, along with the Breakfast and Evening Meal menus.

A statue of the Robert Stephenson, son of famed George Stephenson. Robert was chief engineer for the London & Birmingham Railway and was responsible for building the main line into Euston back in 1833. His statue stands in Euston Square.

I remember reading Barry Doe’s column in RAIL a few months ago in which he promoted rail travel exceptionally well over all other modes. Unlike a plane, coach, bus or private car, train travellers can be incredibly productive with their time; they can leisurely stroll around the carriage; can stop off en route (with the correct type of ticket) to meet friends or take in an impromptu meeting; can make phone calls and connect to the Internet; can decide to make a last-minute trip with seconds to spare and generally do not have to travel miles outside of towns and cities to board their service.

Having been given the ‘green light’ for my expedition, I visited the excellent NXEC website to look at ticket options to get me to London. My northbound Virgin Trains service departed Euston at 0930, so I’d need to arrive in King’s Cross right slap-bang in the middle of commuter time. This would mean cheap, advance-purchase tickets would not be available. I was right. After the 0610 ex Peterborough, the next 7 NXEC departures only offered a Standard Single fare of £43 as the cheapest; by contrast, setting my alarm to sound at silly o’ clock in order to catch the 0610 (first non-stop service of the day) would see me only be charged £9.35.

Looking at returns back to Peterborough later in the day, I was very pleased to see that NXEC’s 2200 ex King’s Cross was showing a £9.35 single, too. I think it’s worth pointing out that £9.35 is currently the cheapest Advance Single NXEC offer and has been at this level for almost two years. Consequently, I booked both tickets and effectively paid £18.70 for a day return fare between Peterborough and London, or 12.3p per mile. Exceptional value.

What first struck me was the hive of activity there was to be found at Peterborough station shortly before 0600. The city famous for its ‘Posh’ football team, its celebrated nineteenth century poet John Clare and having produced the co-founder of Rolls Royce, seemed to be experiencing a mass exodus of people travelling to London. Commuters here have two train services from which to choose: First Capital Connect’s (FCC) stopping trains and NXEC ’s direct services. Obviously, the latter’s services transport you to London in around 50 minutes and so are that little bit more expensive (about £2k more p/a for a season ticket), though first and last departures aren’t as early and late as FCC’s.

The 0610 is NXEC’s first of the day, and this morning was formed of a Class 91 that had travelled empty from the company’s Bounds Green depot in North London. The train was on Platform 2 ready and waiting long before I made it onto the platform with a good fifteen minutes to spare before departure. The nine-car train was very well loaded, too, so I was shocked that with less than four days to go before I booked my tickets for today, a £9.35 fare was still offered.

We departed punctually and arrived into London King’s Cross three minutes ahead of schedule, at 0657. I now needed to walk to neighbouring Euston station, further west along the busy and congested Euston Road. I’ve made this journey on a few occasions but never timed it. I comfortably arrived at the ticket hall in Euston 12 minutes after leaving my train at King’s Cross. I’d not realised the close proximity Euston has with King’s Cross, and especially St. Pancras International, which is even nearer. The localities of the three terminal stations does lend itself to some quarters in the rail industry who believe that a high-speed rail terminal in central London could be based underground and linked directly to all three stations. Throw in a few travelators and this could cut interchange times by at least half.

Something else you don't get free on other operators' services: spirits. Here is my first gin & tonic of the day - a double measure being as standard on Virgin Trains. You'll notice the clever product placement - their V-Mix indian tonic water.

There was some confusion initially over the tickets I’d come to collect from Virgin Trains at Euston. The ticket clerk who initially dealt with my request seemed a little agitated and refused point-blank to make eye contact throughout our brief discussion. With no tickets to be found, he sent me to the main station reception, where the chap manning the desk therein would presumably look in the same place as my clerk had been looking to see if he could spot something the first chap couldn’t. Happily, all was sorted in the end and the tickets were handed over.

With over two hours until my 0930 train to Glasgow, I made haste to the First Class Lounge located on the first floor of the main station concourse. It was here, back in 2005, that m’colleague and I had chosen to undertake a Top Gear-style race from Basingstoke. I’d opted to stay on the then-named Virgin Cross Country service we’d boarded in Bournemouth to Reading, where I’d change onto a First Great Western ‘Adelante’ to Paddington and then Metroline’s Service 205 bus to Euston. M’colleage had other ideas; he caught a South West Trains' service to Waterloo and then the Northern Line to Euston, where annoyingly he beat me to our rendez-vous point – the First Class Lounge – by seconds. He tells a slightly different story to mine: that he’d been there ‘literally hours’, but I know a breathless LEYTR Editor when I see one, nonchalantly sipping a gin and tonic while trying to hide his burn-out at having ascended the steps at a fair old lick!

And what a difference the First Class Lounge continues to make to the rest of the station! It’s undergone a massive re-vamp since 2005, reopening in May this year, and looks a lot brighter, lighter and more airy. With the time being 0730, light breakfast nibbles were on offer: three large trays, each offering a pastry of some sort: mini butter croissants, mini pain au chocolats and mini fruit croissants. Tea, coffee, orange juice and hot chocolate were also on offer and it was a case of simply helping yourself. I picked up a copy of The Times and sat in front of a huge flat-screen TV watching BBC Breakfast.

Virtually everyone in the lounge was male – a good 50% of them were in pin-stripe suits, too, catching up with the news of the day over a coffee before their train took them north-west for a meeting or two. By comparison, I was dressed in jeans (Levi 501s – thought I ought to make the effort!), had no laptop, no briefcase full of important documents, and had surrounded myself with as many freebies as looked plausible.

Having started my third cup of tea of the day and having read that WH Smith had posted very good trading figures for the last year (their first store opened in Euston), word reached me that the later, more expensive NXEC trains arriving from Peterborough were, well, not arriving, since there had been a ‘major signal failure’ in North London and delays of an hour were being experienced. Not in a very long time had I been so pleased of sleep deprivation the night before!

The first WH Smith store was founded here at Euston. The station currently boasts two examples.

Shortly before 0900 I left the opulence I’d called home for the past ninety minutes and headed into Euston Square to take some photos of the station entrance. On the last occasion I’d had time here, one of the new air-conditioned ‘S Stock’ Tube trains was ‘parked’ on the lawn, showing off its modern credentials. I remember reading that the order placed for 191 of these trains (or 1,395 individual carriages) was the largest-ever order for rolling stock made in the UK. They’re due to roll out from next year, replacing all Underground trains on the Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines.

Platform 12 stables my Pendolino: 39023 'Virgin Glory'.

Back to my journey and around twenty minutes prior to departure the platform for my train was announced. The journey passengers here have to make to their chariots is not a pleasant one. Narrow, dull surroundings and an undercover platform don’t make for a good comparison to adjacent St.Pancras International, or even King’s Cross. The exterior of Euston station is very unimposing. Not so, prior to its renovation during the 1960s, when the dominant Doric Arch stood proudly before the station entrance. Only cost precluded developers from moving it to another site in the area - £12k to demolish compared with £190k to move and re-erect. It was therefore knocked down and dumped in canals in the area.

Having passed through the ticket checks and onto my platform I walked the full length of Platform 12 and took some photos of trains stabled here. I even managed to get a Pendolino to yawn for me!

The penultimate time I left from here was during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover when we both boarded the First ScotRail Sleeper to Fort William. I was allocated the first birth in the first carriage of the 13-car train, hauled to Edinburgh by an EWS Class 90. Had much changed I wondered? To be honest I had no idea – it was over 5 years ago. Acting as a reminder to that very enjoyable week-long holiday, the Sleeper train was visible, stabled in the easternmost platform.

I hadn’t been given a reserved seat and so chose to sit in Coach G on an individual seat, facing forwards. All tables had been laid with a china mug sat on a small plate-cum-saucer, with a selection of cutlery wrapped in a napkin, along with a condiment container and menu. The menu was dated September-November 2009 and detailed all meals offered, even those not available on certain trains.

The Breakfast Menu consisted of fresh orange or grapefruit juice, selected cereals, items from the Bakery Basket and then one of the main breakfast dishes: Great British Breakfast, vegetarian breakfast, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, fresh fruit bowl and three different types of hot breakfast roll. On the rear of the menu was the drinks list and while alcohol wasn ’t available on trains offering the Breakfast Menu, everything else was. My 0930 departure was the last northbound train of the day to offer the Breakfast Menu. In total 4 departures to Scotland exEuston serve breakfast: 0547, 0730, 0830, 0930, with 4 departing north from Birmingham New Street: 0617, 0719, 0820, 0920. Southbound trains offering breakfast are all departures up to 0840 and also the 0940 ex Glasgow.

The arrangement on all tables in first class is identical to this. Very welcoming.

The 0930 ex Euston is booked to attain a journey time of 4:31 to Glasgow Central and calls at Warrington Bank Quay, Wigan North Western, Preston, Lancaster, Penrith, Carlisle and its scheduled arrival at Glasgow Central is at 1401. The fastest section appeared to be the first, between Euston–Warrington: 182 miles in 104 minutes, equating to an average of 105mph – and we almost achieved this, though unfortunately pulled into Warrington 1 minute late at 1115. We’d slowed while passing Stafford bang on time at 1045, though slowing again at Crewe at 1101, when we were booked to pass two minutes earlier.

By now I’d had some toast, orange juice and a very nice cup of tea. I remember not too long ago that ‘train tea’ used to taste dire and that it was always more hygienic to drink left-handed out of the cup for fear of catching some nasty disease. Nowadays – and for some time – crockery is spotless, cutlery glistens and UHT milk has been banned on virtually all trains offering first-class meals and drinks. During the Railrover 5 years ago, I can’t remember drinking any tea made with generic UHT milk; instead that stuff in tiny cartons beginning with M was used – still UHT but without the nasty taste it leaves. I ordered the Great British Breakfast almost as soon as we’d departed Euston. A member of crew walked through first class asking everyone which option they’d like. The breakfast itself wasn’t as substantial as I’d been hoping, though I did turn down the tomato in favour of additional bacon.

Free-range and Fairtrade items are used extensively throughout Virgin’s menu and they should be congratulated for this. While many of us are guided by price – more so now than a few years ago – Virgin have remained true to their brand and carried on regardless. I understand Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter, whose company holds a 49% stake in Virgin Trains, has been keen for Virgin to adopt the rationalisation measures his rail companies have introduced and that thus far this has been resisted. It would be so easy to purchase the cheapest bacon and sausages for use in its Breakfast Menu, just to save a thousand pounds or two a year, but this wouldn’t be reinstated as quickly as it was lost.

First class feels that little more exclusive inside a Virgin Trains service. The company still offers everything from its menu completely free to first-class ticket holders.

We had a crew change at Preston, with a Preston crew leaving us for a mixture of Scottish and Lancastrian accents. We were 5 minutes late leaving Preston (1200) and ran our latest by Penrith – 6 minutes. This was the first time the train manager made reference to a delay, apologising for any in convenience this may have.

By now the crew was busy offering items from the Light Bites Menu: either a coronation chargrilled chicken roll or a Wensleydale and caramelised carrot roll, followed by either a Chocolate Indulgence slice or seasonal fresh fruit. I opted for the chicken roll and Chocolate Indulgence slice. Both were very nice indeed; the chicken had the edge in the taste stakes; the chocolate slice tasted like a generic chocolate chip-infested sponge. Both were very nice though. Since the Breakfast Menu had left the train with the first crew at Preston, alcohol was now on the menu and the drinks trolley was soon passed through. It seems almost unnatural to choose absolutely anything in sight, though I soon got over my apprehension and asked for a gin and tonic. All Virgin’s spirits come in double measures; again, as with the free-range and Fairtrade breakfast items, it would be so easy to half the spirit bottles to save a couple of grand a year, but Virgin has resisted. I suspect such large quantities can be ordered at excellent prices and that halving the quantity may not halve the price.

Breakfast was very tasty though not as substantial as I was hoping.

Visitations by the drinks trolley and the tea and coffee jugs were very frequent indeed throughout the rest of the journey. The staff were all pleasant and polite and seemed genuinely contented in their work. Meanwhile, we were meandering through the eastern outreaches of the Lake District after passing north of Lancaster – with John Shaw/Travellers Choice’s yard immediately to the east of the WCML at Carnforth. For much of the rest of the route, the line is hugged by the M6 motorway and the speed my Class 390 ‘Pendolino’ is travelling at is only now truly understood. That said, it is this section that sees the average speed of 105mph between London-Warrington reduce to the overall average of 88.8mph for this specific journey (401.25 miles in 271 minutes), although the scenery makes up for the reduction in speed. We were still travelling at almost 20mph faster than vehicles on the M6 are permitted.

At this point I tried to detail on my trusty notepad my overall thoughts of the service thus far. Initially, the Virgin employee in the ticket hall hadn’t been as helpful as he could have been and I had the impression he’d just wanted to get rid of me to the main station reception. I wasn ’t expecting eye contact, though it is often a sign that you’re at least engaging properly with the person you’re speaking to. The First Class Lounge had been excellent – relaxing and pleasant. The boarding procedure had been faultless and Virgin can’t really be blamed for the perceived dowdiness of Euston’s boarding gates. I wasn’t actually welcomed to my seat and only spoke with a member of crew when asked what breakfast option I’d like. First-time travellers in first class won’t know the procedure and it wasn’t explained to me about the options available in the menu, though I soon spotted what to do.

Crew members regularly patrolled the carriages and announcements were clear, if a little rushed at times. I hope residents in Warrington really appreciate the service they now receive – next stop London at 105mph, every hour, is effectively what they have. I know it’s been a long time coming and that problems still occur on the line with Network Rail struggling to get to grips with the upgraded route, but it is a truly excellent service between these two points. Should High Speed 2 get the go-ahead, average speed is likely to be around 186mph, meaning this would potentially see Euston–Warrington in 59 minutes (though Warrington won’t feature on HS2).

In what seemed like no time at all, though the equivalent of two feature-length movies, we were slowing on our approach into Glasgow Central station. Our 1401 arrival was beaten by two minutes, though only as far as the train was concerned; the doors weren’t unlocked for another minute, making the time precisely 1400 as the first passengers stepped on the platform. I felt a strange sensation: refreshed yet incredibly bloated through the quantity of food I’d gorged. I wandered against the tide of passengers to the ‘blunt’ end in order to photograph the train with the easternmost canopy that forms part of Glasgow Central’s impressive train shed basking in glorious autumnal sunshine.

39023 on Platform 2 in Glasgow Central. The sunshine had stopped. Clouds had gathered but any rain forecast held off.

Having walked onto the station concourse, I realised that I hadn’t actually been to Glasgow Central station before. I’d not really thought about it until now. The station itself is very grand, and recently been awarded the prestigious title of 2009 Major & Overall Station of the Year Award at the National Rail Awards ceremony held on 17 September. The station dates back to July 1879 when it was opened by the Caledonian Railway. Today, the station is the busiest outside of London, handling over 21 million journeys every year. The ease at which access is gained to/from the main city centre streets is what impressed me most about the place. You can clearly see the main platforms from the adjacent streets, and access is relatively straightforward since ticket barriers have not yet been installed.

Very impressive - Glasgow Central is certainly not as unassuming at London Euston!

The other aspect of the station that immediately struck me was the number of places served from here. Local suburban First ScotRail trains depart from all platforms, including the low-level ones, while NXEC and Virgin’s long-distance routes are also thrown into the mix. Add to this the First ScotRail sleeper services and the station must boast one of the most extensive lists of places served in the UK.

My return service departed at 1640, though I spent my time productively, photographing the station from many angles from the city centre streets, as well as having a ride on the Glasgow Underground, also known as the Clockwork Orange. A write-up of this particular part of the day will appear separately.

One of the ‘downers’ of the day was the realisation there was no First Class Lounge for Virgin passengers at Glasgow Central. I remember vividly m’colleague and I making use of the one at Manchester Piccadilly, and witnessing down below stars of TV show Emmerdale posing for photos with adoring fans on the concourse.

However, we were permitted to board the train twenty minutes before departure and I headed towards what was now the ‘sharp’ end for a similar shot though on Platform 1 this time, and with the sun’s position altered slightly. I think the Pendolino must have been a little tired as it was mid-yawn as I took the photo.

A yawning Pendolino - 390 014; perhaps it was trying to capture the dead phesant on the front?

Also in the photo is a dead pheasant, stuck to the windscreen. Its carcass must have travelled well over 400 miles since it was stuck to the London-facing end of the train, i.e. that which had not been travelling head-on into the wind and any birds that may have got trapped in the vacuum. I’ll admit to not having spotted it when I took the photo, nor did I spot it while stood on the platform.

My return journey to London Euston would take thirteen minutes longer than my northbound equivalent. At 4:44 additional stations were included: Motherwell (pick-up only), Oxenholme and Milton Keynes. We glided out of Glasgow Central punctually and headed south. I’d wanted to sit on the right-hand side of the train, but the low sun would have meant I’d either have to put up with it glaring into my face or I’d need to pull the blind almost all the way down, so I chose to sit on the left-hand side and witness the same scenery as that I’d been photographing when heading north.

Within what seemed like seconds, a member of crew approached me and asked if I’d like the hot or cold option from the Evening Meal Menu. As with the northbound menu requirement, the crew member assumed I knew what the situation was with regard to food on board, when many simply won’t have grasped this; some may not even have had time to read the menu. I’m in no way criticising the time length of time taken before being approached, but a little more explanation of my options would have been better. The Evening Meal Menu offers either pie & mash, curried winter vegetables and rice, a coronation chargrilled chicken roll or a Wensleydale and caramelised roll. The latter two featured on the Light Bite Menu. For dessert, the choice was between cinnamon cheesecake with rhubarb glaze and this week’s selection of cheese and biscuits, followed by fruit.

As I’d realised was now customary, the drinks trolley and tea/coffee flasks were brought round on numerous occasions in addition to the above. I opted for a white wine initially. Having left Motherwell, the main course was served – pie & mash was my choice and by far the best meal of the day. Excellent. As with breakfast, only the best ingredients had been used and British beef was guaranteed. I’ve eaten pie & mash on a few occasions (I’m not a great lover) but this was the best I’d ever tasted. A friend literally exists on pie & mash from shops in the East End of London and he claimed that I couldn’t rate that I’d sampled on board Virgin Trains as the best until I’d been to one of those; but since I haven’t, I’m happy to put on record that Virgin Trains' pie & mash is the best I’ve tasted.

The best meal of the day - pie and mash.

It went very well with the white wine, as did the selection of cheeses – two large chunks of white and red cheese on Scottish oatcakes were brought out. No information was given as to the type of cheese offered. Both were very nice indeed though. I do remember partaking of the Evening Meal Menu from Manchester Piccadilly back in 2005 and that a more substantial choice was offered, including Belgian chocolates and wine from fluted glasses. Virgin alter their menus every three months or so to keep the ideas fresh; who knows, the Brie and red grape sandwiches I sampled five years ago might be back on the menu by Christmas?

It was getting dark outside now and rather selfishly my thoughts turned to my connection back in central London. My 1640 train was to form the 2124 arrival at Euston and I then had 36 minutes before my 2200 NXEC train departed King’s Cross for Peterborough. Having timed my walk betwixt both termini to be a conservative 12 minutes earlier in the day, I was prepared to tolerate an arrival time of 2145, or a delay of up to a maximum of 21 minutes. In the event I had nothing to fear as we arrived into Euston 7 minutes early – and this despite leaving Milton Keynes 1 minute late.

Back to the journey and as darkness fell I didn’t feel too hard-done-by not sitting on the right of the train, facing the west. The speed at which you travel is somewhat lost in the dark on a train, though I always feel conversely it’s accentuated on a bus or coach. My first-class carriage, Coach H, acted as the Quiet Coach throughout the journey and conformed well, mainly since there was only a maximum of five people in it at any time during the journey. A few glasses of white wine later and I was feeling very merry indeed.

I tried to compare train travel with that offered by budget airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet. Both have compelling cases for attracting different types of patronage. Budget airlines can link Glasgow with central London in less than an hour, though check-in can add significant time onto the duration, while airport parking continues to be extortionate. Add to this that most airports bearing the name of a major city aren’t actually in that city at all (or nowhere near the centre of it!) and a transfer by surface transport adds further time. You have worries about lost luggage, strict guidelines about liquids on board planes and delays as a result of inclement weather to deal with.

On rails, there is no check-in, no maximum allowance for luggage, no 20-mile transfer to the terminal, no need to hand your luggage to a conveyor belt, and in thick fog trains generally travel at the same speed as when all is clear. Budget airlines do offer very inviting advance fares – the best I could find using the Virgin Trains website for the return journey I made was £87 each way; on the day, a turn-up-and-go (Anytime) ticket costs £399 return. Quite a difference! Even adding an outrageously-priced sandwich at 30,000 feet and the add-ons from paying by credit card and having luggage for the hold, budget airlines do not charge anywhere near this amount for a comparative journey. That said, it is impossible to just turn up at an Luton Airport an hour before a plane leaves for Glasgow and ask for a ticket. If this could take place, I wonder at what price this ticket would be pitched?

Commuters who want to clear their emails before they reach the office would never choose the plane over the train: there is no Internet connection in the clouds – in fact mobile phones must be switched off during take-off and landing and a flight of less than 1 hour’s duration is too short for any meaningful work to be undertaken on a battery-operated laptop. No sooner have you turned it on than you’re preparing to land and need to stow it under your seat. Rail commuters rightly criticise train operators for the levels at which they increase their season ticket, though in reality, they offer very good value when compared to driving into a major city and adding parking costs on top.

I’m lucky that my daily commute is a total of 3.2 miles and can be done easily on a pedal cycle. But then I don’t earn the sort of wages to be able to afford an Anytime First return on Virgin Trains to Glasgow from Euston.

The Scottish crew left my train at Preston and was replaced by London-based employees, two of which – both Asian ladies – were the most polite and courteous I encountered during today’s services.

The last hour or so of my journey was what I call “clear-up time”, when those working on board the train spend an eternity replacing cutlery and crockery with fresh examples. Though on this particular journey, all items were removed from all tables, save the condiment container and place mats. Having thought about it, something similar happened as we approached Glasgow this morning. It may well be Virgin policy to remove everything only to re-lay it before the next journey, even if it’s within an hour of arrival at the terminus.

My southbound journey of 401.25 miles from Glasgow Central to London Euston was booked to take 4:44, averaging 84.8mph, whereas this was increased to 86.9mph as a result of our early arrival – still some way to go to beat the maximum average speed of 96.3mph attained by the 1630 ex Euston on weekdays. That will have to be a journey to do, perhaps next year. We’re considering a 2010 LEYTR Railrover you know!

As I mentioned earlier, our arrival into Euston at 2117 – seven minutes ahead of schedule – meant I easily made my 2200 NXEC HST back to Peterborough. I jokingly text a friend to say that I’d “come down to earth with a bump” while onboard what he describes as a ‘tram’ – my NXEC HST at King’s Cross. The standard-class seating within all NXEC’s trains, be they Class 91s or ‘trams’, is excellent – the Mallard upgrade scheme was much-needed and the foresight of erstwhile GNER has paid dividends for comfort and style – especially when compared to standard-class seating in other train operating company’s HSTs. Having travelled 802.5 miles in relative solidarity, weighted on hand-and-foot, with everything being free of charge, while undertaking one of the fastest-ever railway journey times between London and Glasgow, my crowded carriage to Peterborough was quite a shock!

A selection of cheeses, Scottish oatcakes, butter, grapes and a tea - you don't get this for free in NXEC's first-class carriages!

In terms of average speed, 94.2mph was attained by my last train of the day: 72.25 miles in 46 minutes to be precise, faster than the two Virgin Trains I’d just travelled on, though importantly not over comparative sections. Peterborough is the first stop for most NXEC trains leaving London (94.2mph), while Warrington Bank Quay is for most Glasgow trains leaving Euston (105.0mph). And it’s thanks to the recent upgrade of the West Coast Main Line that the comparative gap has widened considerably. I said I wanted to sample the benefits of the £9 billion upgrade and I believe I did. Being able to ‘nip’ to Glasgow in less time than it takes a National Express coach to travel between London and Lincoln is very impressive indeed. The copious amount of free food and drink was incidental, though very much welcome.

As we exclusively revelated on Sunday, the media still comments about poor performance on Virgin’s West Coast rail franchise, despite the £9bn upgrade of the route. That may be a thing of the past. Virgin has just recorded its best-ever performance of 93.3% of trains ontime – the highest since it took over the West Coast rail franchise in March 1997 and average performance over the last three months is over 90%.

The ambience in Virgin's first-class coaches is very nice. The company's red livery is not extended to the decor.

Long may Virgin Trains continue to provide such an excellent service in the way and manner they’ve carved out! (GL)

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