In early April an evening talk in the centre of Birmingham gave me the perfect opportunity to review one of the UK’s inter-city train operators, Virgin Trains. For £18.80, with my railcard discount, I was able to grab a first-class advanced single about 3 weeks before I was due to travel for a mid-afternoon departure from London Euston.
First-class ticket holders, including Advanced Firsts, are able to access Virgin Trains first class lounges for two hours prior to the departure of their train and for an additional hour once they arrive at their destination. Planning my day to take advantage of this, I arrived at Euston just before 1300 and headed to the mezzanine level and the lounge.
Euston station and the surrounding area has changed drastically over the past 12-18 months as works for High Speed 2 start to progress and make an impact. The former Euston Square Gardens have been replaced by a new taxi rank and the brutalist shops and tower-blocks outside the station have been vacated ahead of demolition. Euston will eventually have a total of 24 platforms (up from the current 18), serving both High Speed and conventional rail services, and the London Underground station will finally be connected to the nearby Euston Square station more than 115 years after the former opened. Thankfully, the gate houses on Euston Road, now home to the Euston Tap bar, are not being demolished and these pieces of history will remain into the station’s future. With each gate house listing the many destinations that you could once travel to from Euston, I always find them inspiring travel and adventures and I’m very glad they will remain throughout the works.
The Virgin Trains lounge at Euston is a pleasant environment with a variety of seating areas and facilities. There are a small range of snacks as well as hot & cold drinks available for free and alcoholic drinks can be purchased from the bar. From my previous experience, I have always been able to find a seat, although Virgin Trains do limit the entry to 1 hour before departure during the Thursday and Friday evening peaks. There are also additional washroom facilities within the lounge to allow passengers to freshen up following long journeys.
Approximately 20 minutes prior to our booked departure time I received a text message informing me the train was almost ready to board and to head down to the main concourse. This is a facility that is provided if you book a ticket directly with Virgin Trains and provide a mobile number. Unfortunately, due to a subsequent delay, this resulted in a 25-minute wait in the main concourse whilst a technician inspected the train. Eventually departing from Euston’s platform 18 a total of 18 minutes late, I was disappointed as to the lack of information regarding the delay, with the first announcement coming after the train’s booked departure time.
With this being a mid-afternoon departure, first class was about a quarter full with about half a dozen other customers in coach K. I generally find coach K on Virgin Train’s Pendolinos to be quite a pleasant environment as there are less passenger seats available due to the on-board kitchen taking up part of the space. This also provides an advantage as when the on-board service is started, you are amongst the first to be served, ensuring a full range of options are available. As with all of Virgin’s on-board offerings (with the exception of breakfast), the lunch menu rotates between two different menus to provide some variety for regular passengers.
Soon after departure from Euston a drinks service was undertaken with the usual choice of tea, coffee, soft and alcoholic drinks. With a coffee to give me some energy and an orange juice, I was able to get 20 minutes of writing in before our approach to Milton Keynes Central signalled the start of the food service. When travelling in first class in the UK, I tend to choose the single seat side of the aisle and one of the individual tables to ensure some personal space and relative privacy if I desire it. Unfortunately, the compromise I make in taking these seats is that there is not space on the table for a laptop, drinks and food and so the food service generally means the end of work time. The other compromise is the lack of quiet carriages, which can unfortunately mean a noisy journey if other passengers are on their phones. I believe the only Train Operating Company that until recently had quiet coaches in first class was Virgin Trains East Coast (now LNER), however these were dispensed of in early 2017.
On the day of my journey Virgin were operating menu one for lunch, giving me choice of a Feta Cheese & Tomato Quiche; a Chicken & Chorizo Flatbread; a Teriyaki Jackfruit Salad; or Cheese & Crackers. Virgin also provide a range of ‘extras’ to accompany lunch and I opted for some peanuts and a slice of lemon drizzle cake to accompany my flatbread. Having opted for the Chicken & Chorizo Flatbread, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food with the meat not being too dry and there being plenty of filling. As for the lemon drizzle cake, it was one of the nicest pieces of cake I’ve eaten, and definitely the best pre-packed one I’ve been served on a train!
Finishing my lunch just as we arrived at Coventry, and with just over 20 minutes left of the journey, I decided against trying to get any more writing done and chose just to enjoy the view out of the window. Coventry station has a large ‘Welcome to Coventry’ sign on one of the platforms and efforts have clearly been made to try and make the station welcoming with the sign being on a grass bank with a number of planters along the bottom. Unfortunately, this work has been slightly detracted from by the bright yellow salt bin that has been placed next to the final planter.
Just after Birmingham International the railway passes right next to the airport apron and I was treated to a view of one of the twice daily Emirates services arriving from Dubai. With just ten minutes between Birmingham International and New Street stations, it was time to pack up and get ready to leave the train. Usually when heading into a terminus, I’ll wait for the train to arrive before packing up, however with this being one of Virgin’s service to Edinburgh via Birmingham I got ready to face the chaos of Birmingham New Street. Unfortunately, on the journey we weren’t able to make up any time and so arrived into New Street’s platform 6, 18 minutes late.
Birmingham New Street has changed beyond recognition over the past few years with the dingy, crowed concourse being replaced with three ‘lounges’ and the Grand Central shopping centre. Only one of the lounges is accessible from all of the platforms (at the ‘B’ ends) with the others being split between 1-5 and 6-12. With most of Virgin’s services serving platforms 1-4, the first class lounge is located within the smaller ‘lounge’ serving these platforms and so if your service arrives or departs from platforms 6-12, you’re required to either go through 2 sets of tickets barriers or head along one of the platforms, up to the main ‘lounge’ and then down to the correct platform.
As previously mentioned, first class ticket holders are entitled to visit the first-class lounge for up to an hour following their arrival, and this had been my intention for this trip with there being about 45mins between our scheduled arrival and my talk starting just down the road. Due to our late arrival and getting through two sets of ticket barriers, I chose to head straight to one of the station’s many exits and my talk at the other end of Corporation Street.
In conclusion I was happy that Virgin had met their usual high standard and provided a comfortable journey with and enjoyable lunch. The lounge also met its usual standard being clean and having a range of drinks and snacks available. Unfortunately, the delay to my journey, and the lack of information provided about it at Euston (or via text & social media) detracted from the overall positive experience and also hindered me visiting the first-class lounge at Birmingham New Street.
Overall 4* ds
Operator: Virgin Trains
Route: EUS – BHM
Date: Tuesday 8th April 2019