Mid-way through our holiday in Cornwall & Devon, we took the opportunity to travel to Exeter by train and sample the first-class products of two different Train Operators, GWR & CrossCountry. The outward leg of our journey was with GWR and we were able to get a first-class advance single ticket for just £13.55 each. Unfortunately, to allow us a decent amount of time in Exeter, our departure from Penzance was at the rather unpleasant time of 0759 on a Saturday morning.
Having done a bit of investigation work prior to our journey, it appeared that our train was going to be operated by one of GWR’s new Intercity Express Trains (IETs), something that didn’t come as a surprise due to the rarity of HSTs on long distance services a week ahead of their retirement from GWR inter-city duties. Arriving at Penzance about 40 minutes before departure, I was surprised (given their rarity ahead of retirement) to find a High Speed Train (HST) waiting in platform 1 and after confirming with staff was please to find that this was our train to Exeter.
We were in fact travelling just one week before GWR retired their remaining HSTs from inter-city duties and so I was happy to have been given a final opportunity to travel on one prior to their retirement. Despite no longer being used on long distance services after May 18th, GWR are retaining a number of HSTs for use on local services. These ‘Castle Class’ HSTs are being refurbished and shortened and then used on routes such as Plymouth to Penzance.
After a short wait on the concourse (Penzance unfortunately doesn’t have a lounge for first-class customers, however, does have one for passengers on the Night Riviera sleeper), we were able to board and found that one disadvantage of the change of rolling stock was that our reserved seats didn’t exist. Fortunately, there were a pair of unreserved table seats on the right-hand side of the train, which would allow fabulous views of St. Michaels Mount and Dawlish later in the journey.
Despite the imminent retirement of the HSTs, it was clear that the Mark 3 carriages had been relatively recently refurbished as all seats had access to both a standard power socket as well as a socket for USB cables. I was also pleased to find that there was free wi-fi throughout the train and that the old-style large leather seats had been retained in first class.
Unfortunately, due to some early morning problems caused by a signaler becoming ill at Par, our departure from Penzance was delayed by about 5 minutes due to the Sleeper and an empty stock move from Long Rock depot being signaled into the station. Upon departure we were very quickly treated to some stunning views of St. Michael’s Mount and Mounts Bay as the line follows the coast before heading inland just before the town of Marazion. During construction the Cornish Main Line was built with a large number of timber trestle viaducts which although cheap to build were very expensive to maintain. Eventually all of these iconic viaducts were reconstructed in either masonry or wrought iron, however they continue to provide wonderful views of the Cornish countryside and the towns that the railway passes through.
Our journey from Penzance to Exeter St. Davids was timetabled to take just over 3 hours with stops at all stations to Par and then Bodmin Parkway, Liskeard, Plymouth, Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot and Exeter. Beyond Exeter the train was due to continue to London Paddington with stops at Tiverton Parkway, Taunton and Reading. All in all, the journey from Penzance to Paddington would take around 5hours 20minutes, fairly comparable to the same journey by car.
Disappointingly, although expected as part of the Weekend First product, there was no trolley service provided in first-class with us having to show our tickets at the Café Bar for our complimentary drink and snacks. Although the offering wasn’t comparable to the weekday selection on most Train Operators, the well-presented snack box, coffee and fruit cake were an excellent offering for a weekend first-class service. Included in the snack box was a packet of crisps, mini pretzels, both a chocolate tiffin and truffle as well as spreadable cheese with crackers.
Throughout our time in Cornwall, I had been impressed by the public transport connectivity provided, with there being bus services to some of the most remote communities. Cornwall and Devon have also managed to retain a large number of branch lines, with GWR branding each one of these individually. On our route between Penzance and Plymouth, there are connections with five branch line, these being the St. Ives Bay line (at St. Erth), the Maritime Line (Truro), the Atlantic Coast Line (Par), the Looe Valley Line (Liskeard) and Tamar Valley line (Plymouth).
Just after Liskeard the railway crosses another viaduct and the Looe Valley line loops under the mainline on its way to Coombe Junction Halt, one of the least used railway stations in the country and the least used station in Cornwall. On our approach to Plymouth we pass through St. Germans station and are afforded excellent views of the Lynher river before curving round the headland towards Saltash and the famous Royal Albert Bridge.
Constructed during the 1850s, and opened in May 1859 the bridge was designed by the illustrious Isambard Kingdom Brunel and influenced by Robert Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge crossing the Menai strait. Opened by Prince Albert, the bridge spans the river Tamar between Saltash and Plymouth and is the only rail access into Cornwall from the rest of the UK. Following Brunel’s death later in 1859, his name was placed above the bridge’s portals as a memorial to the great engineer.
Due to it’s location crossing the navigable part of the river Tamar, Brunel had two designs rejected by the Admiralty due to there being too many piers in the river. Having redesigned the bridge with two main spans and just a single pier in the navigable part of the Tamar, the bridge was approved by the Admiralty and the directors of the Cornwall Railway. Prince Albert, having agreed in 1853 to the bridge being named after him, travelled by Royal Train from Windsor to open the bridge, however Brunel’s failing health prevented him from attending the opening ceremony.
Having crossed the bridge into Devon, we pass through Plymouth’s suburban stations and the outskirts of the Devonport Naval Base prior to entering Plymouth station itself. To the east of Plymouth is the major railway depot at Laira, home to the remaining GWR HST fleet as well as a number of other trains that operate across the GWR network. Skirting around the edge of Dartmoor on our way to Ivy Bridge and Totnes, we are able to enjoy some of the scenery ahead of moving the base of our holiday to the area the following day.
Since Liskeard the train has started to fill up and with the change of train from IET to HST, there were a number of rather confused passengers looking for seats that didn’t exist. Having other passengers join us at our set of table seats at Plymouth, I was pleased to find there was plenty of room for us all to sit, have laptops out and still have space for drinks and snacks. With the impact of the early start beginning to take effect, I made my way back to the Café Bar and was pleased to find I was able to get a second coffee included in the price of my ticket.
Leaving our penultimate stop at Newton Abbot, the railway curves back toward the coast and follows the north bank of the river Teign towards the coast and the town of Teignmouth. Having passed through a number of smaller stations non-stop since our stop at Liskeard, I would love to return to Cornwall and Devon sometime in the future and explore some of these towns and see even more of what the south-west has to offer. Turning towards the north-east through Teignmouth, the railway now follows Devon’s south coast for about 5 miles between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren, passing just inches from the sea in places and through a number of tunnels through impressive cliffs. The sight of Exmouth across the Exe estuary signals the last 10 minutes of our journey as we approach the outskirts of Exeter. Having passed through Exeter St. Thomas station, one of Exeter’s six local stations we arrive into Exeter St. Davids a total of 11 minutes late, something which did cost GWR one star for punctuality in my rating system. Generally, I award five stars for anything up to five minutes late, four stars for five to 15 minutes late, with three stars for up to 30 minutes late. Up to 45 minutes late gets two stars with between 45 minutes and an hour getting one star. Anything over an hour late will get zero stars for punctuality.
In conclusion, with the exception of the slight delay to the service and having to head to the Café Bar for any food and drink, the journey with GWR was comfortable and affordable. Personally, although it took slightly longer, I arrived a lot more relaxed than if I had done the journey by car and, apart from the slight handicap of GWRs really slow wi-fi, I was able to be a lot more productive on the journey. Given that the cost of the ticket was only slightly more expensive than the equivalent in standard class, I would definitely upgrade again in future for the additional comfort and the food and drink included in the price.
Punctuality 4* Comfort 4* Facilities 5* Cost 5* Overall 4.5*
Operator: Great Western Railway Headcode: 1A80 Route: PNZ – EXD Class: First Seat: L40 Date: Saturday 11th May 2019