PBO-DAR LNER – 1st Class

Operator: LNER

Headcode: 1S04

Route:    PBO-DAR

Class:    First

Seat:     M09

Date:     Tuesday 2nd November 2021

With a winter chill in the air, but a glorious sunrise just beginning, I arrived at Peterborough station bright and early ready for another adventure. My ultimate destination was the NRM’s Locomotion in Shildon (although that failed miserably), however the first leg, as far as Darlington, was with LNER in first-class. It also turns out that this is the 150th blog of Flights and Times and so I feel that a first-class journey was appropriate.  

It was a bright and early start to get up to Darlington for a reasonable time

Being only the second LNER service of the day from King’s Cross, the train I was on was scheduled to stop at all of the major stations on the East Coast Mainline (ECML), with the exception of Thirsk, and so the journey to Darlington was going to take pretty much exactly 2 hours. Services later in the day tend to stop a less stations on the trip north, with my service home in the afternoon only scheduled to stop at three of the six intermediate stations the northbound service was.

At Peterborough I was greeted at the door by one of the onboard hosts who helped me find my seat in coach M, right at the back of the train. I’ve reviewed the Azuma’s first-class seating on a couple of occasions (here, here, here and here), and I had once again opted for one of the individual seats for this journey. These seats are great as no matter how busy the service is, you have your own area of personal space which others would struggle to encroach into. All the seats in first-class have their own standard and USB power sockets and their own tables, allowing plenty of writing to get done whilst travelling.

The first-class seating onboard LNER’s Azumas

Being in coach M meant that I was next to the small kitchen/staff area onboard the Azuma’s and so before we’d even departed Peterborough one of the hosts had brought me a menu and taken my order for breakfast. Disappointingly LNER have still not brought in their new ‘Dish’ menu and so in reality the only breakfast appropriate options were a Bacon Roll; a Cheese, Tomato and Mushroom Ciabatta; or a Pain au Chocolat. LNER always used to have one of the best onboard breakfasts, before Covid coshed it, and I hope that something similar will be introduced soon.

Having ordered my bacon roll, the drinks service came through almost immediately after departing Peterborough, with the usual options of tea or coffee, water and orange juice. With a cup of coffee to try and help me wake up, the drinks cart disappeared and almost immediately my bacon roll arrived in true first-class style. Wrapped in a paper bag. Whilst this is certainly not a big deal, it does seem to show that LNER has got halfway from removing their Covid changes and then stopped. Drinks that, for a while, were served in paper cups are now back in proper mugs, however rolls that were once served on proper plates remain in single use bags.

My breakfast onboard

Thankfully I wasn’t given much time to go down the rabbit hole of the whats and whys of first-class presentation as I had barely finished my first cup of coffee before the drinks trolley came round again at Newark Northgate and I got a top up of caffeine. I’ve got to say this is great service from the onboard hosts as on some 90-minute journeys I’ve only seen the drinks trolley once, whilst on this journey I’d already seen it twice in half an hour!

The last couple of times I’d headed north along the ECML was for my “Exploring the East Coast” series of blogs (read them here & here) and so it felt slightly odd to not be jumping off the train after just a couple of stops. Departing Grantham I saw the spire of St. Wulframs Church, the third highest of any English parish church, and upon arrival at Retford I glimpsed the small, inconspicuous part of the ECML’s history, a stopping board for a class 373.

A class 373 Eurostar in GNER livery next to a class 144 Pacer at Leeds – Pic by Stephen Craven via Wikimedia Commons

The class 373 is better known as being the original Eurostar train and so it might seem odd that there is a stopping board for one as far north as Retford. In fact, for a time, class 373s regularly made it as far as Leeds and York, operating for GNER on their ‘White Rose’ service between 2000 and 2005. Three of seven ‘North of London’ 373 sets were branded with full GNER livery, however unfortunately in 2005 the lease from Eurostar wasn’t extended and the class 373s eventually found their way to operate domestic services in France.

The approach to Doncaster saw us passing the numerous different railway yards that sit alongside the ECML (at my last count there are 10 different yards in Doncaster, although I might have missed one), as we arrived into the Yorkshire railway town the drinks cart came around for the third time in an hour. Continuing north there is plenty of evidence of Yorkshire’s coal mining past with three power stations visible from the train. In the distance to the west is Ferrybridge near Knottingly, whilst close to the ECML is what remains of Eggborough, the towers having been demolished since its closure.

Some of the stunning views along the ECML

To the west of the ECML is Drax, a former coal power station that has since been converted to burn biomass and sees numerous trains a day from Liverpool, Immingham and the Port of Tyne delivering the wood pellets used to power swathes of Britain. As we cross the River Aire we also cross Temple Hirst junction, the southern end of Britain’s first high-speed railway, the Selby Diversion. Constructed to divert the ECML away from the Yorkshire coalfields, the latter has long since closed, whilst the diversion continues to carry trains at 125mph between Doncaster and York. York marks the end of familiar territory for me, as although I have been further north, the majority of my trips on the ECML have ended here.

As we approached the historic city, I caught a glimpse of another railway to the left of the train, and after a bit of investigation discovered it was the York Model Engineers miniature railway which provides facilities for budding engineers to “practise and enjoy their model engineering interests and share them with the local community”. There are actually three miniature railways on the site, ranging in size to provide facilities to all sorts of model locomotives. Another building that caught my eye and shows that there is always something new to see no matter how many times you travel a route, was a long ex-railway building to the right of the station throat. After some educated guesses and falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, from what I can discover this is one of the buildings of the former York Queen Street Works. Another of the buildings, slightly further north on Queen Street itself, also remains and is currently used as a gym.

Our Azuma at Peterborough prior to departure

Just to the northwest of York station is the main home of the National Railway Museum, including its workshop and mainline connection. Its always worth keeping your eyes peeled as you pass the workshop and main shed as quite often there’s a steam locomotive or two resting, awaiting their next charter train or visit to a heritage railway. On this journey, there was nothing fully visible, however the front end of Tornado, Britain’s most modern steam locomotive, was just visible sticking out of the shed. Departing York also meant the final coffee of the journey, showing just how attentive this onboard crew were for the two hours I was onboard.

Not long after our departure from York saw the first non-stop station for this service since south of Peterborough, with Thirsk whizzing past as we continued towards Northallerton. Catching me out a few miles further north was the former station at Otterington, where the signal box has been restored, a small section of track laid and a Mk1 carriage now rests. I can find very little out about this online, however a photo from 2010 shows it in a state of disrepair so it has clearly been restored.

Looking south at Darlington, showing the immense length of the platforms

Northallerton was the penultimate stop for me and it is here where the Northallerton-Eaglescliffe branch leaves the ECML to connect with the Tees Valley and Durham Coast lines. There is quite an odd layout of lines here, as a pair of avoiding lines diverge south of the station, whilst a junction to the north also provides access to the branch. Sticking to the mainline, we continued north to Darlington where Tees Valley line meets the ECML, one of the most historic sections of railway in the UK.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, connecting the collieries near Shildon with Darlington and Stockton. Opened in 1825, passengers were initially second fiddle to coal and were carried in horse-drawn carriages before locomotive hauled passenger services began in 1833. The current grand Victorian station was opened in July 1887 and is fairly unique in that it sits to one side of the ECML rather than straddling it, with non-stop services completely avoiding the station.

Looking north at Darlington with our Azuma under the canopy on platform 4

As we pulled off the ECML into Darlington station, I had a moment to reflect on the journey north. The service provided by the onboard hosts was, as I’ve already said, extremely attentive and definitely deserves 5*. Unfortunately, LNER haven’t quite got the actual first-class experience back to its pre-Covid levels just yet, with a limited food offering being delivered in paper bags. All in all the journey with LNER was good but not great and I’m looking forward to the time when there are some delicious dishes back on the menu.

Lounge              0*

Seat/Facilities     4*

Food               3*

Service             5*

Punctuality         5*

Overall Rating      17/25 (read about my rating system here!)

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