This year (so far!) I’ve travelled with eight different train companies. I’ve just sacrificed a page of my current writing notebook to list them. In the interests of helping out other travellers, or at least of warning them what to expect, I thought I would write a post comparing them, using a set of perhaps random criteria that seem to me the most important. Of course safety is absolutely the most important criterion, but fortunately I cannot make any complaints about that. This year, unusually, I am unable to quibble either about my second most important criterion, which is whether the train actually turns up or not. So what follows may seem quite minor in the scheme of things. On the other hand, these minor details can loom quite large when you’re travelling a long way or making a lot of short journeys within a short time.
So here we go with the train company awards for 2015.
The contenders are Virgin East Coast, Virgin West Coast, Cross Country, Arriva Trains Wales, Scotrail, Eurostar, Deutsche Bahn, Thalys.
KEEPING TO TIMETABLE
Quite amazingly, the only train that ran more than a few minutes late in all these journeys was the Deutsche Bahn train from Berlin to Cologne, which as far as I can recall was half an hour late. So 10/10 for all the others in this category and about 8/10 for DB – this was a noticeable improvement on last year when neither of their trains reached its official destination at all.
CHANGING PLATFORM AT LAST MINUTE
I’m afraid Virgin East Coast definitely wins this award for sending us from one end of Edinburgh Waverley to the other with only 10 minutes to go before departure time. But a special mention here to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where it’s almost impossible to find the right platform anyway, even if there aren’t any last-minute changes of plan.
Scotrail’s on-board catering is way ahead of the rest, being extremely frequent and efficient as well as generally being staffed by pleasant people. They do have the built-in advantage in that their trains often have far fewer coaches than the longer-distance ones and are sometimes quieter too. The other companies, e.g. Cross Country, often seem to give up on their trolley service at various points during the journey, while the Scotrail one persists to the bitter end.
Virgin’s at-seat first-class service is good too although I am not sure it’s quite as good as that of the previous train company on the East Coast route.
I haven’t sampled Eurostar catering, mainly because once I fold myself into one of their extremely cramped seats (see below) I don’t really want to have to get up again until we reach our destination.
I was disappointed by the catering in Deutsche Bahn’s first-class coaches. Although there is quite a good menu available, the staff don’t seem to have the appropriate tools for their task, i.e. somewhere to write down orders or a trolley to deliver them on. While not being quite as horrendous as the cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and luke-warm Cola I got from the second-class buffet on leaving Cologne at 5 a.m. last year, it does seem a bit amateurish.
To sum up, for companies who aren’t Scotrail it’s best to go to M&S at the station and grab a giant vegetable samosa, a drink and a slice of Victoria sponge cake before you board the train. Or if you’re in Brussels waiting for the Eurostar, you can get a really nice slice of quiche at one of the food outlets.
In my experience the free wi-fi that most train companies boast of nowadays is a waste of time – it disconnects randomly and is often so anaemic that it doesn’t even allow you to look at Twitter, never mind email or Facebook.
Virgin East Coast first-class ‘free’ wi-fi is quite good, but DB first-class wi-fi isn’t.
The best train wi-fi I have come across is the paid version offered by Cross Country. It cost me about £4 to access it all the way from Derby to Edinburgh, and the service was excellent.
I don’t think I would have noticed this if I hadn’t done so many journeys within such a short time, but the comfort of train seats varies tremendously. DB seats, for instance, look as if they should be comfortable but they appear to be made for giants – I think of myself as quite tall but I couldn’t reach the foot-rests for some reason. By contrast Eurostar seats, in the cheap section anyway, have almost no leg-room, although the journey is fairly short so it doesn’t matter a lot, and they do feel quite cosy!
Thalys seats seem to be ok, as are Virgin east and west coast. Arriva Trains Wales are a bit more cramped. Cross Country are the least comfortable – the seats seem to be made in an odd shape with a raised front edge that catches you just above the knee.
Scotrail take the award for best seats. I don’t know why they’re so comfortable. Maybe they’re specially designed for true Scots or something!
Oh, dear, Virgin trains both east and west. Even when you manage to get the seat reservations in place, they are often so confusing that people ignore them anyway.
Oh dear. Them again. If it isn’t endless lists of foods that are allegedly available from the buffet, which is almost always at the other end of the train, it’s stupid voice-overs in the loos, especially on the west coast route. Just stop it.
Scotrail is best (again. Not that I’m biased) for helpful and very clear announcements telling you what the next stop will be and whether it’s a request stop, of which there are many in the far north. And no excess verbiage – see above.
So Scotrail is best for catering, most comfortable seats and most helpful announcements.
Cross Country’s wi-fi is ahead of the others.
Virgin East Coast gets the ‘changing platforms at the last minute’ award and Virgin West Coast the ‘annoying announcements’ award.
Thanks to all the train companies mentioned for getting me there and back again through the year without any serious incidents!