What’s wrong with VT’s at-seat 1st Class Service?

Following on from Why the Virgin Trains Pendolino is fail…, someone asked me what was actually wrong with the onboard 1st Class service. They didn’t share my negative impression of it, and had experienced, by all accounts, some enjoyable breakfasts. I think they have been incredibly fortunate, compared to my personal experience.

Firstly, there’s the token “weekend” 1st Class service…

This is a very limited service of tea, coffee, soft drinks and water, crisps and biscuits, and seems to be provided almost grudgingly – for instance, on a journey from Preston to London, the host sometimes only passes through with the trolley once during the journey, on departure from Warrington. If you’re lucky and the host is being extra generous and diligent, you might get another bite of the cherry around Rugby. Oh, the largesse!

On another occasion, the 1st Class host came through offering a box of crisps and said “Sorry, there’s no stock been left for me up there and no water in the boiler, you’ll have to go to the Shop.” They then proceeded to sit down in a 1st Class seat, in full view of the fuming passengers, for the rest of the journey and read a book. You can’t help leaving with the impression that VT aren’t really interested in providing the product when faced with this sort of behaviour.

What’s offered at weekends doesn’t bear any resemblance to the online marketing material for the First Class product, and the nature of this token service is concealed behind this link in the small print, which also helpfully tells you that if you’re really unlucky, you’ll have to go and get your inclusives yourself from the onboard Shop because your train hasn’t got an onboard host.

While I can just about accept that the weekend travel market is somewhat different from the midweek business traveller, and the nature of the minimal service is reflected in the cheaper advance purchase fares and upgrades available at weekends, what’s really insulting about this “service” is that the First Class host can’t even sell you any buffet (sorry, “Shop”, we’re in Virgin-land now) items such as sandwiches at your seat, even if you wanted to pay extra for them. You’re “invited” to go and get them for yourself from the Shop, which just feels rather insulting.

This brings me onto most recent episode of non-delivery I experienced.

Travelling to Manchester, I was looking for a train sometime after 10am on a Friday. I ended up with one of those situations where the online, buy in advance, 1st Class fare was cheaper than the available Standard Class fare. The train (1040 Euston – Manchester) even offered a hot breakfast service – not the full English, but bacon and sausage baps, that sort of thing. Well, I thought I was on to a winner. Ha! This is Virgin Trains! Prepare to be disappointed, sucker!

A few minutes before departure, a disembodied voice comes over the speakers to let 1st Class passengers know there will be no Coffee or Tea served, nor any hot food, because the galley doesn’t have any water.

The crew still came round with their trolley, offering what they had, and were apologetic. But, they also rapidly ran out of all cold food (such as sandwiches, fruit and other things) because no extra supplies had been provided to make up for the absence of the advertised hot food. They were soon left with very little to offer other than an apology, along with an insulting reminder that “because the service is complimentary VT aren’t obliged to provide it”, and yes, an “invitation” to buy something from the Shop (which did have food, and hot drinks, as it’s provided from a separate stock, using it’s own equipment, in a separate carriage).

I did visit the Shop, presented my 1st Class ticket, and got a free cup of coffee. Small mercies. I’m so greatful I could go and get my own cup of coffee rather than it being brought to me like in the advertising. But woebetide if you wanted a sandwich, of which the Shop was very well stocked, it was coming out of your pocket.

I accept that things can breakdown. What I object to is the handling of the problem. If passengers, expecting to be offered food onboard, were told in advance that the advertised service would not be provided they could have hit M&S or somewhere to pick up a sandwich before boarding the train at Euston. Instead, you’re told at the last possible moment, “Sorry guys, no brekkie“. No additional food which didn’t require cooking (or hot water) was loaded to make up for the failure. There also seems to be no system for the First Class hosts to “raid” the Shop stock to make up for what their own stock is missing, and put their First Class passengers (shock, horror) first.

The system seems rather petty, inflexible, and disrespectful to people who have forked out extra money for a supposed “premium” product. I guess we should just be happy that, for the most part, the seats in 1st line up with the windows, shut up, grin and bear it.

Even when the service works as advertised, there’s still petty behaviour to be found.

I know someone who travels regularly from the West Midlands to London on VT, who tells me that they are consistently (so it’s not just an isolated grumpy employee, but more likely a loony policy!) not allowed to substitute scrambled egg for the fried egg on the VT breakfast, despite there being scrambled egg available on board to go with the smoked salmon. So why? What is the reason for this display of awkwardness? Actually, that’s probably a rhetorical question that if I asked VT HQ would get some ridiculous made-up excuse.

It’s back to the overriding impression that underneath the shiny Virgin gloss, which somehow makes it even easier to find fault, Virgin Trains (as an organisation, and not as individuals) seems to provide it’s products complete with a corporate chip on it’s shoulder, as though it is doing the fare-paying passenger some great favour.

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