Virgin on the inedible

In the glory days of the railway, the British Rail restaurant car breakfast was something of a treat. Cereals, toast, juice, and full English – offered to you “service Anglaise” from a tray, so you could get what you wished. They even had kippers.

Even despite “modernisation” of the BR buffet car under InterCity in the 1980s and early 90s – think along the lines of moving away from Mr Kipling cakes and Maxpax coffee to croissants and the chewy microwaved burger – the Great British breakfast was left well alone, lest the Great British businessman kick up a stink…

Retro BR breakfast service complete with retro hairstyle...
The hair is a dead giveaway as to which era this BR breakfast belongs! Photo: NRM

For a while, this even survived into privatisation, most notably perpetuated by the late GNER: “Great” for so many reasons, and not just the fact that even when travelling in the cheap seats one could still sit in the restaurant car and eat real food at 100mph-plus, as I often did.

Where freshly cooked food is still available on British trains, the current trend is a move away from the classic restaurant car to an at-seat service for 1st Class passengers only, called “complimentary” by the train companies, as opposed to inclusive, so they are able to weasel their way out if the service can’t be provided as advertised. Generally, this service includes a cooked breakfast, light food across the day and sometimes a cooked evening meal, which is what Virgin Trains provide on their routes out of London.

I’d recently travelled from London up to the Northwest, and by a quirk of the UK railway fares structure, it was one of those trips where by booking in advance, it was cheaper to go 1st Class as opposed to Standard. “Great”, I think, it’s a train where they serve breakfast, and while I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as in days of yore (as they never are!), I’ll happily admit to looking forward to it.

I’d not travelled VT’s 1st Class where they served hot breakfast in a while (about 3 or 4 years, I think), and the last time I should have had a VT breakfast, it wasn’t available, which meant I was kind of hoping for more success this time.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I was offered “the last rasher of bacon”, which was overdone to the extent of being tooth-breakingly crispy – you couldn’t get a fork in it, a “grilled” tomato almost reduced to mush, some overdone black pudding, a dry-looking hash brown, and a rubber egg. I took one bite, and pushed the plate away, but not before I got a pic of it, so disappointed to be served such obviously second-rate tosh…

Hope you like your bacon crispy?

“No more bacon…”, I was told. It seems that the people sat further up from me could only be offered similarly incinerated sausage. I asked one of the crew to take it away, and I tweeted the above pic to VT’s (excellent) Twitter desk, to see what they had to say…

Either my rejection of the burnt offerings, or the message to the Twitter desk, got someone’s attention, as a few minutes later, this arrived…

Bacon and eggs, was it?

“No more bacon”, apparently. Hmm. I didn’t notice us stop to pick some up, either.

But, nice save of face by the crew in the end, though the sad thing is that I had to complain before something was done. Really, that overcooked stuff shouldn’t have been served in the first place. Surely the person with the tray noticed what she had was burned? Wasn’t she ashamed to serve it?

This isn’t the only beef about the alleged “1st Class” service offered on that train. Things could have been done with a bit more style, and thought for the passenger.

For instance, there seemed to be an assumption by the crew that people sat in 1st Class knew what was on offer, and what to ask for. There were no menu cards, and no explanation offered about what was available.

One of the crew members walked past with a closed up solid-sided trolley (like an airline food trolley) mumbling “Anything from the snack trolley?” – wouldn’t this have been better if the trolley was more open plan so we could see what was available, or if the person had told us what they had inside the trolley?

Later in the journey, between Crewe and Warrington (and by this point, we were 30 minutes late because of a signalling problem near Stafford), the crew were starting to collect cups and things in, it looked like they would change catering crew at Preston so they were clearing away, and putting out fresh cups, etc.

At no point did anyone ask “May I clear away?”, or “Can I get you anything else?” – your place setting was just cleared away, seemingly with an unspoken message of “Right then, that’s all you’re getting”.

Unfortunately the train then ran into more trouble between Warrington and Preston (faulty windscreen wipers on the North end cab, beaten into submission by the relentless Northern rain, it seems). Initially, the train was going to be reversed by manoeuvring around a triangle of junctions (for North American readers, you’ll know this as a “wye”) just south of Wigan, so the good cab would be on the “correct” end of the train for continuing toward Glasgow. That would have taken another 30-40 minutes. Eventually, after some dithering, this reversal was abandoned and the train continued to Preston and terminated there, an hour late, where it could be swapped with another Pendolino.

By this point, after a 30 minute-plus delay, passengers in Standard are entitled to certain complimentary things (water, tea, coffee, until it runs out) from the Shop. Were those of us seated in the “good seats” taken care of during this period? Unfortunately not. Laying on some tea and coffee would have been fairly simple, and would have given the impression that our custom mattered to Virgin Trains, but it didn’t happen.

You’ve got to question why this is? Are some Virgin Trains’ staff feeling undervalued and demotivated? Uncertain of the future following the franchising fiasco? Or poorly selected and trained? Or simply only allowed to follow the prescribed service, bound by process and discouraged from using initiative?

Maybe it was summed up by a nearby passenger who said to me “If you think that breakfast was bad, you should try the evening meal. East Coast have better food.”

Are us Brits too backward about coming forward? Or is the fact that it is “complimentary” somehow meant to remove expectations of a decent service?

People petitioned hard for a rethink for Virgin to retain the West Coast franchise back in the summer. I agreed that this was the sensible thing to do, especially once the previous franchise process was declared invalid, it made sense to let Virgin continue. Now that’s happened, you’d think they would be wanting to reward passengers for showing such faith in them, and that the support was well earned, right?

Virgin’s basic railway product out of Euston isn’t horrific, with frequent trains and quick journey times (when it’s not blighted by engineering work), but with a little more attention to detail and some effort (and lining the seats up with the windows!), couldn’t it be really, really great?

Disclaimer: I should probably note that I am an ex-UK railway employee, having worked for BR in 1994/1995. That means I’m used to the consequences of disruption, but it’s how you handle it that makes the difference. Note that I pay full price for my tickets these days, this one included.