Advantages Reliable, relaxing, excellent food
Disadvantages Truly dreadful staff
|Frequency of trains|
|Reliability of trains|
|Speed of trains|
|Safety of trains|
|How extensive is their Rail Network?|
|How well does it cater for disabled people?|
You know, I can tell you for nothing that I'm going to enjoy writing this review far more than you will probably enjoy reading. Over the last twelve months plus, you see, I have developed something of a love / hate relationship with GNER. I love their services (particularly when benchmarked against the other UK rail companies) but I hate their staff with every vengeful bone in my body. I'll provide evidence of why this is, if you'll bear with me.About GNER
GNER are an old-fashioned railway company, embracing the traditional values of the British railway. They still seem to believe that rail services should be comfortable, reliable and that they should cater strongly for customers who want to travel in style on a long journey. Virgin Rail, for example, may offer Club Class, but it always feels like an afterthought to me, with one lonely carriage tucked at the back of the train, as opposed to a GNER vehicle with several glorious first class carriages, and a restaurant car. First Great Western aren't much better and then when you start to hit some of the smaller operators, it's like something out of the Third World. There's no doubt, therefore, that GNER sits way ahead of the competition in terms of style and standards and this is a key contributor in the regulator's decision to renew their operating licence.Network and Destinations
The GNER network essentially connects London and Scotland with routes that link the East Coast, Yorkshire, and the North East. In old money, GNER operates an Intercity route, only stopping at major destinations along the way.You can get from London to Leeds in around two and a quarter hours, with trains running at half-hourly intervals at peak times. London to Newcastle can be down in three to three and a half hours with similar regularity. Obviously, the Scottish destinations take longer. The average journey time to Edinburgh is about four and a half hours; Glasgow is five and a half. Generally, the longer the route (London to Leeds is serviced as a separate route from London to Scotland) the fewer the stops along the way and fairly significant distances are covered in pretty good times.
I wouldn't, for example, replicate any of these journeys by car as unless every single speed limit is broken (big time) and the road is completely empty, you'll never match the train times. I'm not a huge fan of flights either. Whilst journey times are significantly reduced when comparing timetables, once you've factored in getting to / from airports, plus checking in time and the (very real) likelihood of significant delays, flying never really seems like a viable alternative to me (and that's without even considering the comforts of good food and being able to use your phone / move your legs).Standard of Accommodation
I nearly always travel first class. As a business traveller, I simply don't want to share the carriage with hordes of noisy kids / dogs / adults (first class is seldom full to the brim). The first class carriages are always of a very high standard - plenty of leg room, reclining chairs, power sockets on every train and other little touches (such as china cups and saucers) that might not be vital, but do make things more pleasant. The seats are very comfortable indeed - although standard class is also pretty comfortable - and there are far more seats with tables in first class than there are in second class. You also get free tea / coffee / water, plus at table hostess service, so you don't have to fight your way down to the buffet car.That aside, the standard class carriages are still head and shoulders above most other operators. The toilets nearly always seem to be working and (fairly) clean, for public loos. The carriages tend to have a lot more storage for luggage than the new Virgin ones and the trains are also much longer, meaning that over crowding is only a problem at the very busiest times. Not being able to get a seat on a Virgin train is almost the norm. Most GNER trains now have power points at the tables too, so you can recharge your mobile / laptop. Wireless Internet is now also available on many trains but seldom seems to be used and I must admit that I've yet to take up the offer.
In August, GNER finally came round to everyone else's way of working and banned smoking on all its trains. It stunned and amazed me to find smoking accommodation on these trains prior to this, which, despite air conditioning, impinged on the rest of the train. Of course, they can't ban the smokers themselves and occasionally you get a particularly desperate one who lights up in the toilet and sets the alarm off, leaving a lovely smoky smell behind for everyone else to enjoy.I'm not sure that GNER caters very well for passengers in wheelchairs. Not all the toilets are suitabled for disable passengers and I'm not as aware of seats that can accommodate disabled passengers existing in enormous quantities. That aside, in all fairness, only somebody who is disabled themselves could probably comment on this properly.
I don't have problems with my mobile phone signal on GNER trains either. Somebody told me that the coating the windows on Virgin trains blocks your signal and this certainly seems to be the case.Fares
Like most of the main line rail operators, GNER recently tidied up its fares to try and make things simpler. There was plenty of room for improvement! Now, the operator offers a basic range of return fares (saver return, business saver and open return) and then layers on a selection of discounted single fares on a first come first served basis.For example, for an off-peak return journey from London King's Cross to Newcastle a saver return costs £88.00. However, if you do the journey as two singles (and provided you book far enough in advance) the journey could cost as little as £20 standard class. Even the first class eviquialent on this basis would only cost around £60 - cheaper than going standard class!
As with anything else, to take advantage of these offers, you need to book in advance and you also need to be aware that refunds aren't always possible if you change your mind. Also, if you get on the wrong train (deliberately or otherwise) then your discounted ticket is invalid and you have to pay the full standard fare. GNER train managers rigorously warn of and enforce this policy too.Nonetheless, the opportunities to save money are really there and sometimes you can still get discounts at short notice. I have booked trains 1 or 2 days before the journey and still realised significant savings this way. To make the bookings, you can either use www.thetrainline.com or GNER's own website www.gner.co.uk. Alternatively, book by telephone and enjoy your call being handled by a real Geordie as opposed to somebody in India.
CateringAgain, GNER is light years ahead of the competiton here. The food on board the trains is nothing like your usual rail fodder and whilst it is over-priced, it is at least edible. Food on the trains is prepared in a real kitchen, by real chefs (shock horror) and is really quite nice. You can either purchase snacks and drinks from the onboard shop or trolley service or if you're really hungry, why not go for a meal in the restaurant car? (It's offered to first class passengers first, but there is normally room for standard class passengers too.) If you're travelling for more than three hours, the opportunity for a good meal is very welcome indeed. I've tried various meals - guinea fowl, fillet steaks, chicken, and vegetarian dishes and have found them all to be excellent (if not rather pricey). When travelling from London of an evening, I personally think there is something rather romantic about dining on a train and I think GNER cater for this superbly.
The restaurant car isn't always what you need though and the on board shop still caters well. I am completely addicted to their hot scrambled egg and red leicester paninis, bacon toastoes and chicken caesar crepes, all of which only cost between £3 and £4 and are absolutely delicious. They also sell a good range of beers, wines and soft drinks and their Cider Vinegar crisps are too die for.I can honestly say that if I'm in meetings and I know I have a GNER train journey home I really start to long to get on the train purely because of the standard of the food.
Punctuality and ReliabilityI have to say that GNER generally offers better punctuality than other operators. They don't seem to get caught up in the ridiculous "excuse and blame" scenarios of other operators. Trains are often 5 or 10 minutes late but long delays are unusual and I have NEVER seen a GNER train cancelled. You always know where you stand with GNER trains too - they seem to use the same platforms and they have the first class and quiet coaches in the same place.
ServiceGNER staff are unconditionally and virtually withour exception ignorant, rude and portentous in fairly equal proportions. The level of service is astoundingly poor and symptomatic only of the fact that they simply don't have any competition in their particular market. On pretty much EVERY GNER journey that I make, the staff are dreadful, such that my friends and colleagues and I now find the journeys more entertaining simply by watching and waiting for the next mishap. Examples include:
The waitress who dropped a bowl of milk on the floor, splashing it up my trouser leg and then simply told me if I hadn't been stood there, it wouldn't have happened.
The waiter who would not accept my request not to have cups and saucers on my table and as fast as I moved them would replace them every time he walked past.
The platform attendant who, when asked whether the train went to Edinburgh, replied rather sarcastically "I think the sign saying Edinburgh in the window and the announcements saying it goes to Edinburgh rather indicate that, don't you?"
The hostess who was so busy talking to her colleague, failed to notice that she was pouring tea on my paperwork not in the saucer and who when challenged simply shrugged her shoulders and said "there wasn't much spilt really."
The staff member huddle, where three staff members were chatting about TV or something and when I asked if I could get some food, replied that somebody would be along in a minute. Twenty minutes later, they were still chatting.
The train guard who, upon seeing me entering first class, dashed over, looked me up and down and asked whether I knew that this was first class.
Whilst I've learnt to see the funny side, it does indicate to me that, all in, GNER simply don't give a fig. Their stations are adorned in posters warning that they prosecute people who are offensive to their staff (always unacceptable, of course) but they don't seem to have any kind of customer service strategy. Even letters of complaint seem to fall on deaf ears.Overall Verdict
A good choice for comfort, reliability and catering - GNER leads the way in these standards and other rail operators should take note. Basic standards of service, however, are dreadful and GNER really needs to pull its socks up.Recommended, nonetheless.
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Pages: 48, Edition: 1st, Paperback, Passmore Edwards Museum
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