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Back in the day British Rail ran the railways and the “backbone” if you will of the country’s rail network was the West Coast Mainline. Following rail privatisation in 1994, Virgin trains won the franchise to operate on the line – which takes in routes from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Virgin also operate the franchise for trains operating between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Birmingham New Street.
I travelled on the West Coast Mainline frequently in the days of British Rail. I even travelled on the old Advanced Passenger Train back in the early 80s prior to the launch of the service. My journey incidentally was fast and trouble free – unlike the famously disastrous service once the tilting train serviceofficially launched.
I hadn’t travelled on the route for some years up until late 2007 when faced with missing a flight at Gatwick due to fog in Edinburgh or taking the train south, I found myself on a packed train to Birmingham operated by Virgin. Since I moved from Edinburgh to South Lanarkshire the West Coast Mainline is now the quickest way for me to travel by train to London meaning I have had time to reacquaint myself with the service Virgin offers.
Where They Go
As already mentioned, Virgin trains serve the major cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. In between they also serve Milton Keynes, Coventry, Stafford, Stoke, Wigan, Warrington, Lancaster, Carlisle and of course the Lake District. Trains also go to North Wales via Chester, terminating at Holyhead.
If you are travelling to the North West of England from Scotland or London then it’s more than likely you will take a Virgin train.
The Rolling Stock
Most routes now operate using the “son of” the Advanced Passenger Train – the tilting Pendolino. This train can travel much faster than older, non tilting, rolling stock and can achieve a top speed of 125 mph. The introduction of the Pendolino on the London Euston to Glasgow service has seen journey times drop from 5 hours to 4 hours and 30 minutes on average - although one train a day makes the journey in just 4 hours.
Virgin do still use the Voyager rolling stock – this is used on services from Birmingham to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and on journies between Euston and North Wales. Voyager trains do not tilt and therefore take longer to do the same journey as a Pendolino.
Tickets & Booking
I don’t plan on spending much time discussing tickets on Virgin trains – as with all train operators there’s a huge variety of fares on offer. You can sometimes find it is much cheaper to travel long distance buying single tickets although in
my experience these cheap tickets seem to be thinner on the ground than they are with East Coast trains.
You can book on the Virgin Trains website, via the Trailine website or on any other train operator’s website. I usually book on the East Coast Trains website purely because I like the interface and they don’t charge you for absolutely everything the way the Trainline does. Tickets can also be purchased at most UK train stations.
For the cheapest fares it’s advisable to register your travel dates with Virgin and they will send you an e-mail when tickets are released for sale.
Trains can get very busy so it’s highly advisable to book a seat if you are travelling at peak times – especially if you are travelling long distance. Some tickets make a seat reservation mandatory but if you know you are definitely going to travel on a specific train my advice would be to reserve a seat.
You can also upgrade at weekends using the Weekend First service. This is valid with all standard class tickets enabling you to travel in first class accommodation for a small supplement.
The Experience Onboard
Having travelled on Virgin trains in both Pendolino and Voyager stock and in both standard and first class coaches, I have had mixed experiences with Virgin trains.
I’ll start with what I like about Virgin trains. For starters, seat reservations are displayed digitally on a dot matrix display above seats. This stops the “accidentally on purpose” removal of seat reservation tickets from busy trains which can lead to some serious arguments (believe me – I’ve seen them) when people who have taken the effort to reserve seats find someone else sitting on them. I appreciate most people will get up and accept they didn’t reserve a seat but there’s a small, and very irritating, minority who seem to think removing a tag somehow frees up a seat for their own personal use.
The trains look very nice too – with a fetching red livery which is sadly spoiled a little by the huge Virgin logo. The interior of the trains is pleasant too – with red and blue seats in standard class and blue seats in first class.
Onboard service is good too with a trolley service in standard class and food available in the onboard “shop” – although it has to be said it still resembles a buffet car to me. I tend to avoid buffet cars and buy food to eat prior to boarding a train simply because I find onboard prices to be a legalised form of theft so I can’t really comment on prices onboard Virgin Trains.
Ticket staff are helpful and Virgin have a good level of announcements and will tell you reasonably quickly why the train is stuck in a field somewhere in the middle of nowhere with nothing to see but sheep or cattle grazing.
Seating is reasonably comfortable – although there is a marked difference between standard and first class. More of that later.
Less pleasant are the toilet facilities. When they are clean at the start of the journey they are bearable enough but I’ve experienced a packed train with several blocked toilets and that’s really unpleasant. The toilets also have the automated dryer, sensor operated tap and soap dispenser all located together underneath a large mirror. It’s a bit of a lottery finding a toilet with all three features working at the same time – invariably the dryer is the missing link.
Timetables are very strange in my experience. When I travelled from Edinburgh to Birmingham the train was timed reasonably well to connect with other services travelling to the south west, Wales and the south east, but the train was sadly late arriving. While I didn’t miss the train I was connecting on to, other people did, leading to chaos on an already packed train and more problems for the overworked staff on board.
Similarly the last time I returned from London on a Virgin service, the train sped all the way up to Lanarkshire keeping excellent time. Once we were about 10 miles out of Glasgow it ground to a halt, and stayed there because the train was early. I appreciate that sometimes there aren’t platforms available at the terminus if trains arrive before schedule but no-one actually explained this to us – which was both unusual and annoying.
Wifi is available onboard but is only always complimentary in first class accommodation. It is currently free in standard class courtesy of Google but this offer expires at the end of February 2011. Last time I travelled on Virgin in standard class it cost me £10 for 24 hours access – which seemed a bargain on a train journey of 4 and a half hours when an hour cost £5.
I do have to say the wifi is good – it’s far more stable than that on offer on East Coast trains – and it’s all the more impressive when you consider how rural much of the line is, particularly between Glasgow and Lancaster.
The wifi does show the difference between first and standard class on board Virgin Trains. I have only travelled in First Class using the Weekend First service. This costs an additional £15 per adult and £5 per child but if you are travelling between London and Glasgow it’s money well spent in my opinion. If you are planning on using wifi (and there are no offers available in standard class for wifi) it almost pays for itself.
Seats in standard class are rather cramped – I certainly noticed the legroom isn’t as generous as that on East Coast Trains. They are also rather uncomfortable and there’s a distinct lack of table space in standard
Pictures of Virgin Trains
First class carriage onboard the Virgin Pendlino train.
class – whether you are in a table seat or one of the so-called “airline” style seats. Similarly there’s only limited plug sockets in standard class – which is worth bearing in mind if your laptop has limited battery life.Seats in first class are far more spacious and are more comfortable than standard class but having travelled in first class on East Coast trains, I find their first class coaches to have superior seating.
During the week catering is free in First Class – at weekends snacks and drinks are free of charge. The trolley service is fairly regular too, which is a pleasant surprise for a complimentary service.
I have yet to encounter much in the way of bad behaviour onboard Virgin trains. Short of the usual nuisance of people thinking everyone on the train wants to hear their music and a little drunkenness (sadly to be expected if you travel to or from Glasgow) staff do seem to largely keep people under control although my sister had a bad experience with a drunk in first class once and was dismayed at the lack of assistance she received from staff onboard – so it can vary.
Luggage space is poor on both Pendolinos and Voyagers. There is a luggage car onboard but I have only seen staff ask passengers to use it when travelling on overcrowded services. There’s some space between seats and some very small luggage racks at the end of carriages, along with quite narrow overhead shelving for luggage.
I have had mixed experiences travelling on Virgin trains and have to say that I actively try to travel at weekends now so I can take advantage of Weekend First. The standard accommodation could be better – it's certainly not on a par with that on East Coast trains – with limited legroom making for a fairly uncomfortable trip. Standard coaches also tend to be very busy – having travelled in them at peak times it’s unpleasantly busy with people sitting wherever they can.
I do have to weigh this up with general customer service onboard, the wifi which when free is far superior to East Coast’s unstable product, and the fact the Pendolino makes travel between London and Glasgow significantly faster than using the East Coast mainline.
It is rather galling however that ticket prices seem to be permanently and significantly more expensive on Virgin trains – no doubt in an attempt to claw back the expenditureon the Pendolino trains as quickly as possible – and I must be honest in saying when travelling in standard class I have to question whether it’s worth it to be in London just over an hour quicker than the East Coast service which is always noticeably cheaper.
First class is good on Virgin but if you use it you really do notice how uncomfortable standard class is and how overcrowded the trains can be.
So in conclusion I will continue to travel on Virgin trains but will try to make use of Weekend First when at all possible because if it weren’t for the speed, I’d be taking the East Coast service every time when travelling from Glasgow.