For our leap from London to Glasgow, we decided to try the train. We have trains at home of course, but not the fast long distance type. As this was our first time, we decided to splash out on first class and the service provider, Virgin, seemed appropriate as well.
We booked online before leaving New Zealand, selecting single seats either side of a table. This came with the risk of not meeting some fascinating fellow travellers, but that was offset by the benefit of being able to talk to each other exactly as we pleased.
The train conveniently departed from Euston Station, a 10 minute suitcase drag from our rented apartment. We entered the station, checked the departure board and took the escalator up to what looked like a place for a morning coffee. That’s when we spotted the Virgin first class lounge. Perfect. The whim was working out nicely. A friendly welcome, comfy seats, self-serve coffee and pastries were all included.
The lounge departure board signalled our 15-minute warning and we headed to the allocated platform. At this point we discovered that while our home-printed tickets indicated first class, they failed to mention our reserved seat numbers. It was the exciting equivalent of entering an aircraft with no boarding pass. I could vaguely remember carriage J, but as the clock was ticking we were ushered to U, the one reserved for unallocated seating. It wasn’t first class so we walked through to the next one, which was, and found ourselves in a carriage almost to ourselves. We stowed our suitcases in the handy racks opposite the bathroom and chose seats equivalent to those we’d reserved. As we pulled out of the station, the ticket checker assured us we’d be fine where we were. And so the effortless service continued.
As the train gathered speed it felt like we were floating on a cloud, but some reassuring train movements returned when we began to outpace cars on the adjacent motorway. Tea, coffee, water and snacks soon arrived as we hurtled through the outer suburbs of London. That’s when we noticed it was a leaning train, called a Pendolino. The carriages lean into the corners, keeping passengers and refreshments effortlessly in place, and allowing the train to travel at high speeds on normal winding tracks. Another benefit of the train’s inclination skills became apparent when we made our first stop. The platform must have been lower than most, so the carriages simply leant over until the exit steps were at the right height. Neat.
I was quite glad our carriage was almost empty. It meant we could share our excited appreciation for this new form of travel, without appearing like complete newbies in front of the global standard of emotionless commuters. While the view became increasingly rural and picturesque Jo, who was facing forward, would point out highlights that I’d get to see some moments later. It was a bit like watching a movie when the sound is out of sync. I too was making the mistake of encouraging Jo to look at things that were already well behind her.
The initial excitement of seeing the English countryside eventually subsided and we simply sat back to soak it all in. To keep track of where we were, I fired up Google maps. That little blue dot sure was moving and I wondered what our speed really was. After a quick search I had downloaded a free app called Velociraptor, which neatly overlays a speed display on the map app you’re using. There it was, regularly nudging 212 kilometres per hour. No wonder it felt quick, especially when you pass another one going the other way.
Lunch arrived in time to stop me fiddling with gadgets, and we both enjoyed a delicious gourmet sandwich washed down with a very generous glass of wine. This was fun. The wide seats still felt ridiculously comfortable, the service trolley didn’t clog up the aisle and there was no seat belt sign for the captain to turn on and leave on, just when you need to go to the loo.
As we slowed into Glasgow, the urban landscape grew and we got a great view crossing the Clyde River before gently pulling to a halt at Central Station. The four-and-a-half hour journey had felt more like two or three hours. Disembarking was a breeze. A few steps from your seat to pick up your suitcase, then wheel it onto the platform and out to the downtown streets. A short walk later and we were settling into our new city apartment.
With trains, most of your time is spent travelling in comfort, not waiting in queues and at the departure gate. Also, the stations are generally central so you usually save on the time and cost of airport transfers at each end.
We were definitely looking forward to our next fast train journeys, scheduled for a few weeks later in Portugal.
TIPS – Virgin trains
- First class has single and double seats either side of the aisle and all seats face another across a table. Standard class has two seats each side of the aisle and less legroom.
- Depending on its size, your luggage can go in the suitcase racks by the door, on the overhead shelf or under your seat. You can access it when ever you please.
- London to Glasgow Virgin train fares vary due to demand, particularly first class fares, which start at £55. We paid £80 each for a weekday and a time that worked comfortably with our check out and check in times. Standard class is around £30 – £45.
- Virgin trains first class fare includes food, drinks and bar service. And they’re served at your seat. Meals vary depending on the time of day. We had the ‘afternoon’ menu. There’s no food service in standard class. The first class food service is limited on weekends.
- In first class, there are power points at all window seats and the Wi-Fi is free, but it seemed a bit slow to me.
TIPS – Portugal fast trains
- The trains are run by CP (Comboios de Portugal) and they have a great app that makes booking easy.
- If you’re travelling in a group and have booked through one person’s app it can take a while to show all the tickets, as there are a couple of steps into and back out of each one.
- First class on CP trains is called Conforto.
- AP (Alpha Pendula) trains are the fast, leaning ones. When you’re booking you’ll also see the slower and cheaper IC trains on the same routes.
- First class has larger single and double seats either side of the aisle, plus free Wi-Fi.
- Unlike Virgin trains however, most of the CP train’s seating is airline style with a pull-out tray in the back of the seat in front of you. There are sit-around tables in the middle of each carriage where the seat rows change the direction they face.
- CP first class seating also includes the option of booking two or four-person meeting tables with clear perspex walls behind the seats to add some conversation privacy.
- The seat numbers can be a bit confusing. The booking app gave us 84 and 86, but when we checked the app’s seat select feature, it turned out they were beside each other.
- CP Trains has recently added some new AP models to their fleet, which we experienced on our journey from Coimbra to Porto. They have leather seats, a power socket at every seat in first class, and an updated exterior colour scheme.
- CP Trains provides a first class lounge at major stations, such as Lisbon Oriente. They include, air conditioning, self-serve coffee and reading material in Portuguese.
- First class fares include a welcome juice, tea of coffee. Food and drinks can be purchased on board from a menu based on the time of day.
- Fares appear to be standardised (independent of demand). For our one-hour 35 minute journey from Lisbon to Coimbra (about half way to Porto) we paid just under €33. Standard class was about €10 less.