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Go East, Where The Trains Are Old, Go EAST, Pricey Tickets Sold
Member Name: plipplop
Advantages: Good advance ticket deals, catering better than average, great scenery, good frequency
Disadvantages: Standard prices are enormous, trains are getting old, free wireless internet is rubbish
I've always had something of a love/hate relationship with the East Coast mainline. I love telling everybody how much I hate it. In recent years, the line has passed through three pairs of hands. Initially the franchise was awarded to Great North Eastern Railways (GNER), but was eventually rescued by National Express East Coast after GNER got into trouble, only for NX East Coast to go the same way, leaving the line to fall into the hands of a government-run group called East Coast. In essence, my complaints about the service have remained almost entirely consistent throughout the life span of all three operators but unless somebody considers these issues properly, I fear that we will never get the service that such an important, arterial rail route deserves.
The East Coast franchise runs North to South connecting Edinburgh to London King's Cross. It is the major intercity rail operator between London and Leeds and trains up to Scotland also stop in Peterborough, Doncaster, York and Newcastle. Currently, there are also services between Edinburgh and Glasgow but I understand these are to be withdrawn, as the West Coast line now has better connections between London and Glasgow. There are various 'add-ons', including occasional services to Bradford, Aberdeen and Hull, but the two key routes are the London to Edinburgh and London to Leeds lines.
The East Coast line boasts one of the best stretches of railway in the UK, in my humble opinion. The journey between Durham and Edinburgh is gorgeous, from the picturesque cathedral at Durham, across the Tyne at Newcastle and along the North East coast, up through Berwick and Northumbria. The line that runs along the coast of Devon and Cornwall is pretty dramatic, but there's something majestic about the coastal stretch of the East Coast line. It's lovely on a sunny day or a dark, cloudy day, when the crashing waves on the shoreline just seem more dramatic. It's a great route for children, who will enjoy all the sights out of the window.
The East Coast line, more so than any other, is threatened by and/or competes with other forms of transport. It boasts a much better journey experience than the painful car journey up the M1 but is also often compared on the basis of price and journey time to domestic flights between the two capitals. It remains the most traditional of the operators, offering breakfast or evening meals in a dedicated dining carriage long since discontinued on other lines, and even runs an overnight sleeper between the two capital cities. But as much as this can make the service quite charming, it can also be its undoing.
It's often easy to forget that the train operators have responsibility for stations as well as trains. The main stations on the East Coast line are pretty unremarkable and in many cases in need of some attention. London King's Cross is currently going through some major refurbishment works, which have seen the addition of a new platform (called Platform 0 bizarrely) and which will also add new facilities. Kings Cross suffers a little from being overshadowed by St Pancras, which is outstanding, and when you come into King's Cross you can't help be disappointed by the rubbish waiting area and the lack of shops. The first class lounge is reasonably new and well fitted, although, in line with most operators, holders of advance tickets have to pay £5 to use it.
At Edinburgh, the station is much nicer. I've always liked the open, bustling feel of Edinburgh Waverley station, they way you take your life in your hands dodging the taxis and guessing which way your train will come in. The facilities are generally better than London King's Cross, although the first class lounge is a bit of an afterthought. You come in through the information desk, where the staff members just look at you, even if you're struggling with about ten bags and the lounge itself is stuffy and smelly. Newcastle and Doncaster aren't much better, either and these things make a big difference if you find yourself stuck there for longer than you expected.
The rolling stock is getting on a bit now, but a programme of refurbishment has been underway since the early 2000s, which I understand is now entirely complete. Both the Intercity 125 and Intercity 225 remain in service, the latter with slightly higher top speeds, but both types operate across most routes. The trains are easily the most comfortable across the modern network. The First Great Western 125s have also been refitted, but to incorporate far more seats and far fewer tables and are much more cramped. The Virgin rail services lack the headroom of the East Coast services and both the First Great Western and Virgin train seating is harder, narrower and more uncomfortable in standard class. The East Coast carriages have far more tables than any of their competitors, which is far better for families.
The first class accommodation on the East Coast trains is pretty good. There's lot of legroom, the seats can be reclined and every seat has a table. The first class accommodation in the First Great Western services is arguably better, with very comfortable leather seating but I particularly like the fact that on the East Coast services, there are compartments at the end of one of the carriages where there's a screen dividing you from the rest of the train. This is particularly good for privacy, peace and quiet or if you're in a big noisy group, respecting everyone else's privacy, peace and quiet. I find the first class accommodation on Virgin Trains barely different to the standard class. There's more leg room but the seats are still rock hard and uncomfortable.
All the carriages on the East Coast line are air-conditioned but this regularly seems to pack up, which is pretty lethal. On a sunny day, without air conditioning, those carriages are nothing more than greenhouses, and if this happens in service, they'll almost completely evacuate the carriage if it gets too hot. It's a symptom of two things. Firstly, despite the refit work, the rolling stock is getting on, and is more prone to failure. Secondly, the trains are completing long journeys. If it's a five-hour journey and the air conditioning fails an hour in, it's realistically going to have to wait until you reach the final destination. Four hours can be a very long time to wait.
The East Coast services have (pointless) quiet coaches the same as other operators. I can never really see the point. I find people talking and laughing really loudly just as irritating as a mobile phone ringing but neither is as irritating as the constant barrage of announcements after every station stop, which are as deafening in the quiet carriage as anymore else. I'd prefer to see 'Pissed Jocks and Geordies' coaches, in which they could fight and swear to their own content (because they're not really fit to travel with everyone else.)
One of the big selling points for the East Coast line is the unlimited free wireless Internet access available on all the trains. This is unmatched by any of the other big operators. First Great Western doesn't offer anything at all, and the service on Virgin is chargeable unless you are in first class. On East Coast, it's free to all, and it's nice to know that when you're going to be on the train for a long time, you will still be able to get online without paying extra. But let's not get too excited.
You have to register your email address to use the service. I suspect that in accepting the terms of service you're authorising them to share your email address with others. Deep joy. The speed of connection is, at times, too poor to be worth the effort. There are parts of the line (notably between Newcastle and Edinburgh) where the signal seems very weak and it's barely worth trying to connect. Even at times when it's working 'well' it's quite slow, and often freezes, which, to fix, means that you have to shut down and restart. The internet service provider is also Swedish, which sets the default language on certain web sites to Swedish, which is vaguely weird. Since the service was instated, the staff members on the train have clearly been bombarded with queries and now insist that you telephone an 0845 number for support issues, which probably won't be included in your free call allowance on your mobile. The train guard *can* reset the service on the train (apparently) but that's all he can/is prepared to do. If the train is very busy, I don't normally bother with the Internet now. It's too slow to bother with. I'd actually rather they charged a reasonable rate and guaranteed a good connection speed. The service on Virgin trains definitely seems better.
There are power connections at most of the seats in both standard and first class (a necessity on a long journey with a laptop, let's face it). These are, again, a bit unreliable. I've found that there can quite often be whole carriages where the power supply doesn't work. Again, the train guard *can* reset this, but is rarely in a hurry to do so.
The toilets are a problem. On the plus side, it's good that most of them are not contained by those awful revolving doors that most people forget to lock. I understand that they're for wheelchair users (and certainly don't begrudge them) but if I open them once more and find some old lady with her knickers round her ankles, I think I shall probably make myself go blind on purpose. They're also a nightmare if you have 'playful' people who stand outside and press the open button before you can lock the door. But that aside, most of the toilets aren't like this on East Coast services. The trouble is that, more often than not, they pack up. They simply can't cope with the volume of people using them over a five-hour peak journey and I've regularly been on services where every toilet has packed up. I would suggest that on such long journeys, they might need to schedule a slightly longer stop at one of the stations to have the toilets serviced. Even if they're working, they often run out of soap/paper/hot water and/or get filthy and smelly. It's not good.
The East Coast catering is easily the best of all the rail operators (although that is a little like saying Fred West was the kindest serial killer of the 1990s). It helps that they have proper kitchens in operation on many of the services, such that if you have a panini it is actually cooked on a hot plate as opposed to in a microwave. The quality and choice of the food in the shop is still very average. There are sandwiches, crisps, chocolate and cakes but nothing too extraordinary. They do have quite a nice cheese and mushroom flatbread but this simply leads me on to the next criticism, which is that they run out of everything about half way into the journey. Given that they charge a fortune, it seems like extremely bad business sense to me to have a train full of waiting customers, only to not have enough stock to keep feeding them - and that's before you take into account all the delays whilst they change staff or do actually have a little restock. Sort it out!
I hate the trolley service in standard class, which blocks up the entire carriage and seems to think it's OK to wheel around sandwiches that should be refrigerated, letting them get all warm and sweaty instead. Yuk. The dining car is the main saving grace, which actually serves up reasonably good hot food with proper table setting and is absolute heaven after a long day in the capital to while away with friends or colleagues. The food is actually quite tasty - something like roast chicken, with vegetables and potatoes will be served quite smartly (considering you're on a train). This is the kind of thing that sets this way of travelling out from the competition.
There's an 'at seat' service in first class, although only teas, coffees, water and biscuits are free with a first class ticket. They will, at least, go and get you things from the buffet car, but this doesn't compare well with the likes of Virgin, where a hot (albeit processed) meal is included in the ticket price. The only good thing is that you can jump to the front of the queue at the buffet car if you go for a walk, something, which appeals to my feudal sensibilities enormously.
I've seen a gradual improvement in service standards since GNER lost the franchise. GNER staff members were legendarily rude and unhelpful but these days, things aren't as bad they once were. (A member of staff once scolded me when she dropped a milk jug and it splashed up my trousers, on the basis that I was in her way). I still don't feel that the staff members who serve food and drinks in first class are particularly conscientious, nor do they acknowledge that you may have spent several hundreds of pounds on a ticket. Arguably, they should treat all customers with respect of course, but the first class issue is extra annoying.
They seem quite reluctant to carry bicycles. I saw a couple run into real trouble at Durham when they wanted to bring their bikes onto the train and this seemed a bit daft to me. Some of the train managers are excellent. They obtain information and announce it for onward connections or other services, genuinely helping you to get to your destination as soon as possible. Others are the complete opposite; it's almost as though you are a nuisance. Generally, I think there is a long way to go, although I sympathise with the constant changes of operator, which must have been very unsettling for the personnel.
East Coast trains vary enormously in terms of reliability. The trains are always ready fifteen minutes before departure at London, giving you time to settle and/or find a seat if necessary. Indeed, departure times are pretty reliable, whichever end of the country the train departs from. The problems occur in between! This is another problem of running trains for such a long route in that they can inherit delays that just get worse and worse. It doesn't help that the line out of London often suffers with congestion, signal failures and flooding (!), resulting in problems for the East Coast services without failure. These trains have more than their fair share of issues too. I've been on trains where fights have broken out, birds have flown into and broken windows, the driver has been taken ill and countless other excuses never seen on other lines (at least by me). I have never reached London on time. Arrivals into London always seem to be at least fifteen minutes late. The line doesn't, at least, seem to suffer from endless, disruptive engineering works at weekends though.
The service are, at least, reasonably frequent. London-Leeds services run half-hourly, as do services to Newcastle and the Scotland services are hourly. You can't assume that all services stop at the same intermediate stations. Places like Grantham, Peterborough and Doncaster are not so rigidly served so you should always check that before you travel.
It's not a cheap service at all. A standard anytime return from Edinburgh to King's Cross is now £271. First class is more than £400 - that's a lot of money! There's a lot of inconsistency in the fares too, with no real regard for the distance travelled. So an equivalent anytime return from London to Leeds is £223, almost the same price as the Edinburgh journey but half the distance. The operator would, of course, argue that you can save a fortune by travelling off peak and by pre-booking a ticket, which you can. But for many travellers, it can be extremely difficult to commit to a specific journey and with the rigid 'no refunds or revisions' rules on these advance tickets, they're often not worth the risk.
East Coast services remain a very mixed bag. Over the last five or six years I've seen improvements in reliability, staff attitude and catering, but prices remain very high and the rolling stock is getting too old. I much prefer the train for this journey than flying, particularly with the great scenery and the dining car, but I'd prefer to see the longer routes stopping less frequently to trim those journey times down a bit and the ticket prices are still way too high. As for the free wireless Broadband, well that needs a complete rethink. But I do generally quite enjoy my trips up and down the east coast, even if it's just to take in the scenery.
Summary: Regional railway company linking London and Scotland
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