Eating on trains: a different kind of fast food
On Monday evening I took an Avanti West Coast train from Birmingham New Street to London Euston. My dinner that night was, in a sense, locally sourced: at M&S in the station lobby, I bought bread, tomato, hummus, which I was happy to devour with the using a can of Guinness. Not a great long-distance dining experience, but it filled the void.
The next morning, none other than Mark Smith – the international rail guru known as The Man in Seat 61 – was brag on social media about his breakfast and his lunch on the exact same route.
“Avanti has reinvented its first class service. It now applies seven days a week. It has already been smoothly launched, full launch in the new year.
“I am now testing their full English, and yes it is excellent. Hard work, but someone, etc … ”
Needless to those of us who hadn’t hit eleven, he added a video of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, sausage, and mushrooms – as well as his mate’s smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
“Full English certainly hit the mark,” Smith concluded. “I consider myself a connoisseur of fries.”
Ask people of a certain age for their fondest memories of British Rail – the organization that hit the buffers in the mid-1990s when rail privatization took over – and there’s a good chance they’ll mention breakfast in the buffet car.
Those whose place in life seems destined to always be second-class could, space permitting, nonetheless take a seat in the first-class restaurant. Delays and diversions were allayed with a freshly cooked breakfast that any greasy spoonful of coffee would be proud of, all at a surprisingly low price that suggested some degree of subsidy.
Now, however, the elaborate meal is strictly reserved for the first class. As with airlines, Avanti’s premium product now includes good food as well as larger, more comfortable seats. So, might you be tempted to invest?
Looking at the peak-hour departures booked a week in advance from Birmingham to London, a one-way breakfast in first class costs £ 113 for an 84-minute trip, almost exactly double that of standard class. At a premium of over £ 55, this looks like an expensive meal.
More to my taste is the midday offer. The same trip after 1pm costs £ 55 in first class, compared to £ 23 in standard.
The first-class lunch offering revealed by Mr Smith’s Twitter post included smoked salmon gnocchi and ‘jammy dodger’ – served at 125 mph with a glass of red wine. This is what I call fast food.
The opportunity to relax in the first class lounge is included with a premium ticket. Bundle it all up and the extra £ 28 over the base rate starts to look like a tempting offer compared to the M&S or Pret alternative.
The Avanti move is a clever way to fill spaces that are too often wide open in first class. The west coast rail operator has also introduced a ‘standard bonus’ – essentially first class seats without any of the perks, at £ 15 more than the standard fare on the Birmingham-London route. A three-class offer echoes long-haul aviation.
As airlines are seeing these days, leisure travelers are taking seats left empty by business passengers who now zoom, rather than zoom, up and down the country.
Maybe when businessmen see their missing meals, they can get back on board. And with Avanti and the east coast mainline operator, LNER, offering suitable first-class meals on weekends, more travelers are expected to be drawn from road to rail. Out of the SUV and into the buffet car.