Monday 24th May 2021
Avanti West Coast’s latest wheeze to squeeze a bit more money from passengers is their new “Standard Premium” Class pitched between Standard Class and First Class. I’m guessing it ticked the box marked ‘innovations to be introduced if successful’ in the franchise bid; and from last week it became a reality.
What’s happened is one former First Class coach on Avanti’s Pendolino fleet (the one adjacent to Standard Class: ‘H’ on a 9 coach and ‘G’ on an 11 coach) has been reclassified as “Standard Premium” with new logos on the seat head rest covers.
Although not on the doors leading into the coach yet. Just to add a bit of confusion.
Much is made in Avanti’s online publicity and on board announcements promoting this new venture to the “roomier seats and wider tables” as well as “the freedom to order food and drink from your seat” which you can do from a Standard Class seat, as is free Wi-fi available throughout the train, despite this being badged as a “Standard Premium” benefit.
Apparently this will give “you the space to focus on what matters most”. Like what a rip-off this new venture is perhaps? Because you’ll be paying an upgrade fee for the privilege of that “roomier seat” which will most likely be a higher price than you’d pay to upgrade to First Class using the SeatFrog app and enjoy complimentary food and drink served to your seat from a trolley.
I like the “office with a view” claim … it’s a pretty small office if you’re in one of the single seats, and not much room for “an onboard picnic” if you’re sharing the table with another passenger.
Why would you pay more for the privilege of having to pay for your tea, coffee and snacks? Standard Premium just doesn’t make any sense to me. Unless Avanti are banking on passengers not using SeatFrog. Which might be a valid thought, as I’ve written before about the dubious ethics I believe are involved in said app. I only use it with great reluctance and always find myself thinking I’m being conned each time. More on this shortly.
Back to “Standard Premium” and let’s take for an example my trip from Euston to Preston on Saturday.
The off-peak return with a Railcard is £66.40 for Standard Class.
The Standard Premium upgrade for that length of journey is £25 single each way, making £116.40 for the return.
And for that you just get the “roomier seat and wider tables” and have to pay for refreshments.
But using the SeatFrog app on Saturday I paid £21 northbound and £12 southbound to upgrade to First Class, making for a total price of £99.40 return saving £17 compared to the “Standard Premium” option.
And I got complimentary refreshments as my seat was allocated in the First Class designated coaches.
Mind you the complimentary refreshments are so poor these days. “Bacon roll or porridge” and a tea/coffee as we passed through Watford and another tea/coffee near Crewe. On the return just one tea/coffee was offered and either a packet of crisps (extra small size), a small cake or a biscuit.
If I’d booked an advanced return ticket with its associated restriction of being confined to a specific journey I could have got a Railcard single northbound for £40.25 Standard Class and £47.35 (“only 3 seats left“) First Class with the southbound journey priced at £30.45 Standard Class and £59.25 (“only 7 seats left“) First Class if I’d booked on Monday for the Saturday trip.
That makes for a non sensical more expensive and restricted to specific journeys £70.70 for the Standard Class return and £106.60 for First Class – which works out at only £35.90 more than Standard Class. If I’d used Standard Premium I’d have paid £50 more (£25 each way).
It just doesn’t make sense.
The cheapest way to travel certainly turned out to be buying a flexible off-peak Standard Return and using the SeatFrog app for a reasonably priced upgrade.
Removing one coach from First Class in every Pendolino train for Standard Premium might be justified with the number of business expense travellers now reduced with the Covid effect. Full price First Class fares are certainly out of reach for ‘ordinary’ passengers. My off-peak Preston return journey would have cost £214.60. Without a Railcard it’s even higher at £325.20. And just for the record, an Anytime Return from Euston to Preston is £514 …. what planet are these fare setters living on?
GWR and LNER have both reduced the number of First Class seats per train on their Hitachi Class 800/1/2s compared to HSTs and Mark 4 coaches so it doesn’t surprise me Avanti are trying to do something clever with a spare First Class coach in their Pendolino fleet. If it wasn’t for the expense of fitting it out, it would make more sense to fully convert it to Standard Class to provide more capacity for the majority of passengers and stop bamboozling passengers with confusing fare, ticket and upgrade offers, which despite appearances end up meaning you pay more.
I’ve noticed in recent weeks Avanti are also being quite stingy with offering poor value advance tickets as the above example shows. Certainly compared to GWR, LNER, EMR and Greater Anglia where there are some great bargains to be had.
Regarding SeatFrog, my previous comments last December led to some interesting feedback from blog readers. One former employee at SeatFrog got in touch to explain some of the secrets of the algorithm this tech company uses.
He told me “a certain amount of seats are reserved only for SeatFrog in First Class”. This accords with my experience on both GWR and LNER; you always end up in the same few seats in the same coach on your upgrade. Apparently it’s about four seats per train. But the crucial thing to know is his point that “passengers are actually bidding on one seat at a time”. Again, this accords with my experience when I discovered there were two of us travelling on LNER and we both were bidding against each other only to find after the auction had closed that we had both been successful as there were at least two seats available. We needn’t have been bidding against each other after all. This really is an outrageous way to make money. And, in my view a very dubious pricing practice that needs the attention of the Competition Authority.
My correspondent advises “when the reserve is met (the bidding) hops over to the nest seat and the bidding continues. That’s why each passenger would have paid a different price with each seat getting higher and higher”.
He also alleges “the algorithm requires the winner to have bid one pound higher than the reserve”. I presume that’s to ensure there’s income for SeatFrog, as opposed to the Train Operating Company.
Another piece of interesting feedback was: “the TOC will only let those seats be bid on if First Class is no more than 40% ( I think) full. This is the most misleading trait to me. They state that it’s unsold seats. Well yes and no. They say it’s not to dilute the experience of a semi empty First Class but really it’s to get people to pay full price before letting others bid on the sweet spot in their seating model. If the capacity has been reached, the TOC will suddenly stop the bidding and kill the auction, saying you didn’t win a seat. Passengers enter the train and go to see First Class and are confused as to why the seats are empty”.
This former employee used to deal with customer feedback when he worked at SeatFrog. He told me “at the end of the day it’s a hit and miss auction because the customer is really the train company and when I tried to solve users issues and misunderstandings that had been there for years, they were ignored”.
Against that background I’m always wary when using SeatFrog; but rest assured I’m not wary about using Standard Premium. Because I won’t be using it.
It’ll be interesting to see if Great British Railways continue these rather odd and opaque arrangements with its promised one website/single app simplified approach to everything fares, pricing and ticketing.