Catering for train travel

Sunday 5th June 2022

Over the last few weeks I’ve been keeping notes of the state of catering for passengers travelling first class on trains. Here’s my report complete with a complimentary coffee, biscuits and packet of sea salt flavoured crisps.

It’s only long distance ‘inter-city’ train operators who get involved in on board catering these days. Trolleys, let alone ‘buffet cars’, have long been banished from commuter type routes operated in the south of England and elsewhere especially following the proliferation of retail refreshment outlets at many stations. It’s been many years since kippers were served on the Brighton line.

This refreshment dearth works if your journey is an hour or so from say Canterbury, Brighton or Winchester but it’s not so good if you travel with South Western Railway from Weymouth to London as I did last Friday, a journey of three hours which is longer than Newcastle to Kings Cross. And to make things worse there’s no refreshment outlet in the foyer at Weymouth station at the moment. If I was a regular I’d definitely invest in a couple of flasks.

That Newcastle to Kings Cross journey is at the other extreme for refreshment provision with LNER not only offering varied menus (branded as ‘Deli’, ‘Dish’ and ‘Dine’) with all the options explained in printed menus handed out to each passenger but the operator also clearly shows what’s available online for every journey it runs, including weekends, so you can plan ahead.

New menus have recently been introduced for the summer

The onboard service is also generally to a high standard with proper cutlery and crockery where needed as well as plush paper serviettes. On one journey back from Leeds last Saturday I even got a little dish to put the spoon on – gone are the days when you used to get saucers.

However LNER’s two weak spots are not paying enough attention when passengers board mid route at stations other than York or Newcastle and restricting your consumption to just one meal serving which if you’re on a four and a half hour Edinburgh to London trek is a bit mean. I’m not sure what happens north of Edinburgh on the Aberdeen and Inverness runs as I’ve not done them in recent years with LNER using ScotRail instead.

When I boarded a busy southbound LNER train at Berwick-upon-Tweed last week (it had come from Aberdeen) everyone on board was obviously already fed and refreshed and no catering staff appeared until after Darlington (including after the crew change in Newcastle) 74 minutes later whereupon the message as the trolley passed through was “any passengers joined at Newcastle or Darlington…”. Suffice to say I made the point I’d joined at Berwick and was looking forward to my “Coronation Chickpea Wrap”, standard issue Pipers sea salt crisps (minuscule helping), Baked Treats two-biscuit-in-a-packet and a satsuma.

The tasty Coronation Chickpea Wrap has been dropped from the new menu

You have to wait for two trolleys to pass through to gather together this full combination as the crisps and biscuits usually come with the cold or hot drinks and not the wraps, but it’s a nice tasty lunch.

LNER’s menus include hot meal options and for carnivores the cooked breakfast always looks popular and vegetarians like myself and vegans are also catered for with some tasty choices.

Presentation is generally very good although the “Cheese, Tomato and Mushroom Ciabatta” comes in a paper bag rather than with crockery and cutlery which can make for a messy eating experience, especially as it’s usually microwaved hot to eat and touch.

Eating my Cheese, Tomato and Mushroom Ciabatta and trying to keep clean!

Although I notice in the latest menu for summer that option has been dropped in favour of meatless sausages which sound like they’ll be less messy to eat.

The old ‘Dish’ menu now superseded

I’ve had the “smashed avocado on sourdough muffin” before now, which can also come with a “poached egg” for non vegans (you do get goth halves of the muffin but I only remembered to take a photo once I’d scoffed one!)…

… but this has also now disappeared from the new menu.

However, I see the Toasted teacake is still available, which I tried on my afternoon trip back from Leeds last Saturday and very nice it was too.

Full marks to LNER for generally good service (other than the blind spot on Berwick) with excellent menu choices, clear information of what’s available on different journeys as well as decent crockery and cutlery,

On a par with LNER is Avanti West Coast with slightly better and more attentive service in my experience – I got served instantly after boarding in Stafford last week – with the same ‘real’ crockery and cutlery but regretfully no printed (or online) menus.

This means every interaction is “would you like any refreshments?” responded by “what have you got?” followed by a quick fire listing, which being said for the umpteenth time suffers from coming across less appetising than it is; and is hard to take it all in as a customer. Printed menus please Avanti.

Update: I’ve been advised Avanti West Coast does make its menus available on line, which is good to know. They can be viewed here.

Because the food choice is actually good but can get lost in the exposition. On my afternoon journey south from Stafford I choose the salad bowl – which was very tasty and well presented – and I noticed another passenger opted for the “afternoon tea” which comprised a (proper) plate of varied finger sandwiches and a scone with cream and jam that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.

Mixed salad bowl

On another recent journey, the 08:30 Euston to Glasgow, unlike LNER’s stinginess I was offered two meals, one ordered four minutes after we left Euston with the food served at 08:55 and another at midday after we’d left Carlisle heading over the border towards Glasgow. Hot and cold drinks were offered like clockwork every hour during the journey too. It was an impressive offering

And like the afternoon salad shown above, the food choices were good (full English; bacon sandwich; smoked salmon; potato hash; porridge; fruit bowl at 08:30 and I can’t remember the midday options as they weren’t written down).

Potato hash soon after 08:30

Both vegetarian options I had were superbly presented and looked and tasted delicious.

Avocado Tarte soon after midday

Avanti staff were much more diligent than LNER at attending to passengers who boarded during the journey. As soon as we left Warrington Bank Quay, for example, staff approached the passenger who joined the first class coach asking what he’d like to eat.

Coming third in my top TOCs for catering is East Midlands Railway (EMR) which on last Saturday’s 07:32 St Pancras to Sheffield journey saw a trolley arrive alongside me just as we were leaving ST Pancras. Mind you I was the only passenger in first class for much of the journey.

But it was only after questioning the host that as well as the hot and cold drinks, biscuits, croissants, yogurts and porridge on display on the trolley I found out there was also “a hot breakfast roll“ available (a sausage in a roll) including a vegetarian option but he wasn’t sure whether it was “a burrito or maybe a veggie sausage”. As I wasn’t sure what the options would be, I’d taken the precaution of already having a breakfast before boarding so declined the offer of a surprise vegetarian hot something in a roll and opted for a yogurt and biscuit.

There’s no crockery or cutlery just the usual plastic, paper or wooden stuff but I have to say my host was so attentive he must have brought the trolley to me about eight or nine times during the two and a quarter hour journey with the consequence I had more coffee and orange juice than normal; well it seemed rude not to.

And then we come to GWR. Oh dear, oh dear. What a disappointment. Recent experiences have included my Saturday morning journey from Paddington at 09:28 to Gloucester when the trolley finally appeared at 09:55 after we’d left Reading with an apologetic host explaining that it had been left stocked “with tea things from the afternoon” which raised my expectations for some breakfast options …

…. except it turns out the only option is a “breakfast snack box”. But at least there was a vegan “breakfast snack box” but, frankly, it really isn’t worth the packaging comprising just three minuscule items.

But, in addition you do get the standard Pipers sea salt crisps and Walkers two-biscuits-in-a-packet. And coffee in a paper cup with a wooden stirrer, difficult-to-open UHT milk sachets and a disinfectant wipe, so it’s not all bad I suppose.

Which reminds me to give a shout out to LNER and Avanti for using fresh milk instead of those frustrating-to-open UHT milk sachets.

On another journey with GWR down to Truro on a weekday – the 06:37 from Paddington – the trolley again took ages to appear – this time at 07:05 and at this early hour of the morning could offer just tea, coffee and those Walkers two-biscuits-in-a-packet with the only other option a carton of porridge. I’m glad I’d anticipated that being the GWR breakfast offer and gone to Pret’s before leaving Paddington else it would have been a hungry four and a half hours journey to Truro.

Breakfast to Truro. Not even a serviette this time to wipe up the spilt milk – “we’ve run out”

What a complete waste of space the galley is on GWR’s IET class 800s etc. It takes up half the end coach of each train and from it comes just hot and cold drinks, biscuits, peanuts and crisps and a carton of porridge if you’re lucky. Standard class passengers fare even worse on GWR with a hit and miss trolley service – on the 06:37 Paddington to Truro it set off down the five coach train at 07:10 and that was it – just the one round as far as Plymouth. A woman from standard class came to the galley at 09:30 and asked if she could buy a drink and was told as the train was now approaching Plymouth the trolley would be making another tour after the train had left there at 09:45.

However at the other extreme GWR excel themselves on their designated ‘Pullman’ branded trains between Paddington and Plymouth and Swansea offering a full three course superbly cooked meal but an additional charge – it was £25 for two courses and £30 for three when I sampled it last July on the 12:23 from Swansea to Paddington.

I must say GWR do pull out all the stops to offer a luxury dining experience on these journeys and is well worth a one off treat.

Even the menu is set out in a luxurious holder…

…. and the presentation of the food is excellent.

Burnt leeks, grilled courgettes with a romesco dressing and mixed leaves

As is the taste.

Butternut squash and coconut curry served with Basmati rice

The food really is delicious.

Prune and Kingston Black pear tart with dairy-free custard

Little touches make it a world away from Pipers sea salt crisp packets, UHT milk sachets and paper coffee cups, and of course should be at the price.

It’s a lovely experience to enjoy a tasty meal served leisurely as you glide along the tracks on an inter-city journey except I don’t think the single seats (facing the wrong way in one direction) with their rather cramped tables offer the right ambiance for a meal of this kind, but that’s civil servants specifying train layouts for you.

The Pullman service is also available on the 17:48 Paddington to Carmarthen, the 13:04 and 19:04 Paddington to Plymouth and 13:15 and 18:16 Plymouth to Paddington on Mondays to Fridays. It’s definitely worth a special treat some time, and nice to see the galley section of the IETs really earning its keep on these journeys.

Greater Anglia don’t do at seat catering, merely offering complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits if you walk through to the buffet sited in between first class and standard class on the Norwich to London Liverpool Street route – unless you’re unlucky enough to be on one of the journeys operated with a Stansted Express train where there’s no buffet, or first class for that matter.

Then we come to Cross Country. I took two journeys last week. One from Ely to Birmingham and another from Birmingham to Stafford. Despite the former being 2 hours and 23 minutes and the latter just 30 minutes, the service was far better and attentive on the second journey.

When I boarded at Ely at 11:15 I noticed a refreshment trolley parked in the vestibule by the door to the small first class section at the front of the Class 170 train. I was the only passenger sitting in there yet the host ignored my presence and set off with the trolley through the three standard class coaches and back again, still ignoring me.

When we reached Stamford at 12:07 I opened the door and asked if there was complimentary refreshments for first class ticket holders to which he replied “yes” so at last I got my coffee and, after asking, a biscuit.

I never saw him again and he made sure he was first off the train with his trolley down a ramp as soon as we pulled into New Street. I got the impression he wasn’t a happy host.

However in contrast the host taking over the Reading to Manchester journey in Birmingham New Street at 13:57 was much more attentive with refreshments served in the first class coach soon after we’d left Wolverhampton. It seemed to be tea/coffee and biscuits only but I noticed a sandwich being handed out to a passenger who’d taken the initiative to ask. It seems you have to know what’s available with Cross Country and take the initiative to ask.

My two experiences last Saturday with TransPennine Express were similarly contrasting.

As I reported yesterday, the 10:11 Sheffield to Manchester Piccadilly journey last Saturday was, as is now known in the trade, “completely rammed” making it impossible for the host and trolley to move from wherever he was ensconced in the train. When we arrived at Manchester I spotted him finally able to move as a quick changeover was happening before the train departed back towards Cleethorpes and a fresh trolley and host boarded, so I can’t report what the offer would have been, but I suspect hot and cold drinks and the usual two-biscuits-in-a-packet.

As indeed that was the offer on my next journey, the busy 11:26 Manchester Piccadilly to Glasgow.

It’s obviously a First Group bulk buying policy as it’s the exact same offering as on GWR although no peanuts (dry roasted or salted) were offered.

I didn’t have time to sample Transport for Wales’ offering on the “Gerald” trains between north and south Wales where, pre-Covid, the catering offer was always impressive. This catering offer has now been reinstated on three journeys both ways between Cardiff and Holyhead (05:34, 11:34, 16:51 southbound and 06:45, 11:22, 17:16 northbound) so in addition to complimentary drinks and snacks, first class passengers can now purchase breakfast for £10 a two-course lunch or dinner for £17 or three courses for £20. However, the TfW website states “new menus in first class coming soon” so it’s not clear what the current offering is.

I also haven’t been able to sample ScotRail in recent months. When I travelled south from Inverness to Glasgow in February no trolley appeared due to, I assume, Covid issues. I have previously sampled the first class offering on the Inter7City HSTs and enjoyed complimentary hot and cold drinks and snacks but not much more.

And that’s first class catering on trains as I’ve recently experienced it. Very varied offerings across the operators and full marks to LNER and Avanti West Coast for offering some great choices including for vegetarians and vegans and with good service and proper crockery and cutlery too. Other operators, especially GWR running similar long distance trains, please note.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

31 thoughts on “Catering for train travel

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  1. At present the rolling stock allocation on the TfW Wales trains is very variable – you might get a “proper” train which would have decent catering but you might just get a 2-car multiple unit with only a trolley (indeed I’m not even sure if they have First Class).

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  2. A pale shadow of the meals served on the luxury Pullman trains which interestingly were privately owned and operated until 1962

    Pullmans mainly operated from Kings Cross and from Waterloo & Victoria

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    1. Not quite. Although the Pullman Car Company was integrated into BR in 1962/3, it had already been nationalised in 1954.

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      1. No the Pullman car was not nationalised in 1954. What happened in 1954 is BR took control of The Pullman Car company ltd. It still remained a separate company and had its own stock exchange listing. A nationalised company is directly owned by the state and has no stock exchange listing

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    2. I remember reading that the original GWR only used Pullman cars for a very short time, as they concluded that their own First Class offering was better!

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      1. To my knowledge the GWR ony operate a short lived Torquay Pullman it ran 08/07/29- summer 1930, Mondays & Fridays

        There was also the Eastern Belle that run from Liverpool street between 1929 and 1939, It ran to a different coastal resort on different days of the week

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  3. Boarding GWR services at Swindon means I experience a mid-route lottery with First Class catering. Some hosts are very attentive and you get served promptly. At other times you’ve missed a serving session and you wonder if they will get to you before you reach Bristol or London. Still, the items on offer are so meagre that you haven’t missed much. I can see there are challenges in providing catering on short haul trips of 40-55 minutes, and with 10 car IETs needing two crews it is no doubt expensive for GWR. However, First Class is a premium-priced product and in my view its catering offer should be of top quality and provided consistently.

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  4. When I last travelled from Notwich to London we had the misfortune to be allocated a Stansted unit (despite several ‘correct’ units being visible stabled at Crown Point depot) but we were offered complimentary drinks and biscuits from a trolley twice during the journey.

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  5. I remember the trolley service/buffet on the GWR HSTs being really good before the IETs were introduced. Fully stocked buffet with drinks, snacks, hot sandwiches…

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  6. Roger’s report merely reflects the “Great British Attitude” to Service generally, with quality not necessarily related to price – and FGW shown to be maintaining their usual poor standards in other areas!

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  7. I’ve always wondered how cost effective trolley services are. From my personal observatons, maybe only 10% of passengers buy from the trolley (pre Covid). The host or hostess is obviously paid for the whole train journey, so I’m not sure how sales could ever pay for the costs.

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  8. At last a genuine ‘avocado dip’ offered in the north of England – was it one of the New Labour demigods back in the 1990s who is supposed to have referred to mushy peas as ‘avocado dip’?

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      1. The Mandelson, Mushy Peas story is apocryphal. It’s been stated as being Hartlepool or in South Wales on a by-election campaign. In reality, it’s one of those political myths that doesn’t have any actual basis in fact

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      2. As he was MP for Hartlepool then the most likely place but probably not true and made up by his enemies in the right wing press which is most of the press!

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  9. I was the only passenger in First Class from BHM to LDS a couple of Saturdays ago. I got a coffee and a biscuit quite soon after leaving BHM. Later, just after leaving SHF, I was asked if I wanted another drink. The operative returned with the drink and one of everything that was left on the trolley. A veritable feast!

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  10. Trolley operatives on ex-Regional Railways routes (such as Birmingham – Stansted) are usually not employees of the train company but of a contractor such as Rail Gourmet. Most of them will be on zero hours contracts, possibly not even on minimum wage, and it’s far from a cream job. Trolley staff regularly suffer from verbal abuse and aggression (far more so than traincrew), and theft from the trolleys is seen as a game by some passengers but the losses are often taken out of the trolley operative’s pay.
    Turnover is unsurprisingly horrendous for those jobs, with the few long-term staff very much being exceptions to the rule.

    I wonder why Roger talks up LNER’s offering so much. Sure, you get china and cutlery, but the service is only any good if you board at London, York, Newcastle or Edinburgh and (as he notes) you’ll be routinely ignored if you board anywhere else; staff can get quite huffy if asked for anything which interrupts their routine and the food quality is nothing special nowadays. There’s a reason you see people getting into LNER’s first class with Costa bags or even McDonalds.

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    1. Yes, plus there is the fact that they are primarily there to provide a trolley for standard class – with the first class service effectively just a convenient side effect.

      XC “intercity” (Voyager/HST) routes have First Class Hosts who are in house employees and generally very helpful and friendly in my experience.

      I’ve experienced the lottery of “what will the FCH offer today” too many times to count and by now know not to rely on anything… If they offer something more than tea/coffee/biscuits, it’s a bonus as far as I’m concerned.

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  11. That’s the problem with joining mid route with catering.I use to do the London Brussels Eurostar a few times a year in 1st class and obviously had the meal but I often wondered what happened about the passengers who joined in Lille for London or Brussels? Perhaps it is reflected in the price but probably not as on my few visits to Lille I seem to recall it was only about £2 less than Brussels, although I probably went 2nd class for Lille as it’s not far but can’t remember.

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    1. I made a couple of trips to Lille on First Class Eurostar to help my late partner to celebrate a landmark birthday.
      The people opposite us had boarded at Brussels and were clearly well into their meal, but we got served immediately and it was fantastic!

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  12. Matches my experience of regular first class journeys between Didcot and Lincoln.

    GWR dire and not worth the premium. LNER generally superb. I once left an LNER menu on my table when getting off at Didcot with a note saying “this is how you do first class.”

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    1. Presumably via London as you wouldn’t get much GWR or LNER under the belt going via Birmingham!But as Didcot to Paddington is only 50 minutes I don’t see how you’d get much of an experience of their 1st anyhow since you are at the tail end?I reckon something like Bristol,where the Didcot trains often come from, might be more objective.Even Bristol is fairly short duration probably better Swansea, Plymouth and beyond?

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  13. As an Avanti regular traveller on Euston to Birmingham I would say the service is hit and miss.

    The menu was well thought through on launch but the chances of you getting the full service are negligible. Service is cancelled frequently and if offered it is now hard to ger a cold and hot drink in the evening. Ditto chances of main course and dessert. Coffee in the morning is rationed to one round.

    The printed menus are never seen and the staff tell passengers to look up the menus on a QR code. This is on a downward facing ledge and impossible to use.

    Gnocchi dropped and still water dropped.

    A lot though is down to staffing and management. There is clearly no interest in a quality 1st class service.

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  14. Roger, do you really have to do the “face blobs” I find them strangely disquieting, and depressing. Yes, if you call someone out for criticism you might want to use them, but for general scenes?

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      1. “In Public” would seem to be the issue. Why was it not a problem in the past? Showing private images on the web, I would understand…

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