Tuesday 5th July 2022
I’m still trying to get the hang of Avanti West Coast’s Standard Premium class. It’s the ‘declassified’ first class coach H on a nine coach Pendolino that gives you first class comforts but without the complimentary refreshments. On 11 coach trains two coaches (G and H) are normally set aside for Standard Premium although Avanti say they can vary the allocation depending on the balance between leisure and business travellers on each journey meaning there could be three coaches for Standard Premium (G, H and J) and only the end Coach K with just 18 seats as first class on a 589 seat train.
The head rest covers can be changed over but there’s some confusion …
… with the coach doors still displaying first class.
When first introduced I was sceptical there’d be much take up, mainly because the opaque SeatFrog app enabled passengers to upgrade to first class for as little as £10 whereas Standard Premium cost a fairly hefty £25 or £30 extra depending on distance travelled.
However SeatFrog now has a minimum bidding price of £30 and even higher for longer journeys (eg £40 for Euston to Preston) thereby putting a price value on the complimentary refreshments since other first class comforts can be obtained in Standard Premium for less. Although if you’re a fan of turning up early for a journey and making use of First Class ‘lounges’ then that privilege isn’t included in Standard Premium.
It’s not surprising with leisure travel booming and this crafty price manipulation to see Standard Premium proving popular on some journeys. It’s effectively replaced the old first class upgrade arrangements for many passengers at weekends and Avanti don’t have to worry about serving refreshments.
I took a couple of long distance return journeys with Avanti last week with mixed experiences. Here’s what happened.
The 10:07 Euston to Liverpool Lime Street is renowned for being a busy train especially on Monday mornings not least because it’s the first off peak train of the day from London to Merseyside when tickets at something approaching a reasonable price can be bought. Monday morning last week was a perfect storm coming as it did after a weekend of disruption caused by Saturday’s strike.
So it was a bit surprising to see the journey had a nine coach Pendolino allocated rather than 11 coaches.
I suggested to my travelling companion and good friend James Freeman it might be a sensible move to splash out on a Standard Premium upgrade especially as our standard class tickets with reservations had us allocated to different coaches as they’d been bought separately due to coming from different origin stations.
It would cost £25 each to upgrade but we decided it was worth it for a less cramped journey and being able to sit together. SeatFrog bidding demanded a £35 minimum for first class and could end up being higher depending on bidders. Indeed bidding reached a pricey £49.
With some insider knowledge of the likely platform for the Euston departure we were able to be among the first on the train ahead of the concourse-to-platform stampede and headed straight for coach G, the Standard Premium one.
But the problem was the inevitable failure of seat reservations to have downloaded meaning it was like playing the lottery whether we’d pick two seats that hadn’t been reserved and would be displayed as such once the system woke up.
In the event we had to move to two other seats around the same table for four when a couple arrived brandishing their seat reservations which was no problem as other seats were still free and as luck would have it no one else came to ‘own’ those seats as the seat reservations never did download.
The train soon became …. to use the technical term …. ‘rammed’ and even before we left Euston the train manager was apologising for the crowded conditions and confirmed she was declassifying Standard Premium (which was itself completely full) so our luck was in, achieving an upgrade at no cost.
She went on to say passengers who’d booked Standard Premium class tickets in advance of travel could obtain a refund for the extra charge by applying to Avanti. When I looked on the company’s website it didn’t look possible to buy a Standard Premium ticket online for weekday journeys over the next couple of weeks – only further ahead whereas weekend tickets seem more readily available.
It was a rather stressful experience and had we not been sprightly aboard at Euston could have had a very different outcome.
I’m pleased to report our return journey on Tuesday was much smoother and as we easily found an empty table for four in the unreserved standard class coach U of a much quieter 11 coach train on the 17:47 from Liverpool Lime Street back to Euston there was no need to fork out £25 each to sit together on slightly wider seats.
Last Thursday I travelled to Preston on the 08:30 Euston to Glasgow Central train. It was another nine coach train but due to signal problems between Stafford and Rugeley the incoming train to form that departure was late into Euston. I knew that because I kept an eye on the arrivals board as well as the departures at Euston.
There was no explanatory announcement at Euston, only the usual automatic ones and the usual See It, Say It, Sorted. (Whatever happened to Shapps’s “war on announcements” campaign?). At 08:20 the display board for the train showed “Preparing” which was a good sign and at 08:27 came an update that it would be platform 16 together with an auto announcement over the tannoy for the departure and just to add to the sense of panic in the ritual Euston concourse-to-platform stampede the announcement ended with the usual “passengers are advised train doors will close two minutes before departure”. How reassuring is that for passengers at what was then 08:28 for an 08:30 departure – not?
The train wasn’t particularly busy – off peak tickets aren’t available – and notably no announcements were made as we all sat on board awaiting departure. After over 15 minutes of not going anywhere at 08:48 we slowly and silently glided out of the platform. Not a word had been said on the PA. 18 minutes late leaving and no explanation.
Shortly after, the train manager finally introduced himself and explained he’d been delayed on a late running incoming train due to the signal problem and I think he said he’d literally just come off that train and on to this one, which if so was very commendable. Sadly the speakers in coach D weren’t very effective and you could barely hear what was being said.
I wondered why the driver, assuming he/she was on board, couldn’t have given an earlier explanation or indeed someone based in Euston and why there was no reference or explanation on Avanti’s Twitter feed – which seems to be dominated by banal and trivial stuff like guess how many trains you can spot in a “pic”.
A bit galling on Thursday morning when Euston’s platforms were somewhat empty because of the disruption.
A combination of losing our intended path and signalling still playing up north of Rugeley meant a slow journey north losing even more time meaning an arrival into Preston 37 minutes late.
The consequence for me being a planned eight minute connection to the hourly Northern operated 10:46 to Burnley Manchester Road was lost. And then to add to my travel joy, Northern cancelled the next departure at 11:46. And then at 12:30 the dot matrix signs announced the next 12:46 departure was “Delayed” and the train seemed to be stuck outside Poulton-le-Fylde.
Now two hours later than I had planned and needing to be in Burnley for a commitment at 13:30 I had to use the nuclear option of taking a taxi for the 27 mile journey to Burnley.
It wasn’t a very impressive performance from Network Rail (signalling infrastructure), Avanti West Coast (poor communications) and Northern (cancellations and delays) but these things happen on a complex operational railway albeit they do nothing to encourage passengers.
My day continued in a much more positive way by sharing experiences with Transdev Blazefield’s full management team at their annual Awayday which was mutually inspiring and fortunately Northern didn’t let me down on the return journey from Burnley Central to Preston.
But Preston station’s late afternoon public address was giving out one cancellation after another on Northern, TransPennine Express and Avanti West Coast. It was almost verging on the infamous May 2018 chaos I’d witnessed at the very same station. It was sad to see so much disruption (which seemed to mainly be due to staff shortages) just when passengers need to be attracted back to rail.
My booked train was the 16:59 to Euston but I noticed the 16:14 via Birmingham New Street to Euston (from Blackpool North) was still on platform 5 ominously showing “Delayed”. Inevitably it became “Cancelled” due to “a problem with the train” and everyone came off that train to get ready to board the 16:59 on the adjacent platform 6.
This was obviously going to lead to seat reservation mayhem on the 16:59 with two train loads of passengers fighting over the same seats so I decided to step out of that melee and try my luck at Standard Premium in the unreserved coach G of the 11 coach train.
It was a good call as although it was very busy I quickly found a free pair of seats and we left only 7 minutes late at 17:06 and the Train Manager never came round to collect the Standard Premium upgrade fare, which I’m guessing may have been due to it being declassified again carrying two train loads in one.
We lost three more minutes to Warrington Bank Quay leaving there ten minutes late at 17:32. Four minutes of that had been clawed back as we sped through Crewe, which was just as well as for reasons never explained we’d had calls at Stafford and Rugby stations added to our schedule.
As soon as we came into Stafford to Rugeley territory we went into slow go mode again losing 16 minutes through that section due to, I assume, signalling problems still causing issues. The stops at Stafford and Rugby cost us more time but something else went awry as we came to pass through Berkhamstead meaning another twenty minute delay until we cleared through Hemel Hempstead.
Again no explanation (let alone apology) was given for sitting stationary on the tracks in Hertfordshire for so long and it was very dispiriting to see trains behind us being diverted on to the adjacent slow lines to avoid whatever the problems impacting our train were.
We finally got going, now 47 minutes behind schedule, and managed to make two minutes of that up arriving into Euston at 19:53 rather than 19:08. At least the Train Manager was advising passengers to apply for Delay Repay, but still no fulsome apology nor anything on Avanti’s Twitter account.
I wasn’t impressed, as you may have detected. But at least the pot of rail vouchers (from Delay Repay) for my next All Line Rover will be nicely swelled and I had two free Standard Premium upgrades, so no complaints there.
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