The East Coast Highland Chieftain: a review of First Class

The train home

All trains south from Inverness are Scotrail and terminate in either Glasgow or Edinburgh. They’re the ones I seem to spend most of my life on and around whose seats my spine has been contorted over the years.

All except two, that is, which go to London. One is the Scotrail Caledonian Sleeper, which I’ve blogged about a number times. The other is the daytime service, the 0755 Highland Chieftain service operated by East Coast, which goes to Edinburgh and then carries on down the East Coast Main Line to London King’s Cross. I take it to and from Edinburgh sometimes, and on very rare occasions have taken it to stations further south such as Newcastle or York.

I’d never taken it all the way to London, though. The concept of eight hours on the same train – unless you’re asleep – is a bit much to bear, even for a train geek like me, not least when you’re cramped into standard class. But in First Class, it’s slightly different. I’d never been on First Class but I knew you got bigger seats, complimentary food and drink, and unlimited wifi.

So when the prospect of a relative’s wedding on the south coast of England last month cropped up, I looked into First Class tickets and discovered that you could get to London for just less than £50 one way, meaning a return trip of a total of sixteen hours’ train travel for under a hundred pounds. Not bad when you include all the aforementioned frills.

Having been on the sleeper several times, and found the booking system increasingly annoying, I figured that it might be a refreshing change to try the East Coast instead. Travelling by day rather than night changes the dynamic – you see more, eat more and sit more. Would it work out to be a better way of getting to London than the sleeper?

Comfy seatsThe answer was, marginally, yes. The sleeper and daytime train are very different, for obvious reasons. The First Class carriage was spacious, the seats were large and comfortable, and the staff were on the whole friendly and attentive.

The food was good too – modest hot meals, plenty sandwiches and snacks, and as much beer, wine, soft drinks, water, tea and coffee as you could imbibe.

I was also able – in between rounds of refreshments – to get plenty writing done, the free wifi being a major bonus compared to the measly fifteen minutes East Coast gives you in cattle class.

It made for a great way to get to London fed, refreshed and rested, rather than a bit frazzled after eight hours in standard.

It’s hard, then, to compare it to the sleeper. One determining factor will, of course, be the timing – whenever you need to be in your destination will determine whether the sleeper or daytime train will be better. Although as the sleeper’s cheapest tickets become harder and harder to find, you’ll struggle to beat my £95 First Class return price tag for the Highland Chieftain – especially given that you won’t need to pay out for food or wifi in First Class.

Highlands through the windowAlso, while the daytime train lacks some of the sense of romance and adventure that the sleeper evokes, if you’ve not done the journey before then the beautiful scenery along the way is obviously best enjoyed in daylight.

There were some quibbles with the East Coast service, though. On our way down the food was a little limited due to a broken fridge, which seems a poor show and and should not have been insurmountable. Signs of wear and tear were plentiful too, such as a chair that wouldn’t sit fully upright, a broken carriage door, and grubby toilets.

East Coast, however, presumably has no money for new stock – it’s a “holding” company in a way, an island of nationalised rail in a sea of private franchises, set up after the collapse of GNER and merely looking after the east coast route until, sadly, it is put back out to tender again. I can only hope the new franchise holder invests in some new stock because this set is definitely looking a little tired.

I’d certainly do it again, though, if travelling all the way to London and if I was able to book sufficiently in advance to get the cheap tickets. East Coast, rather pleasingly, has a “sign up” facility whereby you can get email notifications for when tickets are open for your intended journeys.

I’d just do things slightly differently – I’d book seats in the middle of the carriage, rather than the end, where we sat, as the noise and vibrations sitting right over the wheels made for a bumpy journey. It’s something I’d never noticed in Standard Class, but in First you’re more attuned to comfort. I’d also book a seat towards the rear of First Class – that’s where the food starts out from, so you’re less likely to see food choices run out by the time the staff come to take your order.

It was quite a while since I’d been on a train for such a long time. It was great knowing that you were on for several hours and could just kick back, relax and not worry about anything as nearly the length of Britain rattled past. Of course, the journey could be a lot faster if it the line was High Speed, but that’s a whole other rant…

6 thoughts on “The East Coast Highland Chieftain: a review of First Class

  1. We travelled first class to Edinburgh after our wedding but sadly though the wi-fi was working the plug sockets were not, and on my last trip up the train was so very old and the wi-fi voucher I paid for did not work. Having said that having failed to get a berth on the sleeper and therefore having been kept up all night, I think I’d always pick the day time train – particularly if I could go first class, if nothing else because I am still not tired of the beautiful East Coast scenery.

  2. Yes I’ve had the occasional broken socket to contend with on the East Coast, too. It’s such a shame that the stock is so decrepit. If up to a decent standard it could be an incredible journey. As you say, the scenery is beautiful – if only it was as good inside the train…

  3. Last July we travelled up to Inverness on the Highland Chieftain. It was an amazing experience. The scenery, particularly the Cairngorms, was stunning. Our seats were comfortable and the at-seat trolley service was acceptable. We did not travel first class, but definitely will do so when we visit Inverness next month.

  4. Probably reading this late by a couple of years. Scenery is fantastic North of Newcastle. Down south it’s just one town after another. Finally Virgin have procured the contract for ECML since March 2015. Wish I was still in Blighty to try go for a test ride 🙂

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