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Dining on trains: a different kind of fast food

Train Talk: Is the Great British Rail breakfast back?

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 17 November 2021 07:57 GMT
On track: smoked salmon gnocchi and ‘jammy dodger loaf’ served up for lunch on Avanti West Coast
On track: smoked salmon gnocchi and ‘jammy dodger loaf’ served up for lunch on Avanti West Coast (Mark Smith)

On Monday night I took an Avanti West Coast train from Birmingham New Street to London Euston. My dinner that evening was, in a sense, locally sourced: at M&S on the station concourse I bought bread, tomato, hummus, which I was happy to devour with the assistance of a can of Guinness. Not a great gastronomic inter-city experience, but it filled the gap.

Next morning, none other than Mark Smith – the international rail guru known as The Man in Seat 61 – was bragging on social media about his breakfast and lunch on exactly the same route.

“Avanti have reinvented their first class service. It now applies seven days a week. It’s already been soft launched, full launch in the new year.

“I’m now testing their full English, and yes, it’s excellent. Tough job, but someone, etc...”

Unhelpfully for those of us who hadn’t got round to elevenses, he added a video of bacon, eggs, tomato, sausage and mushroom – as well as his companion’s smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

“The full English certainly hit the spot,” concluded Mr Smith. “I count myself something of a fry-up connoisseur.”

Ask people of a certain age for their fondest memory of British Rail – the organisation that hit the buffers in the mid-1990s when rail privatisation took over – and chances are they will mention breakfast in the buffet car.

Those whose place in life seems destined to be always second class could, space permitting, nevertheless take a seat in the first-class restaurant. Delays and diversions were assuaged by a freshly cooked breakfast of which any greasy spoon cafe would be proud, all at a surprisingly low price that suggested a degree of subsidy.

Now, though, the elaborate meal is the strict preserve of first class. As with the airlines, Avanti’s premium product now includes good food as well as larger, more comfortable seats. So could you be tempted to invest?

Looking at rush-hour departures booked a week ahead from Birmingham to London, a breakfast time Advance single in first class costs £113 for an 84-minute trip – almost exactly twice as much as standard class. At a premium of over £55, it looks like an expensive meal.

More to my liking is the lunchtime offering. The same journey after 1pm costs £55 in first class, compared with £23 in standard.

The first class lunch offering revealed by Mr Smith’s Twitter post comprised smoked salmon gnocchi and “jammy dodger loaf” – served at 125mph along with a glass of red wine. Now that’s what I call fast food.

The opportunity to relax in the first class lounge is included with a premium ticket. Bundle that all together and the extra £28 over the basic fare starts to look a tempting deal compared with the M&S or Pret alternative.

The Avanti move is a shrewd way to fill the all-too-often wide open spaces in first class. The West Coast train operator has also introduced “standard premium” – basically, first class seating without any of the perks, at £15 over the standard fare on the Birmingham-London run. A three-class offering has echoes of long-haul aviation.

As the airlines are finding these days, leisure travellers are taking the places left empty by business passengers who now Zoom, rather than zoom, up and down the country.

Perhaps when businesspeople see the meals they are missing, they may get back on board. And with both Avanti and the East Coast main line operator, LNER, offering proper first class meals at weekends, more travellers should be enticed from road to rail. Out of the SUV and into the buffet car.

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