A Train To Manchester

Published on 17 August 2003 in , , ,

And so it came to pass that on Friday at 9am I caught a train to Manchester and on Saturday I came back. This is the tale of the first of two journeys.

A Pendolino There.

Travelling up was my first chance to try one of Virgin’s new Pendolino trains which are now running up and down the West Coast Mainline.

Outward impressions show a rather sleek and plush looking train. Lots of modern styling in the vestibules, including blue illuminated panels and lots of stylish grey.

We were in carriage A, at the front of the train for our journey. This is a half carriage, which shares space with the drivers cabin and other bits and bats.

Reservations? Moi?

Whether a seat is reserved or not is shown by an LCD panel, supposedly to replace the old paper system, although paper tickets had been wedged in as well. The new panels are also supposed to show your name to help you find your seat, although very few did – no doubt a few systems need changing before that works properly.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Sitting down I noted the seats were more upright than the old Intercity carriages. Not too bad for comfort, and it felt like there was more legroom, but for longer journeys, possibly a problem. More upright seats do seem to be ever increasing though on new buses and trains, and Virgin are not alone in this respect. Whether its down to customer feedback, who knows, but thankfully the extra legroom meant I could slouch in my seat.

We were at an airline style seat, complete with fold down table. A couple of the airline seats didn’t have a chair right in front of them to host the fold town table, so instead had a fixed table. This did have more space to lean on, complete with plug socket so you could plug in your laptop or mobile phone.

Each seat has its own light above it, which can be switched on or off, and there are blinds that can be pulled down if it gets too bright – previously a feature you had to pay first class fairs to get. However the blinds do affect two rows of seats. It might have been better to come up with a system where it was split into two blinds instead, just in case of arguments.

Listening to the Radio.

One of the best features is the onboard radio – you can plug in your headphones to a little socket between seats, and each seat has its own radio control.

The Pendolinos have 10 pre-recorded radio stations, plus Radios 1 to 4 picked up off FM. The latter four are subject to being able to reception, but the pre-recorded ones are always available, and include a plethora of musical styles, presented (in the main) by BBC presenters.

There seemed to be a station which corresponded to many of the BBC’s own offerings – a pop station (ala Radio 1), an indie station (6music), a gold station (Radio 2) and a classical station. There’s also a kids station, dance, jazz, easy listening, and ‘pink’ – also known as the cliched gay station!

Unfortunately there seemed to be a trouble with this on our train with the signal being sent to stuttery, which was rather annoying, else I’d have spent much of the journey listening to Gideon Coe’s show. This also happened at other seats in our carriage. Whether it was train-wide, I don’t know, but it was a disappointment.

This is of course a feature that has been present for air travellers for some time, which is no doubt where Virgin took the idea from.

Off for some food.

I am going to say it loud and clear. The new look buffet area is one of the best features of these new trains. It’s been fantastically thought through.

With the old style buffet cars, you turn up, stand in a huge queue for eternity, then finally get to peer over the counter to see what’s available. Even then you can’t see it properly, so you have to ask what’s available. It’s a slow, cumbersome process and rather annoying.

Not true in these new Pendolinos! ‘The Shop’ as it is called is self service. You pick what you want out of the fridges and shelves and pay for it at the small counter, where hot drinks are also dispensed. It’s even true for hot food, which you pick from the fridges, and take to be heated up.

It’s just so much easier, and in theory should be quicker. When I arrived, there was no one there at all, bar the member of staff, so what it’s like in a really busy situation, who knows, but it looks like it should be a lot quicker – as long as everyone doesn’t want coffees and teas anyway!

Also on sale were books and CDs as well as headphones for the radio.


Now lets go on to the loos. Can I say that I love the fact that the flush button is behind the loo seat, thus meaning you have to put the loo seat down to flush the loo! If there was ever an example of market research deciding train design, that was it. I can see it now – hundreds of people across the land moaning about people who leave the loo seat up, all pacified by someone deciding the way to cure that problem is to put the flush in such a position that you have to put the loo seat down!

Taps and hand driers are all automatic, although I found getting the right spot to put my hand to get them working a bit fiddley first time round.

One thing I first noticed in the toilet, and after that on other parts of the train after that, was that the majority of signs were also in braille which will no doubt be welcomed by many.


Overall, it was a nice experience. The seats could really have been a bit less upright, and lets be honest, this is actually a key point. The extras are nice, but when you’re on a train, it’s the seat that is key. The uprightness of seats is something that’s occuring on other operators as well – maybe it’s down to market research, maybe it allows them to cram in another couple of seats. Who knows the answer.

It was disappointing the at seat audio wasn’t working properly, however the latter is something that shouldn’t be representative on all trains.

And if you’re one of those people who associate Virgin Trains with always being late, I’ll point out that we had to wait at Stafford for five minutes because we were early, and indeed arrived at Manchester Piccaddilly with 12 minutes to spare (not that this is the preserve of the new Pendolinos – the old trains would often arrive early as well.)

All in all, a contrast to the journey back to London.