British train travel isn’t as glorious as its continental European counterparts, but a trip on a Virgin Trains is as rock and roll as it gets on the island.
Services in Britain were privatized 15 years ago to mixed reviews: Higher fares resulted, as did safer services, longer repair times began, though customer service was also improved. Virgin has been equally criticised along with the competition. What sets them apart is that Virgin gets right so many things that other services get so wrong. As the red and silver-striped front of a Virgin train pulls into the station, it is clear that if train travel were a popularity contest, Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains are definitely ‘the cool kids’ on the block.
The staff is much more open and friendly than other train services; the announcers even show a sense of humor when and where appropriate. I have actually laughed out loud during many a trip.
Virgin trains also run frequently and reliably. All trains leave from London Euston station with Pendolino trains heading north to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, and their Super Voyager trains which run northwest to Chester, North Wales, the West Midlands and Scotland. Trains to Manchester leave three times an hour, or every 20 minutes, which means that seats are rarely over-sold and there is plenty of space.
Fares are reasonable, seats are easy to book online, and if date of travel is known far enough in advance (3 months or so), seats to Manchester can sell for as little as £14 ($22) round-trip, though these tend to be windowless seats with no view.
Lucky enough to travel first class? The first class service offered by Virgin is rivalled only by that offered by Eurostar, a much more exclusive and expensive service between London and Paris/Brussels. Bottomless coffee, tea, soft drinks and wine (evenings only), genuinely delicious meals, spacious seating with all necessary plugs and free wi-fi services are all included, and on weekends anyone can bump their ticket up to first class for only £15.
During a trip from London to Liverpool last December, the apologetic train manager announced that our train would only be serving a snack service as it was considered an afternoon trip, and that any first class travelers who wished for a full meal should change at the next stop and board the following train, where the staff would graciously serve hot meals.
The snack was still delicious and I arrived on time, early even. As the trendy Virgin train arrived at the station, I couldn’t help but feel a bit smug that I chose to travel with Virgin to Liverpool. Hanging with ‘the cool kids’ made my travel in dead of winter an absolute breeze.