Britain’s Last Restaurant Car: GWR First Class Pullman Dining
An invention of the Great Northern Railway Company, the first dedicated restaurant car in Britain started operations in 1879. Almost 150 years later, Great Western Railway (GWR) is the only remaining operator of restaurant cars in the UK on selected weekday services to and from the South West of England and Wales. I have travelled countless times with GWR in First Class over the last 12 years but had not, until September 2019, sampled their flagship Pullman Dining service. So, despite this trip clearly having nothing to do with aviation, I thought I’d put finger to keyboard and share my experience of this unique railway adventure.
I arrived at Brunel’s masterpiece, London Paddington station, from Heathrow via the quick and efficient Heathrow Express. All Heathrow Express services operate from Platforms 6 and 7 (although at present, services are limited to Platform 7 only during upgrade works). Hopping up the staircase to the footbridge (originally known as the ‘galley’) at the back of the station’s main train shed, I got a great view of the architecturally magnificent overall roof as I descended to Platform 1, home to the GWR First Class lounge.
Unlike some other UK train operating companies, GWR offer lounge access to all First Class ticketholders, regardless of price paid. On this occasion, I was travelling on an advance purchase First Class ticket to the value of GBP47 (one way to Taunton, including a substantial Railcard discount of 30%).
It’s important to note that simply having a First Class ticket on a service where Pullman Dining is operating does not include the Pullman Dining service itself; this must be booked separately online (as I did), by phone or in the lounge prior to departure, and paid for separately onboard the train by card or cash on completion of the meal (much as you would use a traditional stationary restaurant). Standard Class ticketholders can access Pullman Dining, but cannot pre-book. Pullman Dining services departing from London are often fully booked, which is why on this occasion I had purchased a First Class ticket in order to guarantee a Pullman Dining reservation.
The GWR First Class lounge on Platform 1 is housed within the original Victorian station buildings and is predominately split into two rooms; a main one upon entry, and Queen Victoria’s original waiting room. My ticket was checked by the receptionist and I was welcomed into the lounge.
Behind reception, the airy high-ceilinged main room opens out with luggage storage racks, coat stand and news stand on the right, with a TV and train departure information screen above. I uses ‘news stand’ in the loosest sense here given only the bare minimum of four different freebie magazines were available, with no newspapers in sight. The wall behind the train departure information screen was in need of decoration when I visited in September, although by the time of my next visit in December this had been repaired.
This room features a single main seating area with around 14 uncomfortable armchairs and a handful of low coffee tables. The wooden flooring throughout this area, and in reception, is badly worn and in need of replacement.
Wrapping around the small prep kitchen, the first of three buffet sections offers a couple of coffee machines and in-built fridges containing concentrated orange and apple juice, bottles of still and sparkling water, and cans of Pepsi.
Around the corner, additional buffet sections offer a small selection of sandwiches, fresh whole fruit, crisps, nuts, biscuits, flapjack and leftover pastries from the breakfast service. Whilst the food and drink offering is undoubtedly meagre, with Pullman Dining awaiting me, on this occasion I wasn’t fussed.
Towards the rear of the room, a business area has been fashioned from what formerly was a bookable meeting room; a handful of basic laptop desk positions are available with views out to Platform 1. Whilst sporadic wifi is available throughout the lounge, this is the only space where power and USB sockets are readily accessible to passengers. This area features the rather attractive GWR carpet that appears in First Class carriages on the few remaining High Speed Trains (HSTs) operating selected West of England services between Cardiff, Exeter and Penzance, and in berths and selected carriages on the Night Riviera Sleeper Service.
Off the business area, basic washrooms and showers are available – the showers being principally for use by Sleeper Service passengers. Hand wash by The Scottish Fine Soaps Company and hand lotion by Pasture is available; why GWR choose to use two different brands is beyond me.
Accessed along a short corridor that passes the original waiting room access doors onto Platform 1, Queen Victoria’s waiting room is an architecturally interesting octagonal room lit by a centrepiece chandelier, with additional seating space available in a room off to the side. Both rooms adopt traditional (and dated) brown leather seating – armchairs in the octagonal room and sofas in the anteroom, with traditional coffee tables and floor lamps, all set atop a carpet long since needing replacement. This area, whilst being dark, tends to be quieter than the main room, although on this occasion had a fair amount of passengers meaning photography was difficult.
Further (much smaller) washrooms are available to the left of the octagonal room, with Queen Victoria’s original entrance lobby from Eastbourne Terrace home to a small buffet either side, offering identical food and drink to the main room. Access out to Eastbourne Terrace (formerly a fire exit from the lounge) is currently closed due to Crossrail construction works.
Art throughout the lounge, including the snapshot of history below, is described on notices bearing GWR’s previous First Great Western branding; the same former branding is visible on the fridges. Quite why nobody has noticed this (or bothered to make updates) in the last 5 years is a mystery.
Whilst the GWR First Class lounge is a welcome sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Paddington station, it is long overdue a comprehensive refurbishment. What could be an elegant nod to the company’s illustrious heritage is instead a vaguely forlorn and sadly forgotten space.
Since 2017, GWR have operated a fleet of 93 Hitachi AT300 Class 800 and 802 units on their long distance network from Paddington. GWR have named these trains Intercity Express Trains, or IETs. Both classes of train are virtually identical, the 802s having a higher engine operating power and larger fuel tanks for use on non-electrified and steeper gradient sections of the network in Devon and Cornwall. I assume I was travelling today on a Class 802 unit given its final destination of Plymouth, but I could be wrong.
GWR’s IETs are comprised of either 5 or 9 carriages, with two 5-car trains regularly being joined together to form a 10-car train (as was the case with my service today). 5-car trains have two half-carriages of First Class, one being shared with the kitchen/crew areas/driver’s cab, and one being shared with Standard Class accommodation. 9-car trains have one half-carriage and one full carriage of First Class, the half-carriage being shared with the kitchen/crew areas/driver’s cab. There are subtle differences in the design of the half-carriage with the kitchen/crew areas/driver’s cab between 5 and 9-car trains; the former has 6 rows of seats, whilst the latter has 5 rows.
The carriage photos that follow are from a 9-carriage train I experienced on the return journey. The full First Class carriage features 19 rows of seats in a 2-1 configuration with overhead luggage racks above. Single seats alternate direction halfway down the carriage, whilst double seats are grouped into four seats facing each other.
There is a standard-sized toilet at one end of the carriage and luggage racks at both ends, although space is limited compared to the older generation of HSTs. There is space for additional luggage between some pairs of seats. Waste bins are available at regular intervals between aisle seats, in the vestibules and toilets.
The half-carriage features 6 rows of seats in the same 2-1 configuration, with two wheelchair spaces and an accessible toilet at one end of the carriage. There are no luggage racks, with the only storage space being above the seats in the overhead racks. Single seats all face the same direction.
To comply with the latest fire regulations, all First Class seats are upholstered in a rather drab fabric rather than the leather of the HSTs, with seat comfort notably reduced – the minimal padding to both the seat base and back is really quite noticeable after an hour or so. It seems odd that leather should be permitted onboard an aircraft but not onboard a train. Headrests can be slightly adjusted with wings either side, and manual seat recline is available, albeit to a limited degree. Gone is the smart carpet of the HST fleet, replaced with a bland grey to match the overall colour scheme – dull.
All seats have a table, and each window seat has a coat hook within the wall panel, with aisle seats featuring grab handles. Every seat has access to both USB and power sockets (albeit dual seats share the same ports), and wifi is available, allegedly at a faster speed in First Class compared to Standard Class (although ‘fast’ is not a word I associate with GWR’s wifi). Gone are the curtains of the HST fleet, with windows all featuring manually adjustable blinds.
The IET represents a step up from the HST in terms of noise and general ride comfort, but passenger comfort (in First Class, at least) is degraded by the none too comfortable seats.
I checked in the lounge which carriage Pullman Dining would be set up in and was informed it would be Carriage L at the rear of the train (the half-carriage adjacent to the kitchen, which seemed logical). The crew weren’t quite ready to receive passengers as boarding was announced, and so we were asked to take a seat in the adjacent half-carriage of First Class, which caused some confusion for passengers with reserved seats in that car.
Before too long, after a little standing around the vestibule, we were invited to the Pullman Dining carriage just before departure and offered a choice of seat – either an individual seat or a seat in a group of four (with other passengers). Sharing a table with other passengers (none of whom may know each other) is fairly common on well-occupied Pullman Dining services, so be prepared for this and board early if, like me, you’d prefer to practise some earlier-than-required social distancing and dine alone. I took Seat 53, a single seat with a clear window view; as it turned out, Carriage L would be fully occupied on this service, with at least one table in the adjacent Carriage K also being set up for Pullman Dining, presumably much to the envy of other passengers there.
I was impressed with the crew as soon as I sat down; they seemed to be as enthusiastic to be on board as I was, a genuine personal welcome was offered, and drinks orders were taken promptly. There was no bar menu (other than the wine list within the menu), but the crew seemed to be able to make most drinks on request; my G&T was a generous size, and both the gin and tonic water were presented to me first (with a choice of two of each) before pouring.
Tables were pre-laid with today’s West Country ingredient-themed menu and wine list in a smart Pullman-branded folio, a high-quality white paper tablecloth and black paper serviette, cutlery, bread plate, wine glass, Cole & Mason salt and pepper cellars, and a large glass bottle of complimentary still mineral water sitting atop a metal plate (with small plastic bottles of sparkling water available on request). With the table set up for lunch, there was limited space to store other items, and I ended up balancing my camera and phone on the window-side armrest of the seat; for this reason, a larger group of four table may have been a better option.
Orders were taken from the rear of the carriage, with the destination of each passenger asked. I queried whether there would be enough time for three courses given the relatively short travel time to Taunton of 1h43 and was informed that there was plenty of time, albeit at a fairly quick pace between each course with the crew prioritising the plating of my dishes over those of passengers who were travelling further afield (which seemed to be the majority). As an aside, the minimum order from the menu for each passenger is a main course.
Starters appeared as we drew into Reading station, which is the second stop on this service and the last one where passengers joining the train can take a seat in the Pullman Dining car (subject to reservation or if space is available on the day). My choice of beautifully presented Devon scallops with a mango, chili and lime salsa and toasted coconut flakes was served with warm bread offered from a basket, accompanied by a dish of butter. This starter was an excellent choice, with the scallops cooked perfectly and the flavours popping out. Crockery no longer bears the Pullman Dining branding as it did in the past.
Further bread was offered to coincide with the delivery of my main course just past Hungerford – the excellent prime West Country fillet steak with a classic Diane sauce. All main courses are served seat-side by the crew with the same selection of vegetables from large dishes; I opted for some roast potatoes, courgette and carrots, and top-ups of vegetables were offered throughout the course. A choice of horseradish or mustard in individual glass pots was offered, along with a steak knife. This dish tasted just as good as it looked and was heartily satisfying.
To complete my Pullman Dining experience, I opted for the single dessert on the menu – the raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake with a raspberry coulis. This was utterly divine, served at my request with a peppermint tea. As with mineral water, tea and coffee is offered on a complimentary basis, and was served with a Pullman-branded chocolate from a tray.
My bill came to GBP62, plus a GBP5 cash tip, resulting in a total spend (including the ticket) for this one-way trip being GBP114, roughly the equivalent of the cheapest Band 1 BA Club Europe sector. That seems like pretty good value to me.
From the dedicated staff, to the excellently cooked and presented comforting food, to the convivial atmosphere amongst other passengers on board, GWR Pullman Dining is a truly unique experience in the UK, and one which I’m keen to repeat in the near future.
I’ll end this report with a brief look at GWR’s First Class catering on non-Pullman services. Whilst theoretically there is a set menu, in my experience what is on offer from the trolley differs greatly according to how busy the service is, time of day, day of the week, time of the year and whim of the crew. A basic selection very similar to that available in the First Class lounge at Paddington is usually available, in stark contrast to many other UK train operating companies’ First Class services on long distance routes where full meals (albeit nowhere near the standard of Pullman Dining) are offered to all First Class passengers, at least on weekdays.
Thanks for reading, and as always, I welcome your comments and questions.