Trenitalia, Executive Class – Frecciarossa: Roma Termini to Milano Centrale

Introduction

This visit to Rome has been quite an eye-opener for me. This is not the first time for me to visit the city, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it quite like this. The temperature during my stay was in the mid- to upper 30s, but it was a dry heat. Add to that the fact that we’ve had more or less nonstop rain back home in Basel, and the hot weather is a nice distraction!

The main objective of this trip had been to see some of the sights, as they say, which are otherwise only very difficult to access because of all the tourists. In as much, I think I’ve been very lucky. Althoug there were many tourists like me around, I never had to queue to enter anywhere, tickets were still available even at short notice and in the evenings I was able to enjoy the best of Italian food without ever having to wait for a table to become free and without making reservations. What I don’t know, though, is whether this is one of the few positive effects of the pandemic, or whether it is because of the summer holidays, when most self-respecting Romans tend to leave the city to head for the beach. One way or another, I’m not complaining. And I definitely want to return to Rome soon.

Getting to the station

Today I’m taking the train from Rome’s Termini station to Milano Centrale, which is a journey of three hours and thirty minutes. From the Sofitel to Termini it’s a twenty minutes walk, and there’s plenty of shade to protect me from the sun. Even so, the concierge at the hotel looks slightly alarmed when I refuse his offer to call me a taxi.

The Frecciarossa lounge

There are two lounges available at Termini: the Freccia lounge and the Freccia club. If I understand correctly, the former is for passengers holding an Executive Class ticket, whereas the Freccia club is for members of the frequent travellers programme.

The Freccia lounge is very basic. It has individual seats with small tables, as well as larger tables for groups to have meetings. There are no snacks to eat but there are hot and cold drinks available. Other than that, it offers welcome respite from the sweltering heat!

Just as a side note, the Frecciarossa is Trenitalia’s brand of highspeed trains. The word translates as ‘red arrow’. The fare system is quite complex. There are four classes of service, and for each class of service there are another four fare types that can be selected, depending on availability and restrictions. The Executive Class is the highest service standard on the train.

Boarding

There is a rear exit from the lounge through which passengers reach the ticket readers to enter the platforms.

Admittedly, the train may not look as funky as the French TGV, but this model can actually go as fast as 300 km/h, although that speed is never reached during my journey.

The seat

The seating configuration in Executive Class is 1 + 1 abreast, and there are four rows for a total of eight seats. Seats 2 and 3 face each other. The leg space on these seats is amazing.

Every seat has its own power outlet, a reading light, a button to automatically lower and raise the blinds, a foldable table, and storage space. The seatback has a good recline and there is also a leg rest that can be raised for additional support and comfort. And it really is a very comfy seat. The only drawback is that the seat covers are leather.

The crew

Interaction with the crew is minimal, which I suspect may be because of Covid. Still, they seem friendly enough and go about their duties professionally. There is also a cleaner on the train who I see passing through our carriage three times on the journey.

A sealed face mask with disinfectant gel is already at my seat, together with some still water and a sealed paper cup.

The meal

As soon as we depart Termini, the meal service begins. And it’s huge! First, there is box containing a few goodies:

In addition to another disinfectant towel and a can of sparkling water there is a packet of crackers and potato crisps.

A doubledecker tramezzino, with one layer filled with prosciutto cotto and the other with cream cheese and grilled veggies.

A chocolate and coffee cake.

And with that, the crew also bring me rather a large platter of bresoala and cheese. The meal is really good, but there’s just so much of it. It’s also a bit of a shame that the whole thing is served in one go, taking up all the space at my seat.

To drink I have a Coke Zero, but there are also complimentary alcoholic beverages available.

Arrival

After its departure from Terimini, the train makes a brief stop in Roma Tiburtina, and also calls at Florence and Bologna stations before reaching Milano, from where it continues to Torino. The train originates in Napoli.

We arrive exactly on time, despite there being a slight delay until they allow our train to enter the station. Milano Centrale is an enormous railway station. The weather here is not quite so pleasant as Rome. It’s only slightly less warm but a lot more humid.

Getting to the hotel

As I will only be staying the one night, I picked a hotel near the station, the Innside by Melià. The hotel only opened recently, as I suspect there haven’t been all that many guest staying due to the pandemic. The hotel is conveniently located five minutes away from the station on foot, close to several tram and metro lines.

TGV Lyria, First Class: Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon

Introduction

Welcome to the first installment of a series of posts that form part of my grand tour of Europe. There are a few places that have been on my bucket lists for a very long time, but that I never got round to visiting. It’s not even that I never found the time to visit. Rather I was put off by the horror stories one hears of having to queue for three hours in the sweltering heat to enter Versailles or being ‘processed’ through the sistine chapel without ever managing to see any of its exhibits.

As travel to Europe is still very restricted by the Covid pandemic, I figured I might just get my chance this year, if I play my cards right. Without the American and Chinese tourists to contend with, I reasoned that my chances of a hassle free experience, or a least a less cumbersome one, were as good as they were ever going to get.

Getting to the station

The first leg of the grand tour sees me taking the TGV Lyria from Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon. As I live close to the station, I leave my flat six minutes before the train’s departure at 08h34. After a brief spell of nice weather, we’re back to the rain and the grey here in Switzerland.

After a long restoration that lasted a few years, the French railway station that is adjacent to the Swiss station has been reopened. In the picture below you can see the hall connecting the Swiss part of the station to the French part.

Boarding

Today, only trains originating their journey in Basel and heading for France use the French station. My TGV will be departing from the Swiss sector, as the train originates in Zürich and only transits through Basel.

The train is departing from track 9.

The cabin

TGV Lyria is a joint venture between the French SNCF and the Swiss SBB, who jointly operate the services between Switzerland and France by TGV. Currently, the Lyria service operates to Zürich via Basel, Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. With the change to the winter schedule of 2020 in December 2019, all services between Switzerland and France have been shifted to trains with twin deck carriages. On demand, two trains sets are merged together. I always prefer sitting on the upper deck, simply because the view is better.

The seats are in a 2 + 1 abreast configuration, and there are several options to choose from: single seats facing backwards or forwards in an airliner style layout, twin seats next to eacher other or facing each other, and sets of four seats for larger groups.

There is also ample space to store large and small pieces of luggage. There is a power outlet at every seat and there is also a bistrot car in between the First and Second class sections serving snacks and drinks.

The seats are plush and offer a level of comfort that is simply unimaginable on a short-haul airliner in Europe these days. The seat also has a good recline, which is operated electronically by means of a switch in the arm rest.

The 08h34 service makes the journey from Basel SBB to Paris Gare de Lyon in three hours and four minutes and only calls at two stations on the way, in Mulhouse and Bélfort. Up until Bélfort, the train uses the regular train lines and goes at what I would call a normal speed for a train. However, no sooner does the train pull out of Bélfort station, that’s when the TGV comes into its own, as it accelerates up to speed of 300 to 322km/h on its own dedicated track.

As far as I’m concerned, the TGV is nothing short of amazing. The speed at which it goes is impressive and the comfort inside the cabin is exceptional and so much superior to an airplane. Usually, I read a lot when I travel. But on the TGV, I never seem to be able to concentrate, distracted by the rapidly changing views outside.

Arrival

Eventually we pull into the Gare de Lyon on time, at 11h38. While I wait for the platform to empty and passengers to pass through the barriers, I take a moment to take a few pictures of my chariot.

In the picture above, my train is the one on the right. The train on the left is an older generation TGV, but no less impressive.

Getting to Versailles

So the first stop on my grand tour is going to be the palais de Versailles. The quickest way to go is to exit the Gare de Lyon and then walk the short distance across the Seine river to the Gare d’Austerlitz. Normally, there is a direct train, the RER C, to Versailles Rive Gauche. However, due to construction on the line, I will have to first take a metro line 10 train to Duroc, change there to a line 13 mentro to the Gare de Montparnasse, and then from there catch the Île de France N train to Versailles. I know it sounds a bit inconvenient, but public transport in Paris is easy and trains are frequent.

So let’s see what happens next… In the meantime: get your vaccine as soon as you can. Get your vaccine as soon as you can, not just to protect yourself, but to protect others too! It is your civic duty.

Stay healthy, all of you!

William

TGV Lyria, Business First: Paris Gare de Lyon to Basel SBB

The meeting at ICAO ends just after noon. But by the time everybody has said good bye to everybody else and pretended the whole situation isn‘t just one big fat mess caused by ICAO and EASA together, it‘s gone 13h by the time I get to have lunch.

Getting to the Station

My train isn‘t leaving until 16:23. But the weather in Paris today is something nasty. And so, at 14:15 I descend down into the Metro at Les Sablons in Neuilly Sur Seine. From here I have a direct train on the line number 1 all the way to Gare de Lyon.

The journey takes thirty minutes between Les Sablons and Gare de Lyon.

The SNCF Salon Voyageur Lounge

Today I‘m travelling in BusinessPremière, which is located in car number 11. In BusinessPremière passengers receive complimentary newspapers, a welcome drink and a hot meal. It also means I‘m entitled to use the Salon Grand Voyageur, which is located in Hall 3, one floor down from Hall 2.

The Salon is quite small, which is why I don‘t take any pictures. But it‘s comfortable enough. There are toilets in the lounge. There is also a coffee machine serving complimentary hot drinks.

Boarding for the train starts 20 minutes before departure and terminates two minutes before departure.

The train is quite full, presumably because it‘s Friday afternoon and people are on their way home for the weekend.

The Cabin

The seat is quite comfortable. There is a power socket and a footrest. Seat pitch is good, but the foot rest is in a slightly inconvenient position…

The Meal

The service begins about 20 minutes out of Paris with the distribution of the scented hot towels, newspapers and drinks. There is a full bar service available. I settle for some sparkling water.

The meal consists of a carrot cake with goat‘s cheese and peppers and two small pieces of salmon quiche.

And for dessert I have a slice of lemon cake with apricots.

It‘s really more of a snack than a meal, but given the time of day, I think it‘s perfectly adequate and quite tasty.

The meal ends with a cup of ginger and lemon tea.

Arrival

The rest of the journey is uneventful. We arrive in Basel with a delay of three minutes which, funnily enough, we picked up only on the last eight kilometres of the journey from Paris.

As you may have guessed by now, I‘m a great fan of the TGV. It‘s fast, safe, reliable and it comes without the hassle of security checkpoints. And if everything else fails, the train just looks good inside and out.

The BusinessPremière product is attractive and certainly competitive with the airlines, especially when you take into account the much lower ticket price and the city centre departure from the Gare de Lyon.

Virgin Trains, First Class: London Euston to Lancaster

Introduction

I’m on my way to Lancaster for the graduation ceremony. This is the third Master’s degree I’ll be picking up. I then start on my PhD at Lancaster University in January.

Getting to the Station

In London I stayed at the old County Hall hotel, which is right next door to the London Eye and close to Waterloo station. The train to Lancaster will be leaving from Euston station, which is roughly 25 minutes away from Waterloo on the Northern line. Given the fact that the tube is prone to unexpected delays, I decide to make an early start. My train will be departing at 11h30. So I leave the hotel just after 10h00.

By the time I reach Euston, I still have an hour to spare before the train leaves. Luckily, Virgin Trains operate a First Class lounge at the station, which is located one floor up from the main public area and the platforms.

The First Class Lounge

The lounge is fairly busy when I arrive, but there is still plenty of room to sit. The lounge looks a lot like the many airline lounges I’ve been to at various airports around the world. In addition, there is also a bar, where you can order freshly brewed coffee. To eat there are mainly sweet snack items like biscuits or brownies.

There is also complimentary wifi access in the lounge, which works surprisingly well.

Boarding

Our train will be departing from platform seven and there is a ticket check just before you access the platform. The train seems quite busy. Even so, the queues for the ticket check are short and move quickly.

Departure is exactly on time at 11h30. The journey time is announced at 2 hours and 24 minutes, which should get us into Lancaster at 13h54.

The Cabin

The seating configuration in First Class is 2 + 1, with seats facing each other. As a result, the leg space, while not tight, is somewhat limited and does not allow you to stretch your legs.

Furthermore, there is a table across the full length of the compartment of four, which cannot be removed. So if you’re seated at the window and need to get out, the person on the aisle seat will have to move first.

Complimentary wifi is available on board and works very well.

The Service

I count four crew members working the First Class section. They’re polite and all, but somehow they all seem rather unhappy to be there and are not overly friendly either. The service comes across as being a bit rough and unpolished.

The Meal

In First Class, Virgin Trains will serve you a complimentary meal of sorts, the content of which varies according to the time of day. There is a printed menu available at every table and there are various options to choose from.

The service begins when the crew pass through the cabin with drinks. There is a fairly large selection of alcoholic and soft drinks.

Next, one of the crew passes through the cabin with a choice of oatmeal biscuits or mini brownies. After that, two other crew members pass through the cabin offering either tea or coffee. I try the coffee, which is quite horrific. Apparently, the same goes for the tea, because that’s what the lady across the aisle has ordered and she’s positively outraged…

And then after that comes the hot meal. They’re really just snacks that are easy to heat up in a microwave. I have the vegetarian option, which is some sort of bubble and squeak with a vegetarian pesto sausage. And this dish is just about as vile as the tea and coffee. I knew I should have bought a sandwich from Marks… But I will say that it’s nice to be able to use proper cutlery on a train, instead of some flimsy plastic.

Over all, the sequence of the meal service seems a bit random to me and doesn’t really follow any logical pattern. Once the meal service has ended, the crew come to remove all used items and advise the passengers to help themselves to the bottles of water that have been set up in the middle of the carriage.

Arrival

By the time we reach Lancaster, the train has managed to pick up a delay of twenty minutes. Which is not really surprising on a British train, even though I also have to admit that I didn’t notice any period during the journey when the train was going exceptionally slow or even stopped. But it makes no difference to me, one way or another.

Lancaster station is located on the fringe of the town, roughly ten minutes on foot to the centre.

Conclusion

Virgin Trains has a pricing system similar to that of the airlines. For this trip I booked an advanced purchase, non-changeable and non-refundable ticket that was relatively cheap for a First Class ticket for a journey of more than two hours. Even so, the next time I make this journey, I don’t think I would buy a First Class ticket again. Seat comfort is not really that good and the catering they might just as well do away with completely in my opinion.

Amtrak, First Class – Acela Express: Boston South Station to New York Pennsylvania Station

amtrak-logo

Getting to the Station

Transport: Walking
Journey time: 15 minutes
Departs from: Long Wharf
Arrives: Amtrak South Station

The boat from Provincetown arrives at Boston’s Long Wharf in the old part of the city. It is 12h35 as I step off the boat and my train will not be leaving until 15h10. So I head for the Wagamama restaurant in the old warehouses on the wharf that have since been renovated and converted into shops and restaurants.

From the Long Wharf to South Station is a walk of about 10 to 15 minutes.

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Boarding

Priority Boarding: The First Class coach is at the very back of the train, which means it is closest to the beginning of the platform in Boston. First Class passengers are invited to board at their own leisure ahead of the other passengers. Boarding for the train starts about 15 minutes before the train’s departure.

An electronic ticket is sent as an attachment to the booking confirmation once you have completed the online booking.

The Cabin

Configuration: 2 + 1.
Seat: The First Class carriage has a number of different seating configurations. On the row of single seats there are some seats facing each other for two persons travelling together, or individual seats behind each other. The same goes for the seats of two on the opposite side of the aisle. The seat itself is wide and very comfortable and has a good recline.
Facilities: Reading light, two power plugs.
Audio and Video: Wifi is available throughout the carriage.

The Service

The journey time is announced at 3 hours and 45 minutes for the 344 kilometres from Boston to New York. After New York the train continues to Washington. There is one young man serving the First Class carriage and he really is brilliant. He has an easygoing attitude and interacts nicely with the passengers.

As I take my seat, he comes to welcome me aboard and hands me the menu for the journey to New York and a packet of nibbles. He also takes my order for drinks. I order a Diet Pepsi, and much to my surprise, the drink is actually served in a real glass!

The Meal

Choice: There are five dishes to choose from for the main course. The salad is the healthy option.
Delivery:
Individual tray service.
Type of meal:
Late lunch.

  1. Quinoa salad with edamame, tomatoes, mixed greens and an olive oil vinaigrette.
  2. A warm bun with butter.
  3. Cheesecake crumble with a raspberry coulis.
  4. Coffee.

The meal arrives shortly after we leave Providence. And again I am pleasantly surprised that it is served in real crockery and with proper metal cutlery.

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The meal hits the spot nicely, which is hardly surprising, given that I only just had lunch at Wagamama’s…

For the rest of the journey the young man passes through the cabin, checking if passengers have everything they need of if they would like anything else.

Arrival

By the time we arrive in New York, the train has a delay of nearly 15 minutes, which is not too bad. As we approach Manhattan, the young man passes through the carriage with hot towels.They are rather flimsy, but I guess they serve their purpose.

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From the platform I head one floor up and follow the signs for the C and E subway lines heading uptown.

All in all, I must say I enjoyed this trip on Amtrak. My only grippe really, is that the journey seems unnecessarily long. 344 kilometres should really be possible in under three hours by train.

RENFE, First Class – AVE: Madrid to Cordoba

Introduction

This trip review is a radical departure from my usual theme in that it is a review of a trip I make by train and not by plane.

Date: 27 April 2012
From: Madrid
To: Cordoba
Carrier: Renfe
Vehicle: AVE Highspeed train
Class: Club Class
Seat: 7C, aisle

Getting to the Station

I arrive in Madrid on an Air Europa flight from Amsterdam. The flight is certainly nothing to write home. It doesn’t help that we arrive in Madrid with a delay of 90 minutes. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have had three hours to make my connection by train from Madrid’s Atocha railway station to Cordoba. I have now only 75 minutes. So I deplane straight away and head for the Metro. There is a direct train from the airport to Atocha, but that only runs from the new Terminal 4, not from Terminal 1 where I arrive.

But the journey proves to be an easy enough one. I take the Metro to Nuevos Ministerios and from there change onto a suburban train that gets me to Atocha in no time. I even have time for one of those lovely baguette sandwiches with a tortilla and grilled green peppers in it!

The Spanish railways are simply amazing. They’re fast, reliable, very clean and stylish and the service is absolutely outstanding. What’s more, it is obvious the railways are competing head to head with the air carriers. And if you ask me, right now they have the upper hand in Spain.

Boarding

At Atocha station there is something like a transit area. To access it you have to have a valid ticket and you have to put your luggage through the x-ray machine. You are then inside the departure lounge. The platforms are one floor up from the tracks. To access them you have to wait for your train to start boarding, at which time your ticket is scanned at a counter that looks very much like an airport gate. And then from there you descend via escalator to your train, where your attendant is already expecting you.

The Cabin

The cabin of the train is very nicely appointed, with use of wood for the tables and the back of the seats. The seat itself is very comfortable and made of leather. Fortunately, the train is not very full today either.

The Service

The service is simply amazing. We start with a welcome drink served in a real glass, with dried fruit and nuts to go along with that. A short while after earphones are distributed.

Once we leave the station we receive a hot towel to refresh us, followed by the distribution of the menus.

The Meal

And then comes the meal. It is served in real crockery and with real metal cutlery. As it is the afternoon, we are served an open canape sandwich with a Russian Salad and peppers. For dessert there are two small and very tasty cakes. With that I have a diet coke. I comment on the funky design and ask the attendant if it’s okay for me to take the empty bottle with me. He replies that yes it is and even gives me an extra bottle to have a nice, unopened one to keep. How nice is that.

After the meal comes the coffee and a Lindor chocolate praliné, which I’ve demolished by the time I remember to take a picture of it. Yes, I really am impressed! Next stop: Cordoba.

Conclusion

The journey by Renfe is a smooth and quiet one. For a place as small and as densely populated as Europe it really would make more sense to expand the railway network instead of further adding to the seemingly inevitable congestion in the air. Travelling by train simply makes more sense: the stations are usually not that far out of town, security is not quite such a pain and you can basically take as much luggage as you like. Perhaps therefore, the time has come for the railways and the airlines to stop competing head to head and instead to understand that they are two different transport modes that could very easily complement each other. In some countries this is already a reality: in France Air France has slashed a number of domestic routes in favour of a code-share agreement with the TGV, with trains running directly to the Roissy Airport in Paris. Lufthansa has a similar set up in Germany and so does Switzerland. But so far all these collaborations have been on a purely national level. And for a change it’s not the airlines being overly protective of their markets, but the railway companies.