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.

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.

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.