Friday lunchtime on 29 June 2018 and the end of a scorching week in the sunny South West. Standing on platform 5 at Exeter St. David’s and waiting for the slightly delayed arrival of the 13.02 “Cornishman” to London Paddington, an announcement that the train is one coach short (a shortage of coaches, we are told!) and that the service is already “full and standing” is hardly the news any weary traveller wants to hear.
Faced with the prospect of standing in a crowded vestibule for two hours, I did what any astute reader of the GWR timetable would sensibly do – I went to the rather exclusive restaurant car (17 covers) and managed to secure a wonderful – and now extremely rare opportunity – to remind myself why eating on the move was always such a pleasure.
Throughout my working life I had always tried to get the restaurant car on my many business trips across the country and it led to numerous fascinating encounters – sharing a table the bosses of Timothy Taylor’s Brewery and of Yorkshire Television while having dinner on separate occasions between London and Leeds for example, then another occasion having breakfast on the way from London to Edinburgh and spending half the journey talking to Tony Blair’s Energy Secretary, Malcolm Wicks MP.
Sadly – and to their lasting shame – restaurant cars on Britain’s railways were effectively killed off by Virgin Trains and by National Express. Between them they did away with the marvellous catering services on the West and East Coast routes, as well as the splendid service that survived for many years on the London – Norwich route, where I fondly remember being served kedgeree for breakfast on a trip from Liverpool Street to Colchester.
Restaurant cars began operating on Britain’s railways almost 140 years ago (in 1879) and would no doubt be as popular today as they were in years gone by if they had not been all but swept away in favour of the dismal and distinctly patchy airline-style of service now offered to first class travellers on most longer distance services.
Demand is certainly there – on the Watercress Line, where I work as a volunteer, the regular Saturday evening and Sunday lunch-time dining trains are completely sold out 12 months in advance, and I am sure that many other preserved railways would be able to tell the same story. Then there are the huge number of special excursion and charter trains running throughout the year, where “premier dining” is always the first class of ticket to sell out.
So it was a real pleasure last week to savour the delight and quality of the GWR Pullman Dining service, the network’s last true restaurant cars, which operate on a handful of weekday services between London Paddington and Plymouth, along with a single round trip between Swansea and Paddington.
Being offered what is described as the Week 2 menu, I can highly recommend the Chicken and Duck Terrine as a starter and the succulent Roast Dorset Lamb as a main course, but I can also recommend the conviviality of the restaurant car.
Maybe it was just because it was a hot Friday lunch-time, but it is a long time since I struck up animated conversations with not just one, but with all five of the people sharing my table and sitting across the aisle from me!
At a time when all one seems to hear about is the woes and indignities suffered by Northern Rail and Thameslink passengers, as well as further threats to the electrification programme, it was wonderful to find somewhere on the national network where the service was friendly and impeccable, and the food outstanding. Long may it continue!