GWR lunch back on the line

Restaurant car services on our national rail network were all but killed off by privatisation in the mid-1990s (GNER being an honourable exception) and the move towards airline-style at-seat service to first class passengers, so it was good to learn that GWR had restored one Plymouth-Paddington dining service.

While it is not the full Pullman Dining experience which was provided on three daily round trips to the South-West until halted by the pandemic, my lifetime’s enjoyment of dining on the move meant I just had to sample the current limited offering, now being extended to two other services. 

At present the GWR dining service is offered (weekdays only) on the 13.15 service from Plymouth and the 19.04 return from Paddington, with a current maximum of just ten covers in a Class 80x unit making it a pretty exclusive restaurant in which to sample the £30 three course/£25 two-course set menu.

802019/005 at Newton Abbot with 1A84 from Penzance (10.06) to London Paddington

From Monday, 26 July 2021, however, there will be a second round trip to the South-West, with dining restored to the 13.04 from London Paddington to Plymouth and 18.15 return service, while restaurant service also returns to South Wales in the 13.23 from Swansea to Paddington and the 18.48 from Paddington to Swansea. 

Using one of the day rover tickets that I am able to buy as a perk of my Rail Replacement Coordinator job, my plan was to travel with SWR from home in Haslemere via Woking to Exeter St. David’s on the West of England line, head down to Newton Abbot on England’s most scenic coastal route, then enjoy a leisurely lunch on the two-hour run back to Reading, before returning home via Guildford

XC 43304/208 depart Newton Abbot with 1S51 from Plymouth to Edinburgh Waverley

Travelling down to Exeter via Salisbury is always a pleasure on the comfortable but rather noisy Class 159 units, but despite the pleasant scenery SWR does little to enhance the three-hour journey, with on-board catering having been axed at the start of the pandemic and no sign at all of its return. 

43088/43186 Taunton Castle depart Newton Abbot with 2U20 from Penzance (10.50) to Bristol TM

After a trip down England’s finest stretch of coastal railway, and a chance to survey work on the sea wall at Dawlish, there was time for a photographic break at Newton Abbot before boarding my high speed restaurant service, which departs at 13.54 and on Tuesday (20 July 2021) was formed of unit 802006. 

The 13.15 Plymouth-Paddington was a ten-coach formation (802021 being the rear set), with lunch served in the front set, so on departure from Newton Abbot any passengers who fancied joining me and my two fellow diners were advised to alight at Exeter St. David’s and head for the front five coaches. 

Pullman starter – smoked trout with beetroot wedges

Ever since their introduction it has struck me as rather curious that the GWR Class 80x series IETs are fitted with full kitchen facilities, yet offer no buffet car, a somewhat patchy trolley service – from which the excellent filter coffee has been replaced by hot water and a sachet of instant coffee – with just a handful of services offering full catering.

Pullman main course: Confit duck leg with a roasted vegetable ratatouille

Taking my seat in the restaurant – which would also be giving me a free upgrade to first class for the two-hour journey to Reading – it was good to see that tables were laid up in the bays of four seats, rather than the less attractive rear-facing airline-style single seats.

Menu choices are limited by the current need for food to be pre-prepared, meaning steaks are off the set menu, but from the choices on offer I can highly recommend the smoked trout with beetroot wedges as a starter, the confit duck leg as a main course and the prune and Kingston Black pear tart with custard as a dessert (photo below).

I cannot commend the experience highly enough. Besides being the way to secure an upgrade to first class, this is a truly delightful way to enjoy a trip back to London or Reading, to enjoy some fine food and drink and to share the tales and experiences of fellow diners. 

From what I have read, GWR’s intention is to focus its full catering offer more on leisure travellers than the business market, so there are sadly no plans at present to reintroduce breakfast on the Golden Hind and Red Dragon, but restoration of dining services from South Wales is a welcome step in the right direction, and one I hope proves very successful.

Tea or coffee is included in the £30/£25 set menus

What does seem incredible to me on our quasi-nationalised railway is that it is possible to join a train at a smallish town like Newton Abbot and enjoy a restaurant-quality lunch at a reasonable price, yet such delights are denied those travelling to the capital from far bigger and more lucrative markets such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester.