Accessible Train Travel: Virgin Trains First Class
Well, It's been a long time since my overall views on first-class train travel for wheelchair users as well as those with other impairments, so it's no wonder that it's been a long time coming for me to finally give a breakdown, TOC by TOC of what each company has to offer in terms of their first class product.
For this journey, I was travelling from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston which gave me plenty of time to review different aspects of the first class product. Firstly though before getting into the review, I'd like to say a massive thanks to the Virgin Trains and Network Rail staff at Manchester, as well as the train manager and customer hosts onboard. I, unfortunately, had to be put on a later train back as the train I was due to catch had an out of order toilet in first class (it's policy to not put a wheelchair user in a coach where the toilet is not working). Thankfully because of the circumstances not only was my advance ticket accepted, the staff both onboard and at Manchester Piccadilly made me feel massively welcome and took really good care of me. The only slightly gutting thing about not getting my booked train was the fact that it was Virgin's Pride train, thankfully I got a quick photo by it but for those who know me or have seen that YouTube video, you'll know why seeing that train out and about made me one happy person!
So now for the low down on Virgin Trains First Class product:
The Lounge: Virgin Trains have a First Class lounge at Manchester Piccadilly tucked out the way upstairs. There's lift access to the lounge which is great, but be prepared for the fact that it is TINY! If you're used to the lounges at Birmingham New Street, Birmingham International and London Euston, then the size of the lounge may shock you. However, I personally think smaller is better and the size definitely didn't impact on the offerings in the lounge.
The lounge itself had 2 wireless charging ports which you could also plug a non-wireless charging phone into, as well as an area with a good selection of snacks such as popcorn, cookies and fruit, as well as hot and cold drinks. Despite the tiny size, space is well used and design thought out. It's pretty easy to navigate in a wheelchair! The staff are also really helpful, and there's always a staff member available in the lounge if you need any assistance.
Onboard: The first class coaches are absolutely stunning! I love the layout, especially the table layout and mood lighting. The one thing I love about Virgin Trains first class is that the wheelchair area has the seats directly on the other side of the table as opposed to being on its own meaning that if you're travelling as a group, you can stay together. But, there is one other thing about that layout, if like me you transfer to a seat, it makes life so much easier, especially as the armrests are moveable too!
When it comes to food and drink, Virgin give you proper metal cutlery as opposed to plastic disposables that we've become used to in First Class. Not only does this make it feel much more premium than other TOCs, but it also enhances Virgin's brand image when it comes to sustainability and reducing waste. Virgin also don't charge extra for alcoholic drinks like CrossCountry do, and they serve alcohol on most of their trains, unlike GWR who as far as I know only serve complimentary wine in the evenings at London Paddington in the lounge. So, if you want to treat yourself, then go for it! The snacks on the train were the exact same offering as in the lounge, but when it came to the main meal there was plenty of choices. I ended up choosing the sweet potato salad which I highly recommend to anyone!
Overall: I definitely love Virgin Trains first class product. It's much more premium than other TOCs, and if you get an advance ticket with railcard discount, it's often only £10 more than standard, which for what you get in terms of food and drink both in the lounge and onboard, often means it's better value for money than standard. I also love the layout of the wheelchair area and the fact that Virgin Trains have clearly realised the need for the wheelchair area to be at a table with seats the other side as opposed to an area on its own like what you see on CrossCountry's Voyager fleet.