The first official day of ScotRail's Inter7City service was Monday 17 October although they had done a press run the previous week.
I decided it was worth a look, although I was in Newcastle on Sunday I had already booked my train back to London on the Sunday evening and ^JC had arranged for a case of Hop on Board ale to be loaded for me to take home so I had to make the trip.
This meant I needed to get back to Scotland on Monday, to do this as cheap as possible I used Avios (the points scheme used by British Airways, Flybe, Aer Lingus and Iberia). The outward flight cost 4500 points and £17.50 and was from London City Airport to Edinburgh in economy class operated BA Cityflyer. Unlike British Airways Gatwick and Heathrow operations you still get complimentary catering on BA Cityflyer which at breakfast time is a choice of a bacon roll or yogurt, business class get a full breakfast.
After landing I took the tram into the city centre and had some time to try their new dock based cycle scheme sponsored by Just Eat. The bikes are similar to the new style TfL hire bikes which are slowly appearing in London when the originals need replaced. One key difference with this scheme is you need to use the app to hire a bike, whereas in London it's optional. You also can't choose which bike you want from the docking station, it allocates you one.
As my ticket was valid on any train to Aberdeen (which meant I could use ScotRail, LNER or CrossCountry) I visited the LNER lounge. While I was there they were taking the furniture away. The tartan design on the furniture belongs to Virgin and although it had no Virgin branding on it they had to replace it. I wasn't around long enough to see what the replacement furniture looks like. I'll leave that to my next trip to Edinburgh in December. Just in case there was any issues with card acceptance on board I decided to get some cash out. Out of the three cash machines near the ticket office only one was working.
The train had already come down from Aberdeen and was to be the 13:30 service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. It was on platform 16 and already people were waiting on the platform when I went down around 13:00. Despite already making a trip the train looked nice and clean on the outside. All the doors except for the ones by the cafe bar which aren't used for passenger service had been replaced with sliding doors.
Once on board you were greeted with a new train smell as it had been refurbished inside. The seats in first class are the same that GWR have on their HSTs (these sets originally came from GWR) which is a good decision as I think the GWR HST first class seats are the best on the network. Each table has access to both regular and USB sockets for charging and there's a choice of seats for 1, 2 and 4 passengers.
Service in first class is a mix of at-seat and self service. There's a self service area set up on the train that includes cold drinks and snacks. Magazines and newspapers are also in this area.
The toilets occupy the same area as they did originally so they're not very spacious but they're now fitted with retention tanks so there's no longer a 'Do not flush in the station' message. There's an accessible toilet in standard but I didn't see it.
The on-board cafe is located at the end of coach A between standard and first class so is accessible by everyone, standard class has a trolley service too for those who prefer an at seat service.
The selection in the cafe is good and you will be pleasantly surprised if you're used to the typical ScotRail catering. There's a good range of both hot and cold food and a decent selection of hot and cold drinks.
There is complimentary catering in first class. The afternoon range offers a choice of soup (served with a roll) or sandwiches. In this case ham or cheese. I'm not sure whether you can have both soup and a sandwich, I only wanted something light so I didn't check. As mentioned earlier there's a selection of snacks in the self service area, these include cakes and biscuits. If you prefer you can ask the crew to bring you these items.
Unlike LNER alcohol isn't complimentary. The cafe offers a number of Scottish beers: I started on Innis and Gunn and also had some Brewdog Punk IPA. If you're familiar with ScotRail catering you could probably guess Tennent's Lager was also available. Magners cider as well as a range of wine and spirits are also available I didn't get round to testing all of these although I did buy a Prosecco to celebrate the first day of service.
Just like in first class, ScotRail have used the seats that GWR installed in their HSTs in standard, but it's in standard where you'll notice the biggest difference to the GWR layout. GWR in standard class was a 'high density' layout with very few table seats and no concern for window alignment. ScotRail have gone for a more comfortable arrangement with more tables and more space. I've not travelled in standard yet but I've had it confirmed by someone who's tall (6ft 7in) that the legroom is much better than LNER in standard class. I'm familiar with the seats from GWR so I know I'm happy with the comfort so having them in a more spacious configuration must make for an enjoyable ride.
Comparison with LNER
The first class product is very good. It incorporates comfortable seats, a decent on-board service and offers complimentary catering. It's certainly an InterCity offering and competes well with other long distance TOCs. That said, LNER overall still has the best first class product. It offers a wider selection with the complimentary catering (hot and cold food) and a wider selection of complimentary drinks including alcohol. LNER also uses china cups in first class. That said, both are excellent products and I'd be happy travelling with either operator. Once these are fully rolled out it will be a massive improvement travelling between Scotland's seven cities (that's where the 7 in Inter7City comes from).
In standard class I'd say ScotRail definitely win, but again I'd be happy travelling with either. The extra space and fresh interiors put the ScotRail offering ahead and both LNER and ScotRail have a decent trolley and cafe offering so travelling in standard can be a pleasure rather than a chore.
Once Inter7City is fully rolled out it will put CrossCountry into third place on this route. CrossCountry don't offer catering on all services north of Edinburgh and although their HSTs are pleasant to travel on most CrossCountry services are operated by Voyagers which aren't as nice.
Room for improvement
It's good but there's still room for improvement. In the cafe they use a normal credit card machine that relies on a mobile signal which can be an issue when going through the countryside. In the end I decided to pay with cash. A number of dedicated EPOS solutions exist. Some can process transactions offline when no signal is available. A dedicated EPOS could help with stock control too as well as issue receipts for those who need them. In the meantime I advise you carry cash just in case if you want to try the on-board catering.
Another omission was that there's no accessible toilet (and I don't think there's a wheelchair space either) in first class. Although standard class is also pleasant it would be good if both classes were equally accessible. It's not unusual for HSTs to have only one accessible toilet on board. LNER and GWR only have an accessible toilet in standard on their HSTs and EMT HSTs only have an accessible toilet in first class. The only operator to provide accessible toilets and wheelchair spaces in both classes on an HST is CrossCountry.
I wonder if any feasibility study was made about the possibility of running a few 'Pullman' service trains with a restaurant on-board? I could see this having some appeal on routes with a high tourist demand (Edinburgh to Inverness possibly). Hopefully some of the kitchen coaches from GWR will be preserved in case they decide to try this in the future.
Once Inter7City is rolled out fully Scotland will have an InterCity network they can be proud of. Although many people sitting in first class were obviously enthusiasts and knew about this new service already it was nice hearing the comments of those who boarded not knowing what to expect.
Hopefully this will be good for tourism but it's also good for those who have to use the line regularly. I know that some people try to organise their travel on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen route to coincide with LNER services to get a better experience, now ScotRail are providing a service that passengers will want to travel on.
Currently there's no advance purchase fares showing up for first class on this train. I'm not sure whether 1st advance tickets are planned for the future or they're going to keep first class exclusive and less likely to be busy by only offering the more expensive flexible tickets. I paid £83.50 for an Anytime Day Single (an Anytime Return, valid one month is £109.60). For anytime tickets this is reasonable and they're also valid on LNER and CrossCountry giving you maximum flexibility. For comparison a 1st class Anytime return from London to Peterborough is a massive £162 and that's a much shorter journey.
I only took the train in one direction and used Avios points to fly back from Aberdeen. As I'd not flown from Aberdeen for many years I thought I'd use the opportunity to visit the lounges that have been updated relatively recently and also try out the new British Airways short haul business class catering.