This time last year British Airways announced the end of complimentary catering in shorthaul economy class and the introduction of buy on board M&S catering from January 2017. At the time I was no happy with the news and thought I'd cut out domestic flights completely in 2017. In 2016 most of my domestic travel was by train and I didn't see this changing. I would occasionally fly if I needed to travel at short notice and booking a reward fare with Avios worked out cheaper than a last minute train ticket.
However, despite BA going ahead with their buy on board rollout as planned I now make most of my journeys by plane rather than train. It's not because BA have improved (they have in some ways and not in others) but more to do with the VTEC decline. On paper it doesn't look like much has changed, officially VTEC still offers hot food in first class on every weekday service, they still offer Hop on Board ale which is nicer than the beers on the plane and you still have the good views and the relaxing journey.
The reality is not as good though. As they overbid for the franchise and are not getting the projected passenger numbers cost cutting has occurred. Changes to shift rotas and a voluntary redundancy programme meant fewer staff to work on these services, this meant some services were not getting the advertised catering offering. You could no longer depend on getting hot food in first class on a weekday service, occasionally even sandwiches weren't available.
If you can't depend on the catering that means you either need to bring your own food on as contingency, eat before boarding or find somewhere to eat at your destination. One of the benefits of on-train catering is you can head straight to the station after work, no need to eat before travelling and often when you arrive anywhere decent to eat is closed. For morning trains it means you don't have to have breakfast before getting the train, you can incorporate it as part of your trip making mornings more relaxing.
Cutbacks started small. The size of the Coke cans were reduced in December 2016, followed by the size of the glasses, then the sandwiches got smaller and are now presented in a box every day of the week (used to be plated weekdays and in a box on weekends), newspapers are now left in the vestibules (next to a sign asking you to return them) although some crew still hand them out. As a sign of how standards are slipping, what VTEC consider First Class on the trains when hot food is not available is comparable to BA economy class in the early 2000's, when in shorthaul economy you'd get a sandwich box, the plane would also have alcohol regardless of whether it's a weekend.
For me catering is what makes the train journey special. I'd be happy to go back to the GNER days of a restaurant on most trains, but as people enjoy a complimentary meal and it's now an expected part of first class I just want to see the standards maintained. When VTEC are on form they're excellent, but because they cut back staff so much on-board it's turning the catering into a lottery.
So with the prospect of spending 4+ hours on the train with only a sandwich in a box it has made flying to Edinburgh more attractive, particularly from London City Airport which is conveniently located for the City and Canary Wharf and is undisputedly faster than the train even when you take into account travel time, security, etc. An added bonus is the BA flights to/from London City still offer complimentary catering in economy class.
For Newcastle the only option to fly is from Heathrow which isn't as convenient as London City (until Crossrail opens) but BA have made improvements to Terminal 5 for their frequent flyers to make the experience more enjoyable. For those frequent flyers with a gold card you get access to the 'first wing' which is a dedicated check-in and security area linked directly into the first class lounge. It's now possible to get from the train or tube to the lounge (including through security) in five minutes if you travel enough to earn a gold card. If you're getting a taxi or dropped off you can be in the lounge even quicker as the driver can drop you off at the end of the airport next to the first wing.
Airline lounges have always offered a more extensive range than railway station lounges and the BA lounges in Terminal 5 off a wide range of hot and cold drinks. The alcohol range includes a wide range of spirits, wine and champagne. The beer selection isn't brilliant unless they're running a 'beer festival' where they offer a better range. There's hot and cold food available from a buffet and the first class lounge also has items you can order off a menu, all complimentary.
As there's no longer complimentary catering in economy class (on the Heathrow and Gatwick flights) British Airways have introduced their short haul business class product, Club Europe, onto domestic flights. This is useful for those who do not have frequent flyer status as it gives them fast track and lounge access at most airports. It also offers a complimentary meal and drinks on-board. Although the Club Europe catering isn't anywhere near as good as VTEC when they're on-form it's better than a sandwich in a cardboard box! The drinks service is frequent, on a short 45 minute flight to Newcastle you usually get two drinks rounds (including champagne) as well as a tea/coffee.
The mistakes continued with VTEC. After the catering decline came the new website. I've written enough about that already.
The station lounges seem to be the latest things in decline. In the King's Cross lounge, always the VTEC flagship, they've now stopped offering complimentary Coke and Diet Coke, there's also been more reports on Twitter about dirty tables so it looks like they've cut back on staff there. Other people have reported lounges with supply shortages such as no biscuits, water or the coffee machine not working. This has happened in the past but it now appears to be happening more often.
The East Coast has consistently been the best InterCity franchise in the UK. Unfortunately we've also had operators such as National Express and now VTEC who believe they can get away with reducing standards and making all sorts of cutbacks. East Coast showed that it was possible to offer a decent service while making a profit. We were promised by the government that VTEC would be an improvement to the previous nationalised operator. We need to ensure they don't let standards slip further.