Today was the first day of the new High Speed 1 fast trains from Ashford to London. I paid the £4.40 upgrade to take the train home from St. Pancras.
This is a trial service but there are several things that need improving. Firstly, signage. All the electric information screens at St. Pancras station tell you about trains to Paris, Brussels, Derby and Sheffield, but nothing about Ashford. Coming out of the underground station if you follow signs for UK trains you will end up on the wrong level as I did looking for trains to the East Midlands.
The Eurostar staff knew nothing about the Southeastern service and sent me to the East Midlands terminal. The East Midlands staff sent me to the old Thameslink service. This had such a poor reputation it has been rebranded as First Capital Connect for trains to Bedford, Luton, Brighton etc.
Their staff knew where the Southeastern service was. It is tucked away on the other side of the upper level Eurostar platforms. As they have just started, I am confident there will be better signage. Some reciprocal training with the other train companies staff so they can all help each other should be arranged.
From leaving the Kings Cross underground station to getting on the train you need to allow at least 5 minutes. If you had luggage or were with young children, you probably need at least 10 minutes. The platfrom is near to the Kings Cross commuter services. Now I know where it is in future I would come out of the tube station in Kings Cross station, and then walk through from there. This is quicker than going all the way round and up and down various steps and escalators as you do if you exit via the signed St. Pancras station exits.
It is unclear how and where to buy a ticket. I needed to upgrade my day return. Walking up to the turnstiles the 6 staff waiting with nothing to do seemed a little disappointed to be interupted from their conversations by a customer who wanted to buy a ticket. I was pointed to a ticket machine which did not offer an upgrade option. The ticket staff were back to having a chat and were ignoring other customers, but one of them reluctantly came and explained to me that yes it was not obvious how to buy the upgrade ticket, and showed me where it was hidden in the system. If there is a staffed ticket office, it is unclear where it is.
There's an amazing amount of food and shopping facilities at St. Pancras, and it does look very impressive, but I would have liked a bit more thought on how to actually help people use trains, rather than trying to extract as much money as you can from every square foot in retail opportunities.
The train itself felt brand new. It was like being in a car showroom, except here was a brand new train. It flies and feels so smooth and comfortable after the often bumpy ride that Southeastern offers on its main lines. The train manager came and helpfully pointed out that you can plug in your laptop and charge it, a big help for commuters like myself who work on the train and a significant plus over the domestic trains. I bumped into a Labour Party activist who lives in Ashford and he had saved half an hour door to door to his job in the City in the morning and was going to switch permanently. A quick change at Ashford and I was home 30 minutes earlier too.
The verdict? The trains are very impressive although I would like to have seen better space for carrying bicycles. St. Pancras station needs better signs and to integrate the Southeastern trains onto the information screens. The staff all need to get to know each other better, that's something privatisation has damaged, four different companies operating from one station cannot be in customers best interests.
Teething problems that will I trust all be resolved before the official launch later in the year.