Several months after three new franchises started operations out of Inverness it's time to see how well they've started. Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) operate the Highland Chieftain to and from Kings Cross each day. I have used it (and other VTEC services) several times and was greatly impressed by the small, but noticeable, improvements from Day One. The food offering to 1st Class passengers has a greater choice, and seems to be available for more of the journey. The Buffet also has a greater choice. The staff, although the same people, seem more cheerful and motivated, doubtless in part because the uncertainty over jobs has gone.
The Sleeper, now operated as a separate franchise by Serco, also showed an immediate improvement, again most obviously in the catering. The Lounge Car has a much wider range of food, mostly sourced from Highland (or at least Scottish) suppliers. There's even porridge as a breakfast option. Both VTEC and Serco have hit the ground running and delivered a 'good news' feeling straight away. Each of them will introduce new rolling stock in a few years - these things take time nowadays - but already there is delivery of something better.
How different is the Abellio ScotRail experience. Yes, there are ambitious plans for electrification and there will be new rolling stock on the electrified routes. There will be 'new' trains elsewhere - for an explanation of 'new' see another article in FNE - in 2019 or so. However there has been a notable absence of anything exciting on Day One. Indeed, if anything, Abellio's first major innovation has been a spectacular, and wholly unacknowledged, own goal. Club 55, whereby oldies could travel throughout Scotland at certain times of year for £19 return, has been abolished. It will be replaced by Club 50. Looks good, doesn't it? You get it when you aren't quite as ancient, and it works all year round. Gosh! But there are huge - unacknowledged - snags. You have to pay an annual membership; the ticket prices will be a lot higher for most journeys than the flat £19; you have to book on-line in advance. The it's-a-nice-day-let's-go-somewhere market, anecdotally quite considerable, will vanish. I have no doubt that in a year or two someone in Abellio will quietly reinvent Club 55, but the damage has been done. Large numbers of passengers making impulse-buy journeys won't come back.
Meanwhile cancellations continue on the FNL and partial journeys (Thurso omitted, trains starting from Lairg) remain a common occurrence. Haymarket units (158726 to 158741) continue to be diagrammed to work to Wick and Kyle (to the annoyance of ScotRail in Inverness, who are justly proud of their - our - sets with their extra bike spaces and tourist (and local)-friendly seating paid for in part by HITRANS and therefore Caithness Council Tax payers ... ).