The train is sometimes the easiest, fastest and nicest way to get to a destination. It's especially nice if you manage to get, what you consider to be, a good deal on first class tickets. I've managed to, on occasion, acquire first class tickets for long distance train travel (more than 90 minutes is long distance for me). I used to travel to Exeter in Devon for some time and most recently to the North (yes, capital "N") of England. I'm not made of money, I buy a standard class season ticket for work, but I always seem to find the best time to buy one-off tickets when first class is around £2-10 more than standard. That could be £4-20 more expensive over-all on a return ticket.

Better leg-room, reserved seat, generally quieter carriages and power sockets more than justify that extra expenditure to me. If there's more than that, even better.

So far I've travelled first class on South West Trains (SWT), First Great Western (FGW), Virgin East Coast(VEC) and Grand Central (GC).

I've measured each provider on the below, for first class:

  • Seats (comfort, leg room)
  • State of repair (are there bits missing, is anything falling off etc)
  • Cleanliness
  • Perks (other than a seat, what do you get?)
  • Staff

In order of awesomeness (yes, that's the measure I'm using):

  1. Virgin East Coast
  2. First Great Western
  3. Grand Central
  4. South West Trains

Please note, there may be a certain amount of bias towards SWT. I travel every work-day on one of the busiest SWT routes in the country - the Portsmouth to London route, via Guildford. It's always crowded, the seats aren't particularly comfortable and in first class, my knees still hit the seats in front of me. The only perk is the first class areas tend to be quiet and free from people blasting music from tinny headphones or talking to other people on the phone, which I like.

GC - the seats were comfortable, the staff were nice, the train on time and there were biscuits and coffee. They were only let down by the state of repair; the seats and tables had serious signs of wear and age.

FGW - only beat GC because everything was in a good state of repair. Everything looked like it had been sat in or used for a year, but it didn't look like a small war had been fought in the carriage.

VEC - just a premium experience. The seat was comfortable, with plenty of leg room and general body room, even with amble table space.
Table

I could fit my MacBook, phone, headphones and a cup of coffee without having to move anything. I only had to close my laptop lid when I had my smoked salmon fishcake served.

Salmon fishcakes

Staff were available long before the train departed (bang-on time), offering hot drinks and helping other passengers onto the train and to their seats. Drinks trolley was quick to come once the train had departed, offering a wide range of refreshments (I chose some Famous Grouse whisky and some water), food order taken in quick succession. Crisps, cake and fishcake; the latter served hot. I'm not going to say the fish cake was the best I'd ever had - I've had much better, but for a train journey, it was pretty damn good. Other perks included unlimited - reliable - wifi, many drinks, comfortable seats, electricity socket.
whisky

There was just one niggle and that was not being asked how I took my coffee. I can't abide white coffee. First world problems; I survived and knew to state that for next time.

Anyway, if you're travelling north of London, you can spare the cash (or book in advance and snag yourself a deal) and Virgin run one of the routes, travel with them. Even standard class on Virgin trains beats the pants of other train operator's services.