Maximise your Avios, air miles and hotel points

Review: Britain’s last railway restaurant car – GWR First Class Pullman Dining

Links on Head for Points may pay us an affiliate commission. A list of partners is here.

This is a review of GWR First Class Pullman Dining written by my friend James.

We cover trains from time to time on Head for Points, and anyone who appreciates lounges and decent food when they fly will also find this of interest.  It is a surprisingly impressive service and, once you’ve read the review and seen the photographs, I think you’ll be convinced too.  Over to James ….

An invention of the Great Northern Railway Company, the first dedicated restaurant car in Britain started operations in 1879. Almost 150 years later, Great Western Railway (GWR) is the only remaining operator of restaurant cars in the UK on selected weekday services to and from the South West of England and Wales. I have travelled countless times with GWR in First Class over the last 12 years but had not until this trip (done prior to lockdown) sampled their flagship Pullman Dining service.

I arrived at Brunel’s masterpiece, London Paddington station, from Heathrow via Heathrow Express.  Hopping up the staircase to the footbridge (originally known as the ‘galley’) at the back of the station’s main train shed, I got a great view of the magnificent roof as I descended to Platform 1, home to the GWR First Class lounge.

Click on any image to enlarge.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

GWR offer lounge access to all First Class ticketholders regardless of price paid. On this occasion, I was travelling on an Advance Purchase First Class ticket for £47.  This was a one way to Taunton, including a Railcard discount of 30%.

It’s important to note that simply having a First Class ticket on a service where Pullman Dining is operating does not include the Pullman Dining service itself.  This must be booked separately, either online (as I did), by phone or in the lounge prior to departure, and paid for separately onboard the train by card or cash on completion of the meal.

Standard Class ticketholders can access Pullman Dining, but cannot pre-book.  Pullman Dining services departing from London are often fully booked which is why on this occasion I had purchased a First Class ticket in order to guarantee a Pullman Dining reservation.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

The GWR First Class lounge at London Paddington station

The GWR First Class lounge on Platform 1 is housed within the original Victorian station buildings.  It is split into two rooms; a main one upon entry, and Queen Victoria’s original waiting room. My ticket was checked by the receptionist and I was welcomed into the lounge.

Behind reception, the airy high-ceilinged main room opens out with luggage storage racks, coat stand and news stand on the right, with a TV and train departure information screen above. I uses ‘news stand’ in the loosest sense here given only the bare minimum of four different freebie magazines were available, with no newspapers in sight. The wall behind the train departure information screen was in need of decoration when I visited, although by the time of my next visit this had been repaired.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

This room features a single main seating area with around 14 uncomfortable armchairs and a handful of low coffee tables. The wooden flooring throughout this area, and in reception, is badly worn and in need of replacement.

Wrapping around a small prep kitchen, the first of three buffet sections offers a couple of coffee machines and in-built fridges containing concentrated orange and apple juice, bottles of still and sparkling water and cans of Pepsi.

Around the corner, additional buffet sections offer a small selection of sandwiches, fresh whole fruit, crisps, nuts, biscuits, flapjack and leftover pastries from the breakfast service.  Whilst the food and drink offering is undoubtedly meagre, with Pullman Dining awaiting me I wasn’t fussed.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

Towards the rear of the room, a business area has been fashioned from what formerly was a bookable meeting room; a handful of basic laptop desk positions are available with views out to Platform 1. Whilst sporadic wifi is available throughout the lounge, this is the only space where power and USB sockets are readily accessible to passengers. This area features the rather attractive GWR carpet that appears in First Class carriages on the few remaining GWR High Speed Trains (HSTs) and in berths and selected carriages on the Night Riviera Sleeper Service.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

Accessed along a short corridor that passes the original waiting room access doors onto Platform 1, Queen Victoria’s waiting room is an architecturally interesting octagonal room lit by a centrepiece chandelier.  Additional seating space available in a room off to the side. Both rooms adopt traditional (and dated) brown leather seating – armchairs in the octagonal room and sofas in the anteroom, with traditional coffee tables and floor lamps, all set atop a carpet long since needing replacement. This area, whilst being dark, tends to be quieter than the main room, although on this occasion had a fair amount of passengers meaning photography was difficult.

Whilst the GWR First Class lounge is a welcome sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Paddington station, it is long overdue a comprehensive refurbishment.  What could be an elegant nod to the company’s illustrious heritage is instead a vaguely forlorn and sadly forgotten space.

Onto the train ….

Since 2017, GWR has operated a fleet of new 93 Hitachi AT300 Class 800 and 802 units on their long distance network from Paddington. GWR has named these Intercity Express Trains, or IETs.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

GWR’s IETs are comprised of either 5 or 9 carriages, with two 5-car trains regularly being joined together to form a 10-car train.  The carriage photos that follow are from a 9-carriage train I experienced on the return journey. The full First Class carriage features 19 rows of seats in a 2-1 configuration with overhead luggage racks above. Single seats alternate direction halfway down the carriage, whilst double seats are grouped into four seats facing each other.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

To comply with the latest fire regulations, all First Class seats are upholstered in a rather drab fabric rather than the leather of the HSTs.   Seat comfort is notably reduced with the minimal padding to both the seat base and back quite noticeable after an hour or so. It seems odd that leather should be permitted onboard an aircraft but not onboard a train. Headrests can be slightly adjusted with wings either side, and manual seat recline is available, albeit to a limited degree. Gone is the smart carpet of the HST fleet, replaced with a bland grey to match the overall colour scheme – dull.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

All First Class seats have a table, and each window seat has a coat hook within the wall panel, with aisle seats featuring grab handles. Every seat has access to both USB and power sockets (albeit dual seats share the same ports), and wifi is available, allegedly at a faster speed in First Class compared to Standard Class (although ‘fast’ is not a word I associate with GWR’s wifi). Windows feature manually adjustable blinds instead of curtains.

The IET represents a step up from the HST in terms of noise and general ride comfort, but passenger comfort (in First Class, at least) is degraded by the none too comfortable seats.

The GWR Pullman Dining experience

Pullman dining was in Carriage L at the rear of the train, the half-carriage adjacent to the kitchen. The crew weren’t quite ready to receive passengers as boarding was announced, and so we were asked to take a seat in the adjacent half-carriage of First Class, which caused some confusion for passengers with reserved seats in that car.

We were invited to the Pullman Dining carriage just before departure and offered a choice of seat – either an individual seat or a seat in a group of four with other passengers.  Sharing a table with others (none of whom may know each other) is fairly common on well-occupied Pullman Dining services so be prepared for this.  Board early if, like me, you’d prefer to practise some earlier-than-required social distancing and dine alone.

I took Seat 53, a single seat with a clear window view.  As it turned out Carriage L would be fully occupied on this service, with at least one table in the adjacent Carriage K also being set up for Pullman Dining, presumably much to the envy of other passengers there.

I was impressed with the crew as soon as I sat down.  They seemed to be as enthusiastic to be on board as I was, a genuine personal welcome was offered, and drinks orders were taken promptly. There was no bar menu (other than the wine list within the menu), but the crew seemed to be able to make most drinks on request.  My G&T was a generous size, and both the gin and tonic water were presented to me first (with a choice of two of each) before pouring.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

Tables were pre-laid with today’s West Country ingredient-themed menu and wine list in a smart Pullman-branded folio, a high-quality white paper tablecloth and black paper serviette, cutlery, bread plate, wine glass, Cole & Mason salt and pepper cellars, and a large glass bottle of complimentary still mineral water sitting atop a metal plate (with small plastic bottles of sparkling water available on request).

With the table set up for lunch, there was limited space to store other items, and I ended up balancing my camera and phone on the window-side armrest of the seat.  For this reason, a larger ‘group of four’ table may have been a better option.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

Orders were taken from the rear of the carriage, with the destination of each passenger asked. I queried whether there would be enough time for three courses given the relatively short travel time to Taunton of 1h 43m and was informed that there was, albeit at a fairly quick pace between each course.  The crew prioritised the plating of my dishes over those of passengers who were travelling further afield.

The minimum order from the menu for each passenger is a main course.  Standard Class passengers can effectively get an upgrade to First Class for the price of a main course!

Starters appeared as we drew into Reading station, which is the second stop and the last one where passengers joining the train can take a seat in the Pullman Dining car (subject to reservation or if space is available on the day).

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

My choice of beautifully presented Devon scallops with a mango, chili and lime salsa and toasted coconut flakes was served with warm bread offered from a basket, accompanied by a dish of butter. This starter was an excellent choice, with the scallops cooked perfectly and the flavours popping out. Crockery no longer bears the Pullman Dining branding as it did in the past.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

Further bread was offered to coincide with the delivery of my main course just past Hungerford – the excellent prime West Country fillet steak with a classic Diane sauce. All main courses are served seat-side by the crew with the same selection of vegetables from large dishes; I opted for some roast potatoes, courgette and carrots, and top-ups of vegetables were offered throughout the course. A choice of horseradish or mustard in individual glass pots was offered, along with a steak knife. This dish tasted just as good as it looked.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

To complete my Pullman Dining experience, I opted for the single dessert on the menu – the raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake with a raspberry coulis. This was utterly divine, served at my request with a peppermint tea. As with mineral water, tea and coffee is offered on a complimentary basis, and was served with a Pullman-branded chocolate from a tray.

Review GWR First Class Pullman Dining rail trains

My bill came to £62, plus a £5 cash tip, resulting in a total spend (including the ticket) for this one-way trip being £114, roughly the equivalent of the cheapest Band 1 British Airways Club Europe sector. That seems like pretty good value to me.

From the dedicated staff, to the excellently cooked and presented comforting food, to the convivial atmosphere amongst other passengers on board, GWR Pullman Dining is a unique experience in the UK and one which I’m keen to repeat in the near future.

PS.  Please note that, if you are not in a Pullman Dining car, GWR’s usual First Class catering is decidedly average. Whilst theoretically there is a set menu, in my experience what is on offer from the trolley differs greatly according to how busy the service is, time of day, day of the week, time of the year and whim of the crew. A basic selection very similar to that available in the First Class lounge at Paddington is usually available.  This is in stark contrast to many other UK train operating companies on long distance routes where full meals, albeit nowhere near the standard of Pullman Dining, are offered to all First Class passengers on weekdays.

Comments (61)

  • Zap says:

    I find seat comfort a real problem on these new trains. First class is better than standard class but neither are good for me. So much so, I now prefer to drive on my trips to Wales.

  • Steven says:

    The food sounds good, and you managed to keep the cost down a bit by leaving a meagre tip. (£8-10 would have bee closer to the norm.)

    • Kevin says:

      You seem to have missed the point. This is technically a restaurant on wheels. As such a reasonable tip can be expected if good service is provided. There is no mention of any issues with the service, so a more reasonable tip may be expected.
      Of course in America this would probably have been more like £10-15

      • callum says:

        Can you name one logical reason for giving a tip on a British train that doesn’t also apply to almost every other service worker you interact with yet don’t feel deserves one?

        Tipping is crucial in the US to correct a barbaric and uncivilised wage system. It is absolutely not necessary in the UK. I get the impression those who like to tip are either mindlessly following a random social etiquette or showing off.

        • Chrisasaurus says:

          Chicken, egg – barbaric wage system combatted by tipping or enabled by tipping? Follow the money, who does it most benefit – those saving on wages.

          Of course the solution can’t be to just stop tipping, that’s the wrong end to apply pressure to but if there was a fair wage movement with ethical branding if some sort for businesses paying a reasonable amount (like the living wage concept here) then there could be a change

        • Andrew says:

          “Tipping is crucial in the US to correct a barbaric and uncivilised wage system”

          I’d flip that and say “tipping facilitates a barbaric and uncivilised wage system”. If tipping stopped tomorrow staff will refuse to work without a pay rise. Restaurants will be forced to pay a fair wage and will increase their prices a bit to compensate. End result is not that different to now except everyone is paying their fair share of the wages cost.

          And don’t try to say that tipping encourages good service. Frequently service in the states verges on obsequiousness where you can tell the server is more interested in their tip rather than wanting to do a decent job.

      • John says:

        You don’t get a bill to pay on a plane though (yet!)

      • Lisa de leeuw says:

        Bit grumpy this morning Harry, still hung over?

    • HAM76 says:

      17% tip, as you are suggesting, would have been above the average in the US, known for excessive tipping, when I first traveled there in the 90ties. Surely 8% is more than adequate for the UK (outside of London).

      • Kipto says:

        Why tip 20% in the US ? just because the Americans do ? . The tipping culture over there is ridiculous. In Vegas, after a helicopter trip we were given the “ opportunity” to tip the pilot !! .
        What additional work does a waiter/waitress do whether pouring you a bottle of wine that costs $30 or $100 ? I tip a set amount, not what the bottom of the bill recommends ie 17.5%, 22% or 25%. I don’t care whether this upsets the waiters or not. I’ll never them again.

        • Genghis says:

          The Conrad Downtown NY offers buffet breakfast on a weekend. As Hilton Diamond we had free breakfast. The waiter kindly brought a bill over with the full amount for breakfast, then deducted, but i could add a tip based on the gross amount, even though I was serving myself!

        • J says:

          In the US waiters are taxed on the assumption that they’ll receive x amount of tips – so tipping significantly less than the norm, is in a way taking from their pocket.

        • Kipto says:

          Edit “ see them again “

        • Andrew says:

          Waiters are taxed on the assumption that they’ll make 8% tips however provided you can show that you actually received less than that then you don’t have to pay tax on money you haven’t received. Proving you received less than 8% in tips should be easy. I’m sure all serving staff keep a log of their tips so that they can declare the full amount to the tax man…

          So no, if you don’t tip you aren’t taking money out of their pocket provided they’re being honest and reporting the exact tips they make rather than claiming 8% and pocketing the difference.

    • Ken says:

      You’ve clearly never waited on in a UK restaurant.
      Many people don’t tip at all. Big groups often put a £1 in each (on a £45 head, no service charge)
      10 -15% the norm in the UK – but that’s for those who actually leave a meaningful tip

      • J says:

        I’ve worked in pubs but admitedly in London and pubs have a whole different etiquette, mostly just being bought drinks and getting drunk in my case 🙂 In London I’ve found 10% pretty standard at least in the circles I’m in…

        • ken says:

          The done thing in Liverpool and surrounding areas is to say “and your own” on every round.
          In the 1980’s that meant 10p – nowadays somewhere between 20p and 50p, or rounded to the nearest £1
          Doesn’t sound much but adds up over a night when everyone does it (at least oldies like me).

          Imagine peoples shock when they first go to London and the barmaid says “I’ll have a brandy and coke thanks”

      • John says:

        Just include the service charge in the price of the food.

    • The Lord says:

      Hate tipping in the UK. Since recently moving to London it seems to be the norm here and many places have the cheek of adding the tip to the bill for me. Why?

      That said the most infuriating tipping was when living in the US and going to a bar. I would order a bottle of beer, the barman would take the cap off and then expect a tip. Ridiculous!

      • J says:

        If you don’t like it don’t go. I don’t particularly like the USA but if I’m there I’ll respect and conform to their culture around tipping – just as I’d expect Americans in Europe to make some effort (a big ask I know).

        • Josh says:

          Well…looking on FT, Americans seemed to go around tipping the shower staff in Qatar’s lounges in Doha, giving some staff the impression they could expect tips…$20 here, $20 there…

      • Josh says:

        And how in some AA airport lounged, the barman has a tip jar on the counter with the expectation of $1 tip per drink

    • Josh says:

      £5 is more than reasonable as a tip, I think. Does Steven live in London?

  • Chris Heyes says:

    Rob, Good different article, would have been even better expanded,with routes listed ect.
    I appreciate this was a article about on board dinning, but surely there can’t be that many routes this excellent dinning is available on.
    But nevertheless excellent article, just short of top drawer due to above

  • Nick_C says:

    Great article. Memories of how civilised train travel used to be in the UK.

    Most British Rail Intercity trains used to offer really good meals with everything freshly cooked on board. Even the Southern trains to Bournemouth used to offer steak and chips, although the dining car on Southern was second class seating.

    While I usually used to rely on getting into the dining car with a second class ticket and staying there, I did once splash out on a first class ticket to ride the exclusive Manchester Pullman, which had six or seven Pullman carriages only.

    One way to still enjoy this experience is on steam hauled excursions where food is still freshly cooked on board and old comfortable BR First carriages are used.

    Sadly, I know avoid train travel in the UK if at all possible. High fares and uncomfortable seating, even in First, mean I would rather drive.

    • J says:

      East Coast in First is pleasant, last used it about 2 years ago – a decent full English breakfast was included and did London to Leeds in 2 hours which beats driving or flying. I agree for the most part though and using trains a lot in Germany it’s usually a much better experience here.

      • LNER (formerly East Coast) up until the covid-19 restrictions still offered meals all day in first class. The new Azuma trains are the same as the new GWR trains and although I find them OK many find them uncomfortable. The seats were specified by the government, the only difference between the LNER ones and the GWR ones is the LNER interiors are more colourful.

        I’m hoping that LNER don’t use the opportunity to cut back on their on-board service once they resume a proper service.

        Personally I miss the GNER days. Complimentary catering is nice but nothing beats a full restaurant service like the GWR Pullman. Unfortunately very few GWR services have Pullman dining. When GNER ran the east coast they actually increased the number of trains with a restaurant car from British Rail days when other operators cut back. On a weekday train before 8pm the vast majority had on-board restaurants. This was as recently as 2007, when National Express took over the east coast franchise they cut back on some restaurants but they survived on the east coast route until 2011 when first class catering became complimentary.

        • Peter says:

          The first class breakfast and BA’s degradation over the past 5 years is why I switched from OneWorld to Star, taking the 0640 train to Edinburgh airport instead of the 0720 to Newcastle airport. I now use my stash of Avios for domestic Club Europe flights when I need to fly from London, where the lounges in T2 trump T5 Galleries First.

    • Lady London says:

      Is breakfast on the way to Sheffield gone then?

  • Roger Everitt says:

    Excellent article, thoughtful and informative. Sounds fabulous value for money and a cracking day out!
    Many thanks

  • Tim says:

    The seats in Standard and First class are hard and thin because the Department of Transport are cheapskates. The fire regulation excuse is just that – an excuse. Whilst there are fire regulations for seats on trains, do we really think that they are stricter than on aircraft? And yet on planes leather is used.

    • Lady London says:

      So they make generations of passengers uncomfortable for years. Even in first class. When any extra cost of comfortable seating on these longer journeys would amortise very quickly (especially with the outrageous cost of train fares in the UK).

      This kind of thing is why foreigners say the UK is a miserable miserly country.

  • Pete says:

    Great article, thorough and informative – thank you!

    I would disagree with the statement that “many other UK train operating companies on long distance routes [offer] full meals… to all First Class passengers on weekdays.” The only ones that actually do that are LNER (East Coast Mainline) and Avanti (West Coast Mainline). EMR (Midland Mainline) offer a sort of in-between house, whilst GWR, Greater Anglia, CrossCountry and ScotRail offer nothing on long-distance journeys or a very basic offering. Not that I agree with it, because they still charge exorbitant fares!

    And a further bit of geekery, the GWR Pullman actually isn’t the only “remaining operator of restaurant cars in the UK” – Transport for Wales still operates a dining service between Holyhead and Cardiff Central (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premier_Service).

  • Matt says:

    Nice review. I agree that the GWR Pullman dining is a good service, long may it last. A few people have asked in the comments about the routes it operates on. Its basically available on the London – Plymouth/ Penzance, and the London – Cardiff and vice Cerna. But only on some specific trains. The latest schedule is on the GWR website along with sample menus.

    There is one more UK train with a real restaurant car, by which I mean one with meals made to order by an actual chef, from a proper menu. That is the ‘Gerald’ which runs from Cardiff to Holyhead. A first class ticket includes the meal price. Everything is made to order. Last time I looked there was only 1 train per day with the restaurant car, at breakfast time from Holyhead to Cardiff, and Dinner time in the other direction. Its also a lovely journey, especially along the North Wales coast. It is operated by Transport for Wales with times and menus on their website.

    • Chris Heyes says:

      Matt, Hi, i wasn’t asking for the routes, what i was saying to “Rob” was it would have topped the article if Rob had added the routes to James excellent article
      after all there are really only two routes although timings of Pullman Dinning difficult plus Stations to allow dining to take place unless starting from London

      • mutley says:

        Traveller tip, the Swansea to Paddington leaves at some ungodly hour, the return from Paddington leaves at 10.40 but still serves the Welsh Breakfast, invariably there is no one in the Pullman car, so service is superb, also its only £18, and there’s loads of it.

        That’s enough trainspotting for today!

    • The Transport for Wales service is excellent and always gets mentioned if I say LNER has the best complimentary service of any operator. I still say LNER has the best complimentary service as it’s available (in normal times) on every train whereas TfW is once a day in each direction. I know TfW are getting some former LNER mark 4 carriages to offer this service but I don’t know if they came into operation before covid-19 hit.

      The TfW service offers a three course chef prepared meal and is complimentary although you have to pay for drinks.