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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Simon Calder

Could first class rail travel be about to hit the buffers?


A major commuter train operator has announced that it will scrap first class on its trains linking Kent and East Sussex with London.

Southeastern says making its trains one-class-only from December 2022 onwards will allow it to add more standard class seats.

Could the move signal the wholesale removal of first class?

The Independent has conducted a wide-ranging survey of the posh seats.

A brief history of class distinction on the railways

Since passenger rail travel became established nearly two centuries ago, wealthier travellers have been willing and able to pay extra for greater comfort. Different grades of seating have been common in the UK, Continental Europe and worldwide.

Until the late 19th/early 20th century, dividing train accommodation into first, second and third class was common. The mid-range second class started to be abolished around 1900.

For half a century the choice for rail travellers in the UK was between first and third class. In 1956 everyone in the cheap seats got a sort-of upgrade when third class was rebranded as second.

In 1988, another rebrand turned the cheap seats into a unified “standard” class.

What do you get in first class that you don’t get in standard?

The quality of first class now varies dramatically from one train firm to another.

On commuter routes, sometimes all you get is the prospect of a less crowded carriage and perhaps a headrest cover. On Southeastern and other operators of “outer suburban” services there is no significant difference. The only thing you are paying for is a higher chance of a seat in a less crowded area.

But with commuting around 40 per cent down since the coronavirus pandemic there appears to be plenty of space for everyone on the “classic” routes from Dover, Folkestone, Ashford, Canterbury, Margate, Whitstable, Maidstone and Hastings to London Victoria and London Charing Cross.

For longer-distance services elsewhere in Britain, the first class premium buys extra space and comfort – particularly valued by those who need to work.

At best you can expect an at-seat meal service with a choice of dishes and complementary alcohol. This is preserve of long-distance operators, particularly Avanti West Coast and LNER on their links from London to northern England and Scotland.

How how much extra does first class cost?

The premium is highly variable. The very cheapest I have found is just £1.30 extra for the 10-minute journey from Wigan to Warrington on Avanti West Coast. Anyone travelling between the two towns and who wants a cup of tea on the brief journey would be better paying the extra (a 22 per cent rise on the basic £6 anytime single) rather than buying one from the standard class buffet.

This is an unrepresentative of the usual cost. Between Inverness and Edinburgh, a standard anytime ticket is £50 one way, with first at £75. That is 50 per cent more – which also happens to be the premium on many railways in Continental Europe.

Meanwhile, an anytime single from Reading to Exeter is £112 in standard and £150 in first – a difference of only 34 per cent.

From Manchester to London, a typical off-peak ticket in standard class costs £98 return. The first class equivalent is £369, almost 275 per cent higher.

Increasingly passengers choose advance tickets, for which first class is typically 40-100 per cent more expensive. For example, on a morning journey from London to York, the first/standard options are £118/£76 on LNER and £97/£58 on Grand Central – about 55 and 70 per cent respectively extra for first class.

In some circumstances you can travel first class for less than standard. This typically happens on journeys where the allocation of advance tickets has sold out in standard but not first.

Are there any other classes I should know about?

Over the years train operators have tried all kinds of configurations – on the East Coast main line, for example, Silver Standard was a special carriage for those with the misfortune of paying full fare – rewarding them with complimentary tea and biscuits. Midland Mainline offered four classes for a time.

Today, Avanti West Coast has the most notable “mid class”: Standard Premier. The idea is that you can travel between London, the West Midlands, northwest England and southern Scotland in a posher seat (configured three abreast rather than four) minus the complimentary catering. The premium on an advance ticket is about £15-£25.

It has a parallel on Eurostar, also called Standard Premier. Passengers from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam get “a light meal and drinks served at your seat”.

I have a standard ticket. Can I get an upgrade?

If first class seats are available (as they usually are) you can normally upgrade on the train by paying the appropriate supplement. Be warned that the extra can be extreme. From Newcastle to Birmingham on Cross Country, the cost for upgrading an anytime single from standard to first is £186 (about £1 per minute of travel).

On the UK’s longest rail journey, from Penzance in Cornwall to the Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland, a £276 one-way anytime ticket is upgradeable for an extra £430.

There is also an interesting app called Seatfrog, which allows you to bid for upgrades at relatively low prices on Avanti West Coast, GWR and LNER tickets that have been bought direct. I have bid, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, at around £20 for a two-hour journey.

Sometimes all standard class passengers are able to upgrade for free. If overcrowding becomes intense, first class can be “declassified”, i.e. opened up to all passengers, regardless of their tickets.

A caveat from the National Rail Conditions of Travel, though: “If you are given permission to sit in a first-class seat when holding a standard class ticket, it is on the basis that you may be later required to give up your seat to a passenger holding a valid first class ticket.”

Can I get lounge access?

For people who like to arrive in plenty of time for their intercity trains, the first class lounges as operated by Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway, Great Western and LNER can be a welcome oasis – with complementary hot drinks and snacks, and even (in the case of LNER’s London King’s Cross lounge) direct access to the platforms via a special overpass.

Can I stand in a first class corridor?

No. The official line is that you can travel in the first class section (which includes standing areas) only with a first class ticket. The National Conditions of Travel warn: “You may be changed a penalty fare if … you travel in first class accommodation with a standard class ticket.”

So standard class passengers are not allowed to stand in first class corridors and vestibules.

Won’t we miss first class when it’s gone?

Not on Southeastern. The operator’s high-speed Javelin services from London St Pancras to Kent have always been one-class only, as have suburban links in southeast London. The idea of scrapping it everywhere was first mooted by the government in 2017.

According to Southeastern, only 28 people have bought first class annual season tickets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic (and they will now be refunded the difference). The company says more people will get a seat once first class is scrapped.

Many other trains are standard class only – including almost every service run by Transport for Wales. (The exception is the premier service between Cardiff and Holyhead; first class passengers get free drinks and snacks, but must pay £10-£20 for more substantial meals.)

Some operators, notably Lumo, offer a strict one-class only policy even on the Edinburgh-London journey of over 400 miles.

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