Is First class redundant?

Peter Preston, a normally utterly impenetrable Guardian columnist, for once makes a good point in today’s paper 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/28/travelling-by-train-first-class.  Writing about the £8bn worth of rolling stock investment promised by the government last week – forget whether the actual figures add up – he asked the DfT how many of the new 2,100 carriages would be first or second class. The hapless spokesman, of course, did not have a clue but its a jolly good question and makes an excellent point.

For instance, would it not be sensible for all the Crossrail trains to be standard class. This is a thorny issue since, for a while, they will run Tube like through London’s tunnels, but at either extremity they are replacing normal national rail services. Similarly, Thameslink’s capacity would be greatly enhanced if all the trains were standard class, as they are, for example, on Chiltern.

The present situation on commuter trains is, in any case, pretty daft. I sat in First Class the other day coming back on a late train from Alton because I was eating a Chinese take away and there are no other seats with tables on these SWT trains. The guard was indulgent, but only because I was chatting to a guy who had paid the whole whack – he worked for Google, so could afford it. But it was noticeable that the seats were exactly the same 2×2 formation except they were blue rather than red. So, frankly, why bother?

Now that civil servants and politicians can no longer use first class, and businesses are cutting back, it is high time that the whole issue was re-examined. While having two classes may be a way for the operators to screw extra money out of their punters, if overcrowding is such a big issue as is claimed, then surely cutting first class is a no brainer.

  • Al Storer

    i’d certainly agree that 1st class on non-Intercity trains should be abolished- as is the case on Chiltern 9as you note) but also Northern and on SouthEastern HighSpeed. Take 9as an example) the first class area on a National Express East Anglia Class 317/5- this is a section in the middle of the non-driving trailer that has the old Intercity Standard class seating, no sperating doors and in many sets not even mini-tables. An absolute rip-off. The area on the /6s isn’t much better.

  • Dan

    I read Preston’s article – and I disagree with him.

    It is, dare I say it, rather a ‘metropolitan view’ put forward by people who probably take regular shortish journeys as commuters and don’t value the travel experience per se (as one might do with a longer, irregular, journey) since they have to take the trip every day and speed is the key.

    “Similarly, Thameslink’s capacity would be greatly enhanced if all the trains were standard class, as they are, for example, on Chiltern”

    Well, I’m not sure it would be as we are talking about 1 or 2 very small seating areas (12 seats?) at each end of a 4 car unit. The overall gain from not having it would be negligible.

    And if you wanted to take Thameslink from say Brighton to Bedford (as I have done) that would be a 2 hour journey and one might want more comfort for the duration.

    When you buy 1st class you are not just buying more space (though you should be – so I think the same seats in SWT or Southern, for example, are poor value, as you say), but you are often buying (in the rush hour) greater chance of access to a seat, and more importantly for me – often access to somewhere free of the anti social characters found too often on trains (yelling into mobiles, swilling lager etc etc – although 1st class is not always free of these problems I admit!)

    The real issue about your SWT experience is the failure to make half decent provision in Standard Class (ie the occasional table) – But if you think that abolishing 1st would create better quality and space in Standard I fear you are wrong.

    The other issue is that many of the trains are operating over much longer trips (eg the SWT short distance commuter who may be annoyed to have to stand from Clapham Jct to Waterloo, and resent the 1st class space, will have got on a train that may have originated at Weymouth or Exeter where longer distance passengers might have preferred the decent space and calm afforded by 1st class over their longer trip).

    Funnily enough, since my employer won’t pay 1st class, I usually use it on leisure trips, where Advance purchase off peak, or weekend first upgrades, provide, in my view, often provide excellent value.

    I thought it a shame that the HS1 Domestic services have no 1st class.

  • Paul Cowper

    Are Peter Prestons points really valid? I accept that some London Suburban TOC’s have removed 1st class from thier trians, but this is based on the passenger only being on the train for a short time. But suggesting they should be removed from outer surban/long distant trains (as SWT operate) is NOT valid. These 1st class seats are well used in the peaktimes and as there are only some 20 odd 1st class seats per 4 coaches it WOULD NOT “greatly enhance” standard seating capacity. He also says, about the 1st class seating lay out being the same as standard on SWT, well he couldn’t have looked that well, as he ate his take away. As 1st maybe 2+2 , but standard is 3+2 and from experience 1st class seating is a lot more comfortable. Especially, if compared with the middle of the 3 seat in standard. If Peter was to use (and had checked) he would know that peak services (those with standing room only) between Waterloo and Clapham are operated my SWT trains that generally DO NOT have 1st class, so no additional seats can be created. And surely this 10 minute trip, is no worse than having to stand on a Tube train of similar distance. Fare wise, I wonder if standard class passengers, would prefer the chance of using one of 20 extra seats (for their 10 minute trip), or to have a reduced fare, as the 1st class passenger is greatly subsidising the standard class fare! Finally, SWT guards do often on busy services, allow standard class pasengers to use 1st class at no additional charge. But I wonder if they would want to use it, when someone is eating a (smelly) Chinese take away there!!

  • Christopher Thomas

    On my regular travels I wait at Birmingham New Street for the 10:47 Walsall train , I have been observing the 10:50 Pendolino service to London on the Adjacent platform and cannot help noticing how empty the First Class is and how full 2nd class is. On average I notice just 7 passangers in first class. What a waist. Virgin are getting a huge public subsidy to cart 4 coaches of fresh air about every 20min from Birmingham To London while passsangers are rammed into the second class. Solve the Pendolino overcrowding quickly and cheaply by converting the coaches to 2nd class and leave one first class coach in each train.

    The problem is I think the Virgin high frequency Pendolino service to London was thought up when there was not a recession and with the hope of making money out of first class travel. Then the recession comes along and first class travel is not a wise option for business travel.

    I must ask who is the train service provided at great public cost for? It is for the public and as such it should provide value for money walk on travel. Not cart around expensive to buy and maintain high tech pendolino coaches running empty at our expence.

  • If you are travelling to/from London for business then First class is very useful for working. Yet for anything shorter I can’t see the value in it.

  • Dan

    Rob – depends where from when you mean ‘shorter’ as to travel to / from London (ie do you mean from Haywards Heath, or Newcastle). What about stations like Luton where you could get a 1st class season and have decent seating on an EMT Intercity service, but get nowt for your money if an FCC Thameslink was the next handy service?

    Christopher – On the pendolino it is a diff matter – vis the foolish business sense of assuming that you could fill all those 1st class seats – they (and Branson insisted I recall someone, poss Christian, reporting) got the mix badly wrong (and suffer the poor PR as a result – folly from the spin master himself) – but it’s not an argument for ending 1st class per se.

    On this topic in Rail recently Barry Doe explained that suburban 1st class was abolished during WW2 (for London suburbs at least) and not re-instated afterwards. That maybe makes sense for those trains I suspect, but not outer suburban or intercity.

  • Robert Waller

    You are not very observant when travelling, SWT Class 450 or 458 has 2×2 in First but 3×2 in Standard, or if your trip from Alton was on a Class 444 then First has 2×1 and standard has 2×2

  • Peter Hooper

    @ Christopher Thomas makes a valid point, however more 1st class passengers may get on the train en-route to London.

    For a rational decision, what’s required is detailed figures on pre-booked 1st Class seats and turn up and go 1st Class seats, at different times of the day and week.

  • Dan

    Well, of course off peak Advance (yield managment) booking systems should permit the 1st class seats to be sold ‘if the price is right’ even in the peaks – unless of course it makes more money to leave them empty and sell 1 or 2 full whack open 1st fares rather than 10 or 20 Advance discounted tickets.

    East Mids Trains have got this right at the mo – big advert promos at stations for 1st class, off peak walk on fares cut – and lots of discounted tickets off peak. I was looking at prices for 2 older relatives to go London – Derby and I see Std Class singles, booked in Advance at about £8 each way, with First Class at £10.50 – and this is for 2 weeks ahead. However skint soemone migt be you are not telling me the extra £2.50 is unaffordable – given the free tea and biscuits 1st class is actually cheaper! These are with Senior Railcard of course. If you did not have one you’d be stung for all of 15 quid. That would be a rip off for 150 miles of 1st class travel…..

  • RapidAssistant

    Agree with much of what has been said – I’d sy that a lot depends on the actual quality of the First Class product – for instance Virgin’s is exceptional (free meals and booze), whereas East Coast is not so good – a hefty price premium for just the luxury of a bigger seat and being away from the rif-raff, which as Dan says – is a price many are still willing to pay (including me), IF the price is right – a ‘free meal and drink’ isn’t worth it if it involves buying a £200 return ticket from Glasgow to London, while the same thing is available on a British Airways domestic flight from Glasgow to Heathrow for only £80 return – the same arguments for rail/air exist at First Class level.

    Indeed – one phenomenon about the hoped for business travellers in 1st – a good friend of mine who does a lot of business class intercontinental travel uses his frequent flyer points that not only pays for domestic hops to London, but gains access to executive lounges with as much free food and drink as you can get down your throat – which of course further erodes the case for using the train…..it makes East Coast’ £15 meals and £3.50 a pop cans of beer in First look hideously expensive.

  • Southern

    I cannot agree with the idea that all Crossrail trains should be Standard class only. These act as outer suburban trains to Maidenhead, Shenfield and Abbey Wood. I suspect in time they will serve other destinations to in the same way that Thameslink is every destinations from Kings Lynn to Hastings.

    A seperate quesytion but can someone explain why Crossrail serves relatively few destinations but Thameslink serves many. It is a complete opposite of logic.

  • Dan

    Free meals in 1st: I muts say I prefer the paid for approach – since on working days (when employer won’t pay 1st) I can dine (at my own expense) and have a meal, with a Std Class ticket (which is money the TOC would not otherwise get if I was restricted to Std Class) – on Virgin I can’t do this.

    Yet when I travel for leisure at weekend in 1st food is not available. However, I can see that if you have shelled out well over £100 for a 1st class ticket you might reasonabgly expect a meal to be included in the price (this would be easy to solve – give the full payers in 1st a free meal, discounted 1st class ticket holders the food is ‘pay extra if you want it’).

    I did note that on Midland Main Line (on nationalisation) they moved from the old BR system of meals open to all but paid for, to only for 1st class and inclusive (breakfasts actually – they got rid of cooked meals at other times back then) what happened was the quantity you got givemn (when it was included in the ticket price) was significantly less generous than when you paid extra on top for a meal, if you wanted one.

    The problem seems to be that if 1st class passengers all expect a meal (like on a plane) the pressure is on to provide that as cheaply as possible – so the quality goes down (just like on a plane….)

  • RapidAssistant

    Having said all that Dan, the last time I tried using 1st Class on Virgin the quality of the fare on offer had reduced markedly – limited menu choice, and we were strictly rationed to two alcoholic drinks over the course of a 4hr 32min journey – the first time I did it the “bar” was a free for all, and I arrived in Euston somewhat tipsy…….plus there was a buffet lunch, the last time it was a bag of pretzels and that was it.

    The difficulty you have in comparing the 1st Class offering, is as you say it is not consistent across TOCs. East Coast do indeed charge for anything over and above coffee/tea and biscuits, but at least the restaurant service is open to all as in BR InterCity days, whilst Virgin’s is all complimentary but first 1st Class ticket holders only. But at least Virgin’s weekend upgrade deal is better value (£15 flat, regardless of distance travelled, where as EC is a sliding scale up to £30 maximum; say London KX to Inverness or Aberdeen), and Virgin operate attended service on weekends, East Coast don’t.

    To sum up – the whole business of First Class has gone into total disrepute, not only the waste of capacity that CW is alluding to, but I’ve seen bizarre situations on CRS when the cheaper levels of 1st Class Advance fares are still available, yet Standard Class has sold out for a particular service.

    If people standing in the vestibule paying full fare are going to effectively subsidise me to sit in the comfy recliners, then bring it on I say!

  • The inconsistency and unpredictability of it all can be exasperating. On Virgin first class to Liverpool last week I was given my free “lunch” – a dreary, almost frozen cheese sandwich considerably inferior to the sandwiches British Rail offered in its latter days. If I didn’t want cheese, there was beef, and that was it. I asked for one of each, and was told that I could only have one. Also, the coffee was vile and the “service” surly and perfunctory. This was in “proper” first class on a weekday. And yet if I’d been a couple of hours earlier I would have got a free cooked breakfast. It’s all very arbitrary.

  • Dave H

    The problem is to some extent that we are using trains rigidly specified for one purpose ofr a variety of purposes – the prime example being the cross-country trains which are rammed full of commuters for stages like Bristol-Cheltenham Derby-Sheffield/Sheffield-Leeds and in to Newcastle from N & S, whilst at other times the fresh air they move around carries an air of the Marie Celeste but presents no optios to offer the long distance travellers with luggage and bikes a better layout for this traffic – because DfT has a rigid attitude to fixed seating.

    Virgin’s Peodolino’s do have first class seats loaded to the equivalent of full and standing on some services – at full fare as well but I would commet on the beacon that is the Virgin re-working of the Voyager sets – outshining the mess that Arriva made when they reconfigured in 2007-08 (trolley service that smashes the seat trim, bike spaces that don’t work etc) this is the ‘composite’ saloon in Coach D, which can be operated as a First or second class vehicle. Maybe coach F can be given similar treatment so that extra capacity can be switched in as required. Similar commosense thinking has also seen the Vigin fleet standardised as 5 coach trains, and a clear ‘wish list’ option for 3 extra trailer vehicles to reform the 2 driving vehicles left over after this work.

    There really are a lot of simple and potentially effective measure that can be taken – for example on the Class 313’s (in Christians part of London) where 3 more doors and space for up to 50 extra standing passengers might deal with dwell time delays on the inner stations to Finsbury Park on Moorgate services – simply RESTORE the facility to use the cab-ends not required for driving the train – not rocket science as Lothian’s buses have a remote release facility for the door that closes off the stairs to the upper deck on their buses – for times when only the lower deck is required. It might be an intersting calculation to see how many extra doors (for faster boarding) and vestibule space (for standing passengers might be won back through rebuilding the cab -ends of existing trains and making this space available at times of peak demand. It would certainly have an impact on the GN inner suburban network.

    Comfort on the commuter Cross Country services might be improved by installing perch seating along the generous corridor wall spaces by the accessible toilets and other places through the train, organising the way standing passengers fill the space and making it a bit easier to move through the train even when it is very full, by ‘organising’ the standing passengers. I got the ide from seeing the well conceived use of perch seating on a Northern Class 155 – a detail that should be fitted to all the Class 153’s in place of the hideous luggage racks that narrow down the corridor and give the units a dark corner.

  • Dan

    On service quality comments there seems a consensus that the ‘inclusive service’ leads to lower quality product (bearing in mind Rapid and Paul’s points) – Although I prefer a proper restaurant car myself, and am happy to pay for it. I think EMT have got this quite sensible at the moment – free tea / bottled water and biscuits / nibbles, and a limited hot food range (with decent level of choice) served at seat on proper crockery, for which you pay extra for, but it is not overpriced. (£6-£8 as I recall)

    Plus offers like this:

    Friday Half Price First Class Breakfast Offer until 10 December 2010.
    We are now offering our first class passengers the opportunity to purchase a full breakfast for £8, that’s half the normal price! On train announcements will be made and this offer will be subject to availability and only payable on board train.

    Meanwhile though, by going trolley only in Std Class, service there is reduced IMO.

    As for set design – Dave H makes very valid points.

  • RapidAssistant

    Dave H – perhaps the biggest issue with Virgin is that we have this ludicrous situation where there are brand new Pendolino carriages sitting gathering dust because the DfT doesn’t want to implement them until the new ICWC franchise in 2012……

  • Colin Brown

    Virgin were greedy, they could have decided to reconfigure their trains especially on routes where most of their customers wanted to travel standard class. The new pendolins shouldn’t be given over to useless outfit such as virgin. As for having first class carriages on crossrail, well it won’t happen. Crossrail has many roles, of which relieving the central line is paramount,thus bringing in the hoards from East London into the centre of town . As for the extremities from the west, well they’ll getting reconditioned class 319s which will have more space and will be faster than their present class 165s. Why would you need to add additional first class carriages to new rolling stock where there is no need? Where as having a more frequent service to relieve the central line is essential. Now the same could be said about Thameslink, but that’s a debate for another day.

  • WHP

    Another good question would be: what proportion of first class accommodation is provided for free travel by ex-BR employees? On Southern it’s very high, I gather, hence there is little business case for anything better than basic seating. But in these straitened times all railway staff should travel standard class – that would remind them of how the majority of their ‘customers’ travel.

    As it is one encounters some horribly arrogant individuals – probably unemployable outside the railway industry – who have no idea what standard class travel is like and rather obvious contempt for it and those who cannot afford to upgrade.

    What I would like as a commuter is quite simple – the likelihood of getting a seat which is sufficiently far from the one in front that I can use my laptop on a fold-down table. That’s all. Not free food or leather seats. Not separation from ordinary commuters. Just the means to do some work whilst travelling. Oh, and WiFi would be helpful too. I’d pay a bit more for that. Just not twice as much as per first class.

  • Dan

    Some contradictaions in your post in a way WHP – As I understand it large numbers of current staff don’t get free travel any more – so the 1st class ones you mention will be either retired (so their veiws on the industry are not relevent in operational terms) or current managers, not every day staff (‘every day’ staff in 1st are in their at the discretion of the staff in charge, no doubt commin but also I suspect strictly speaking not permitted?).

    When I worked as a member of catering staff for BR I had a priv pass, but you could not sit in 1st with it.

    However, if there are empty seats in 1st and crowded in second it makes more sense for staff to sit in 1st, surely – since they can then be asked to vacate it if a paying 1st class passenger turns up – which is more tricky if you have ‘upgraded’ a Std Calss passenger I expect.

    But as you say you need decent space in Std – and that won’t happen simply by abolishing 1st!

  • It would certainly screw up Virgin’s revenue stream.

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