Transport: Top class trains leave rest of us standing

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The Independent Online
Most rail travellers view taking the train as a chore, not a delight. But for those passengers prepared to pay, the ride is more smooth than rough. Randeep Ramesh explains why we may be seeing the age of two-tier train travel.

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another marketing ploy by a rail company aimed at attracting passengers to the network. The gimmick is a carriage devoted to the business traveller. The company is the successful Midland Main Line (MML) - which runs trains from London to Leeds.

Despite filling nearly 60 per cent of its 28,000 daily seats, the train company decided it was not appealing to enough travellers. The new Business Class will see passengers get "at-service food and drink", complimentary newspapers and 40 per cent more space to relax in.

More room for business travellers means less space for the ordinary punter. The MML trains take eight carriages. Two are usually used for first-class seats, but this could rise to four with the start of the new service in January, leaving fewer seats for those paying standard fares.

The new service will also offer those that pay 40 per cent more room to relax in. But travelling business class costs. London to Sheffield costs pounds 79 - more than three times the cheapest tickets.

The future of rail travel appears to be populated by upper- class and lower-class fares. Rail companies need to entice more passengers with expensive marketing wheezes and need to increase fares to pay for them.

First-class travellers next year on the Heathrow Express will pay nearly pounds 20 for a 15-minute trip from Paddington station to the airport. On board, the well-heeled travellers will find televisions and plush seating.

"We are aiming at the business traveller; this is not a mode of mass transport," says Jeremy Job, marketing director of the Heathrow Express.

Other companies also have ambitious plans for luxury train travel. Great North Eastern Railways, which runs the high-speed east coast line, has proposals to revive an up-market Motorail service, replete with a trolley service and cinema-style screens. Richard Branson's new fleet of tilting trains will offer services similar to those found on his aeroplanes' "Upper Class" cabins - including massages and video games.

While the well-heeled get to sample the good life, passengers with lighter wallets are unlikely to see much change. Many commuter lines still use slam-door rolling stock from the 1950s and with no new trains yet on the tracks, overcrowding will get worse. According to the latest figures from the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, complaints about the travelling environment and comfort on journeys rose by 128 per cent.

In fact, the rail network is likely to go back to the future. In the Victorian era, the railways carried the bourgeoisie in sumptuous surroundings. It was not unusual to find showers, cocktail bars and fine restaurants in first-class carriages. The American banker JP Morgan even had a carriage for a barber's shop. The poor had to make do with the "under class": little more than cattle trucks with benches.

Railtrack review, page 22