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Rail firms accused over missing 'first-class' seats

Britain's complex rail ticketing system excelled itself yesterday when it emerged that a train company is selling first-class tickets for trains without first-class seating.

Southeastern Railways charges £43.20 for a first-class ticket and £33.30 for a standard fare on the high-speed route from London to Dover Priory. Whichever fare is paid, passengers may only sit in standard accommodation because the route does not offer a premium service.

Southeastern rationalised the anomaly by explaining that the seats on the high-speed trains were more comfortable than usual standard seats – and added that those who bought first-class tickets had the choice of travelling on a slow service, which does have first-class seating but which takes almost an hour longer to arrive at the south coast. "A first-class ticket will provide you with a choice of using the mainline first-class or the high-speed service without the need to pay the supplement," it said.

Standard customers who buy tickets for the slow service, which takes two hours rather than little over one hour, have to pay only £4 if they wish to switch to the high-speed service, which uses the Channel Tunnel lines between London and Ashford before shuffling along the mainline between Ashford and Dover.

Southeastern, which is owned by the Go-Ahead Group, acknowledged that standard passengers who booked the high-speed link paid less for sitting on the same standard seats as first-class passengers who, in return for paying more, usually receive more comfortable seats and complimentary tea and coffee.

The consumer group Which?, which uncovered the arrangement, responded: "So paying 30 per cent extra buys a standard-class, high-speed service – or a 40-minute slower first-class service."

In another case, Which? discovered that First Capital Connect charges 63 per cent more for single first-class fares between Luton Airport Parkway station and Wimbledon in south-west London. This line also has no first-class service.

The train company told Which?: "The ticket is available because you can travel first-class for parts of your journey to Wimbledon if you choose."

However this would involve getting off at St Pancras, walking to the Underground, taking a 12-minute ride to Vauxhall at a cost of £4 and getting back on the train again.