Third-class trains: how bad could they be?

For many commuters, getting the train is enough of an ordeal already. So, are reports of no-frills train carriages true?

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Indy Politics

It harks back to an age of steam, open carriages and bottom-punishing bench seating, so it's no surprise that the latest rail proposal from the Government allowing for the introduction of a "third passenger class" has got passenger groups hot under the collar. Some might ask how it will differ from today's crowded carriages, angry commuters, stained seats and unpleasant smells from blocked lavatories, but the prospect of lowly peasants and workers slumming it at the back, while high-flying business types and officials – led by fare-dodger-in-chief George Osborne – swill champagne up front, has hit a real political hot spot.

Passenger groups and rail unions are furious that a government that's already hiked tuition fees, cut child and housing benefit and is generally seen as against the working man, is opening another front in the class war. Labour's Lord Myners was quick to condemn a "cattle-class carriage at the back" and "one for toffs at the front", while Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT union, has slammed the Government for "winding the clock back 50 years".

Carriage-class war seems likely to spill off the platform and into Parliament, then. Or does it? A quick ring around tells Trending that East Coast, FirstGroup, Arriva and Virgin have no plans to introduce an inferior class, and a spokesman for the Department for Transport is swift to point out that it is "completely untrue" and "deliberately misleading" that the Government wants to introduce third class. The RMT, he adds, is "deliberately confusing" the situation "to scare train passengers".

Industry analysts aren't convinced either. Philip Haigh, the business editor of Rail magazine, says: "There's a big difference between introducing a premium economy-style class above standard, which Eurostar has already done and other operators are considering, and an open-cattle-truck third class that dates from the Victorian era. Any rail operator that tried that would be on a hiding to nothing and I think that people like Bob Crow and the RMT are deliberately misconstruing this for their own ends."

It looks like a political storm in a standard-class Styrofoam teacup, then, but would introducing third class really be such a bad idea? "Yes," says Gary Boyd-Hope, the editor of Steam Railway. "You'd have to be a glutton for punishment to suffer the hard seats, and lack of heating, too, of traditional third class." But isn't this missing the obvious benefits? The open-air carriage would let in the sunshine and fresh air, budget airlines would no longer be the world's worst form of transport and, most importantly, it would be far cheaper.

In an age when a peak-fare single from London to Manchester will set you back a tidy £148, surely it would help to have an all-new cattle class running the same route for 2s 6d. Yes, the lack of roof and hard-bench seats might not meet today's overly stringent standards that call for luxuries such as roofs and cushions, but think of all the benefits from returning to a rigid Victorian-class structure. The biggest one being that there would be no chance of plebs like us having to bump into George Osborne at the back of the train.