Third-class trains? Union leaders accuse Government over leaked document on East Coast main line

RMT says Department for Transport plans to 'smash' current public-sector operation on the key inter-city route

Rail union leaders and the Labour Party have responded furiously to a leaked document on the future of the East Coast main line - accusing the Government of planning to bring back Third Class.

The RMT accused the Department for Transport of planning to "smash apart" the current public-sector operation on the key inter-city route, which connects London with Leeds, Newcastle and Scotland. Directly Operated Railways, a holding company, took over the franchise in 2009. The previous holder, National Express, walked away after suffering substantial losses. The present operator recently returned £208m to the Treasury.

The franchise prospectus for returning the line to the private sector is due to be published on Monday. But the RMT union has obtained a pre-publication copy, complete with notes from civil servants on editing the document for public consumption.

Eurostar, the cross-Channel train operator, has expressed interest in the East Coast franchise, and Virgin Trains is expected to bid. But the RMT said that the franchise would be awarded "on lucrative, profiteering terms that will enable them to reduce the quality of service [and] introduce a new band of third-class travel".

Labour's shadow transport secretary, Mary Creagh, accused the prime minister of a retrograde step: "David Cameron says we're all in this together but if that's true then why is he going back to the 1950s and reintroducing Third Class?"

Yet the details revealed by the union show that the proposed new class would offer a "premium economy" service, between the present Standard and First Class. There is no compulsion for bidders to offer the intermediate category, nor a suggestion that Standard Class would be downgraded.

The rail expert Mark Smith, who runs Seat61.com, said: "There's always been a demand for something better for full-fare Standard Class business travellers who can't upgrade to First. They've been playing around with this idea in various forms for years, including Silver Standard in BR InterCity days." 

His website shows that high-speed trains in Spain and Italy have three classes, with Trenitalia's Milan-Rome-Naples "Frecciarossa" recently going one better with four classes.

Earlier this year, the French train operator SNCF introduced a "no-frills" option called Ouigo, running between a station east of Paris and the South of France, emulating the low-cost airlines. 

The RMT is also angry about what it calls "A systematic and politically motivated de-valuation of the performance and achievements of ECML in the public sector". The union says that civil servants recommended redacting elements that showed the current operator in a good light.

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