Could first class rail travel be about to hit the buffers? The Department for Transport has floated the idea of ending class distinction on the South Eastern network, which connects Kent and East Sussex with London.
In a new consultation document, the DfT says: “We recognise that first class tickets remain popular on certain routes, notably on the South Eastern main line to Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. However, removing it would create more room for passengers, which would be important during peak hours.”
The Government asks passengers: “Would you support removing first class seating on the busiest routes to provide more space?”
In the most recent National Rail Passenger Survey, the current franchise holder was among the worst performing train operators for customer satisfaction. Only elements of the strike-hit GTR franchise performed worse.
Mark Smith, the founder of the Seat61.com international rail website, was previously a British Rail manager on the South Eastern network. He said: “Southern and Southeastern have persevered with first class until now, but strangely in their case the first class section is often quite literally identical to Standard Class, with the same seat layout and even the same seat fabric.
“I get the impression keeping a few seats designated as ‘first class’ is a sop to a handful of long-standing first class commuters, just to avoid having an argument with them. I think it would be no great loss if this odd situation came to an end, and the trains became standard class only. Which physically, were it not for a few notices and the ticketing, they already are.”
Some transport campaigners also welcomed the move. Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Overcrowding is a major problem and it can be galling to see people lounging comfortably in half-empty first class carriages when you're crammed nose to armpit in cattle class every day, so addressing this on South Eastern would be welcome.
“We need to get more people off the congested roads and onto rail, and this means creating space on trains.”
With rail passenger numbers doubling in the past 20 years, pressure on commuter routes into London is intense.
Chris Woodcock, the editor of the European Rail Timetable, pointed out: “The high-speed services between Kent and London St Pancras are standard class only so it would bring the remainder of their commuter services in line with their fastest services.”
British rail travel through the ages
British rail travel through the ages
The general view of St Pancras station in London
The locomotive which plunged off the Tay Rail Bridge into the Firth of Tay after its recovery from the estuary. The disaster occurred when a section collapsed during a storm in 1879 and 75 passengers were killed
An East Coast Express train at King's Cross Great Northern Railway, London
A porter directing a passenger on the platform of a station on the outskirts of Liverpool
Passengers sitting in the observation car on the Llandudno to Llanberis line in Wales
A London and North Western Railway worker in the slip-coach of a train, which detaches at a station that the rest of the train is not stopping at
French people leaving Victoria Station in London on the boat train to Paris, at the start of World War I
A female guard on the Metropolitan railway with her emergency lantern
Holiday crowds at King's Cross railway station, London
A young Easter holiday maker tries to reach up to the ticket office window to buy his ticket
The luxurious first class lounge on board a London Midland and Scottish Royal Scot train. Known as the travelling hotel the train has a lounge, bar and private boudoir
Two young women pushing their luggage on a trolley at Paddington station during the holiday rush out of London
A worker sitting astride a locomotive whilst cleaning the boiler
A third class Southern Railway carriage being hoisted at Southampton Docks in Hampshire
The Bennie railplane being demonstrated at Glasgow, Scotland. It consisted of self-propelled passenger cars driven by air screws, suspended from a steel girder
Seven of the new King Class steam locomotives
Passengers on the Bennie Railplane in Glasgow; the inventor George Bennie stands at the end of the carriage
Port of London Authority workers unloading a shipment of bananas from a train
London and North-Eastern Railway petrol train in Yorkshire
Railway workers turning the LNER 'Hush Hush' locomotive No. 100000 on a manually operated turntable while a man films the operation with a hand cranked camera
On the Great Western Railway, a film crew film the automatical train control in action
Racing driver Lord Howe driving his Mercedes sports car onto the float at Dover, ready to be hoisted on board the Southern Railway's cross-channel steamer 'Autocarrier'
Passengers making enquiries at one of the new Southern Railway information points on Waterloo concourse
Fireman Blackett of the LMS railway saying farewell to his workmates and officials at Carlisle before finishing duty. He was off to America to assist on the Royal Scot which is touring the USA after appearing at the Chicago World Fair
A steam train crossing the Darwood Viaduct, Cornwall
A group of schoolboys examining a streamlined Coronation Class locomotive of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) at Euston Station
A member of the Berkhampstead Riding School tests her riding prowess against the Carlisle Express in a field that adjoins the LMS railway at Tring, Hertfordshire
Women seeing off loved ones on a troop train at Woolwich railway station in south London. The men, of the Royal Artillery, are bound for Salisbury Plain for retraining because of the Suez crisis
The 'Flying Scotsman' steam locomotive leaves a station to travel to Edinburgh
The Brighton Belle train leaving Victoria Station, central London
Great Western Railway, which operates from London Paddington to the Thames Valley, South Wales and the West Country, has sharply reduced the number of first-class seats on both commuter and long-distance routes. In 2011, about half the space allocated to first class on High Speed Trains was re-assigned to standard. Most long-distance trains now have 600 seats, only 40 of which are first class. This ratio will be maintained in the new rolling stock due to enter service before the end of the year.
Virgin Trains, which runs Anglo-Scottish services on the East and West Coast lines, has “no plans” to remove first class. A spokesperson said: ”As a long-distance operator we look to cater for the needs of all our customers whether they're travelling for business or leisure."
Mark Smith said that, on longer-distance services, “there is always a market for extra space and comfort at extra cost, especially for those who need to work”.
His local train operator, Chiltern became one-class only in 2002.
“Standard class on many of their new main-line trains is now more comfortable than the old ex-BR first class I used to use on their routes pre-1995,” he said.
Chiltern introduced a Business Zone in 2011 – a “premium economy” service which can be accessed by anyone with any ticket, including Advance, with payment of a supplement.
On Arriva Trains Wales, only one train a day offers first class: the north-south service that runs from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning and back in the evening.