Simon Calder :The man who pays his way

Bring back Third Class: it's the least that Britain's rail travellers deserve. And, while the trains are being re-numbered, let's introduce Fourth, Fifth and Sixth tiers, too. The long-suffering passenger deserves to be able to choose from at least that many grades.
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The Independent Travel

Bring back Third Class: it's the least that Britain's rail travellers deserve. And, while the trains are being re-numbered, let's introduce Fourth, Fifth and Sixth tiers, too. The long-suffering passenger deserves to be able to choose from at least that many grades.

There was plenty of time to contemplate this plan when I travelled Second Class on the Night Mail. The train in question cuts a cross-section through Sri Lanka, from Trincomalee in the north-east to Colombo in the south-west. I had opted to treat myself with the most comfortable overnight trip rupees could buy.

Top-of-the-range on this line turns out to be a "Second Class Sleeperette". Good, I thought, that must be the local name for "couchette", the fold-down bed prevalent on overnight trains through continental Europe, allowing you to slumber your way through the night. Alas, "sleeperette" is the local name for "seat". The only difference is that it is slightly more padded, covered in a higher grade of plastic, and is likely to contain fewer occupants than the average seat in Third Class.

"Sleep" is the last thing you can expect in a sleeperette. With the flickering glare from the ceiling lights and the constant clattering and chattering along the Line The British Built But Time Forgot, even a sleep-ette is impossible.

Never mind, I thought after the first 20 miles. Only another eight hours of this (the 180-mile journey is timed to average an undemanding 20mph), and at least I've got a seat of my own.

Counting chickens, even the ones clucking away along in Third Class, is never a good idea on Third World railways like those in Sri Lanka and Britain. At 2am the locomotive expired with a horrible shudder. The lights went out, and for the next two hours there was much discussion about how to cover the remaining 60 miles to Sri Lanka's capital. But everybody was in the dark.

Light arrived in the shape of the first commuter train of the day, which crept up behind our broken-down service and agreed to shove it down the line to the next station. Imagine if the Glasgow to London sleeper broke down outside Rugby and waited two hours for an ordinary train to heave it into the station. That was how the Night Mail was rescued by the Milk Train.

Another half-hour of animated attempts to fix the defunct locomotive ended in failure. Everyone was ordered from the overnight "Express" on to the Third Class local. Changing from one to the other was an epic in itself: the commuter train pulled up alongside, and everyone had to crowd into the gap between the tracks in a bid to squeeze into any available nook.

In a country where even a solo bicycle is made for three, the pampered Westerner is destined for misery. For those of us who had been turfed out of our sleeperettes, the awful truth slowly dawned: this train was Third Class only. Oh, the ignominy, especially as I had paid more than £1 for my coast-to-coast ticket. Furthermore, the train was obliged to perform its normal duty of stopping at every tiny halt all the way into Colombo, picking up perplexed commuters wondering why this morning's train was so late and so crowded with irritated, sleep-deprived downgradees. Even the space marked For Clergy and intended for a single Buddhist monk was occupied by an entire family.

When the heaving mass of humanity pulled into Fort station, three hours late, I joined the Young Men's Christian Association. This was not an overnight conversion; to get a cheap room in the heart of Colombo, you must take out temporary membership of the YMCA at five rupees a day. In my Single Room, Third Class, Fourth Floor, I started to write down how Britain's class system has to change for the benefit of the traveller.

Traditionally, the grade of train travel for the common man and woman in Britain has been Third Class. The Midland Railway started the trend in 1875. It enhanced Third Class, which previously approximated to the Workmen's Trains "product" in Sri Lanka, and did away with Second Class. But in 1956 the British Railways Board saw an opportunity to make everyone think things had improved. Third Class was replaced by Second Class; in airline terms, this is like telling everyone in economy that they have been upgraded, without changing the cabin.

The Second Class labels lasted only 20 years before they were replaced by Standard Class. So long as it is not preceded by the word "bog", "Standard" sounds comfortably egalitarian. But any visitor to Britain who fondly assumes they will find a uniform standard aboard every train is sadly misguided. "Standard Class" on Midland Mainline means comfortable seats plus free tea and coffee on tap. It shares nothing in common with the one-class-fits-none rattling sheds-on-wheels linking Manchester with Crewe and Liverpool.

Two classes are nothing like enough. Indeed, many train-operating companies have surreptitiously added extra classes, with silly made-up names like "StandardPlus", aimed at the hapless souls who have shelled out the full Standard Class fare. For a single trip from London to York, this is £67 – exactly 50 times the fare for the same distance in a Sri Lankan sleeperette. To compensate, travellers get a carriage of their own, with biscuits and hot drinks and a gratifying absence of people who booked a week ahead for a quarter of the price.

"First class" is an equally slippery concept on Britain's railways. On London commuter lines, it means you are likely to find yourself crushed against a better class of person, while on Virgin's West Coast main line, you get unlimited food and drink served at your seat. But even within Virgin Trains, First no longer exists on cross-country lines; it has been downgraded to Club. As with airlines, this is better than Economy but not as good as First.

A leaf should be taken out of Sri Lanka's book. The hierarchy goes: First Sleeper, First, Second with Sleeperette, Second and Third, with "Workmen's Trains" bringing up the rear (usually literally). Six classes, and with each you know what you are getting (well, you do now that I have revealed the awful truth about the Sleeperettes).

Britain must re-classify its trains with at least as many tiers. Then travellers unfortunate enough to find themselves aboard the 7.15am from Deptford to Cannon Street in Sixth Class will not expect the in-train audio that Virgin passengers enjoy in Second Class. We have the ticketing technology to cope with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rate trains. Even if train operators lack the wherewithal to improve the services, at least they could let us know where we stand (too often, literally).

"Your suggestion makes a lot of sense," is the generous response of Brendan Fox when I e-mail him from the "Y". As editor of the Thomas Cook European Timetable, his views count. But he has reservations: "In this age of 'medium, large and super-size', I cannot imagine the railway marketing gurus agreeing to a perceived downgrading of any of their accommodation, however much it might reflect reality. It wouldn't help inter-availability of tickets between operators, either. Don't give them ideas, or they will end up renaming Standard to First, and introducing a new Super-Mega-Executive Class, or some such."

Drugs, money and women: a typical night out in Fort, the hub of Colombo. After dark, young men emerge from the shadows to solicit the stranger with improper proposals for commercial transactions. A "special massage", "change money" and "good marijuana" were all offered in the space of a walk back from the seafront to my digs. It's more fun to stay at the YMCA.