BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

First class on trains - what's the point?

Businesswoman on a train

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

MPs may no longer be allowed to claim first class rail journeys on expenses - to the disgust of some. But are those in standard class really any different from travellers who have paid a premium, as one suggests?

It's the comfort of extra legroom for Labour MP Tom Levitt. The guarantee of a power socket for laptops for Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe. And for Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley, travelling in first class makes her feel safer at night.

For these MPs, and more than 50 others, have lodged objections to proposals that they no longer be allowed to claim for first class train travel, except in "exceptional circumstances" such as journeys longer than two and a half hours.

Sir Nicholas Winterton
Macclesfield MP Sir Nicholas Winterton:
"If I was in standard-class, I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction. They [standard-class passengers] are a totally different type of people - they have a different outlook on life. They may be reading a book but I doubt whether they're undertaking serious work or study, reading reports or amending reports that MPs do when they travel"

Among the most vocal critics of this plan is Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Winterton, who has suggested passengers who travel in standard class are "a totally different type of people".

But research indicates he is wrong. The most obvious difference between someone in first and someone in standard is the price they have paid for their tickets. And even that may only be the narrowest of margins, thanks to off-peak deals and advance tickets that can bring the cost of premium travel way down.

The consumer research company Mintel has studied the profile of train passengers in standard and in first class in the 12 months to November 2009, and has found little difference.

"If this MP believes that trains are ghettoised into different classes of people, then he's wrong," says Tom Rees, a senior travel analyst at Mintel.

"It's not necessarily true that you do get a different class of people in first, because the research suggests they're scattered across the train."

First class commuter
Eggs with a side order of spreadsheets

His research shows the social group most likely to travel by train for work or pleasure - excluding commuter-length journeys - are professionals. Which means the person next to you on the train is likely to be a professional, no matter which carriage you choose.

Another argument used by those who favour first class travel on company or taxpayer expenses is that it offers a more productive working environment. With plenty of elbow room, ample workspace, power sockets and a more business-focused clientele, there is some truth in this.

"You're surrounded by people who are quiet and less likely to intrude on what you're doing, versus pot luck between an empty carriage and standing with your head in the luggage rack in standard class," says one consultant who travels first class on a regular basis. "If you could have standard class and be guaranteed a table - that would almost do me. But then you'd want to be sure you'd want to get confidentiality."

He argues it is more cost effective to travel first class, because the extra money spent on a ticket is made up by the fact that those hours on the train are spent working productively.

And there is an academic study that has put a value on this time - about £31 an hour, says Glen Lyons, a professor of transport and society at Bristol's University of the West of England.

The Queen takes the train to Sandringham
One takes the first class train to Norfolk

"If you're a senior employee then your time is at a premium, both for you and for your employer," he says, adding that the hierarchy of the office can be applied to train carriages. "If you've got people who are in a position of privilege, they often get their own office, and aren't in an open plan office like everyone else."

But what happens if first class is done away with altogether? In 2003, Chiltern Trains did just this and since then has received very little in the way of negative feedback, and no fall in passenger numbers.

"Listening to our passengers, they felt it was unfair that at times there were empty seats in first class while other people were standing," says regional manager Michael Campain.

The company operates routes between Birmingham and London, and commuter services around the Midlands.

"On our services to Birmingham, they've got carpets, they've got nice seating. The legroom is certainly greater than some train operators. And we make sure that every seat is lined up with a window," says Mr Campain, who adds that several MPs use its services without complaint.

And while first class is no more on Chiltern trains, quiet carriages remain in place, allowing people to work in peace.

Something special

But rail economist Jeremy Drew warns that ditching premium carriages can lead to a loss in revenue. "First class is a way of segmenting the market so you can charge an awful lot more for the people who can afford to pay it," he says.

Gordon Brown on a first class carriage
Might some pay the difference from their own pockets?

As well as having the space to feel like a mobile office, first class is about making those passengers who have paid more feel that extra bit special.

Virgin Trains is among the companies who like to offer customers the choice of paying a premium for extra legroom, free wi-fi and complimentary food and drink. Spokesman Ken Gibbs says no one type of person uses first class. During the week it tends to be business travellers; at weekends, cheaper deals have led to a surge in leisure travellers.

For those who do opt for a first class ticket, it is all about receiving a certain level of service, says sociologist John Urry, of Lancaster University.

"There are people at your beck and call, you can sit at the seat and expect a service delivered... your trivial needs will be met, like an extra glass of orange juice."

For some, he says, being in first class offers the feeling of being in a position of social dominance. The extras - and the smiles that come with this level of service - help reinforce this sense of importance. For those used to having things done for them, "there are always people at hand if there's a problem, if there's an uncertainty."

Whatever the reason, for some having a first class ticket is a price worth paying.

Below is a selection of your comments on the story

Are MPs like Nicholas Winterton who we really want representing 'the people'? Perhaps if MPs spent a little less time finding inane things to spend taxpayer money on and more time working then they wouldn't need an extra hour in the morning to catch up anyway.
Candice, Birmingham

When I win the lottery and become rich I'm gonna buy myself a season 1st class rail ticket and make it my lifes mission to annoy all the snobs on first class. Then they wont have an excuse :)
Shambles, London

Mr Winterton's arrogance is appalling. Like many people, I'd love the quiet and elbow room of first class but cannot afford it. My employer certainly won't pay for it and, as a result, I'm unlikely to even try and work when I have to travel for my job. First class is certainly more conducive to working but Mr Winterton's attitude proves that MPs need to travel second class. It will bring them closer to the people who elect them and pay their wages. It might even teach them to respect us. Second class is full of educated, intelligent people as well as those who are neither (good manners are not a middle class prerogative, quite the reverse often). We're all deserving of the respect of the MPs who serve us.
Second Class Citizen?, London

I make fairly frequent journeys to London from the West Country, usually going there and back in one day. To make the most of my time I catch the last train home, and if I've managed to get a relatively cheap advance ticket, will pay for first class for that leg of the trip. I know from experience that otherwise, as the night wears on it can become uncomfortable in the regular carriages, as pubs and clubs empty drunken bods onto each small town railway platform that the train is required to stop at on the way. You're not necessarily free of all that in first class, but as a solitary female passenger travelling into the small hours I find it's usually quieter and feels a bit safer in first class.
Jenny, Exeter

Public servants (politicians or not) should remember whose money they are spending and ensure that they do not waste that money on whims and unneccesary expenses. Additionally, were politicians to travel in standard class, they may be influenced to address the issues that face rail commuters across the UK on a daily basis - overcrowding which must contravene health and safety guidelines, late-running and cancelled services and ever more expensive rail fares.
Maggie Whitworth, Huddersfield, UK

I pay first class every time. No evil kids screaming their heads off whilst parents ignore the nuisance they cause. No yobs, heavily tattooed, chewing gum and lounging with their legs in the gangway - or, worse, sitting next to you. Just decent people, well behaved, who make you forget for just a brief while on a train that you are living in a country which has become a cesspit and sewage farm for the trash of humanity.
Dave Anderson, Stafford

I think all commuters would all love the extra leg room, a power socket and most of all a SEAT that these sycophants are getting in 1st class on tax payers money if we had a choice.

I think that it is an insult to all voters to label us as " a different class of person". We should make them pay for ALL their travel to and from their place of work. They go to a job like the rest of us. They should only get travel allowance when going somewhere other than their place of work and then only standard travel. If they want to upgrade, let them use their own cash especially now they have awarded themselves a pay rise this year whilst other government workers are facing cuts!!!
Rob Hiscoe, London

Normally I agree with everyone being of the same class - However... These are the people voted into the highest offices in the land, they (are supposed to) represent the very best of us at the highest possible standard - why are they even paying for travel when on the business of the United Kingdom of Great Britain?!

Can we lower our standards any further? The standards that rightly or wrongly changed the world...

Give them first class, we've taken away the rest of their perks and lets be honest - their pay is terrible... albeit, I'm not sure what any of them do for it.

And yes, while I don't use it - the should always be a First Class, why? because this is Great Britain - not Russia or France
TWB, Devon

First class is OK but Std class is just as good on most days but not all. On busy days you get no quiet areas anywhere on the train. Ipod & be aware of who is looking over your shoulder is my solution.

Company pays for first class travel but I have no objection to std class (I can't call it second class for obvious reasons, however politicians believe this to be the case)
John , Uppingham

As I enter first class every day I'm often looked up and down by people like Mr Winterton and occasionally asked if I have a first class ticket. I work in a creative industry where we don't wear suits or carry the same level of pomposity that some of my fellow academic and city co-travellers do. The class system is clearly still well and truly alive in this country! I wouldn't give up my first class season ticket though. I get a seat every day and dont have to join the crush to fight for a seat in standard.
Kris Croucher, Cambridge, UK

Upgrade to first by all means for a treat ( upside free coffee and biscuits - downside grumpy celebs/politicians you have to pointedly ignore), but you can't beat the quiet coaches- no racket (mobile phones and noisy media are banned)but the chance to read, work or talk to an interesting fellow- traveller - the ideal option...I use them every time, the second class quiet coach is a fascinating place. Try it!
Stephanie, Saltash, Cornwall

Re Sir Nicholas Winterton's comments, ten years ago I did plenty of reading for a PhD on trains in standard class.
Al, Bedfordshire

I find First Class, or at least the amount of it, incredibly irritating. When travelling between, say, Reading and London, it is almost impossible to find a seat in standard class but, as a teenager, first class is beyond my means. This means standing, usually with groups of other people, in the spaces between carriages. First class is usually almost empty.

Last time I travelled between Reading and London, an announcement came over the tannoy saying that anyone found standing in first class with a standard class ticket would be fined. By First Class here, they meant the space in between carriages. The derisive snorts from people around me said it all really. If we had less first class carriages, it would leave more space for standard class ones, thus allowing the standard carriages to "spread" and halting complaints about lack of seating and too many people in standard class. An improvement in the quality of public transport would lead to mire people using it so, despite overall cheaper rail fares, it would be unlikely that the rail companies would make a loss. You'd think it was fairly obvious...
Ellen, Reading

As a student I use the trains to travel home, which means a 3 hour trip a couple of times a month, always in Standard class. Yes you get loud people and people who have headphones on too loud. But you also find interesting people that you would never normally meet, real people who are happy to have a chat and enjoy the trip. Not constantly looking at their phones or tapping away at some important document that cannot wait. Also I was once standing outside the first class door as there were no seats, a frail old lady entered the train, could not find a seat, even though first class was empty, and the conductor had to be convinced to let her sit in there. For me that is just wrong first off someone should have stood up, but the conductor should of asked her to go in first class.
Student, UK

I'd like to say thanks to the MPs for using the public money to travel first class then looking down on us, I'm sure I would be travelling first class myself if someone else was paying for it.
P, Lincoln

This is appalling. Winterton uses tax payers money to sit in comfort then insults the very people he represents. I am a student who can't afford a first class ticket but i read academic books in standard class and i haven't been offended by any smelly or noisy youths, i choose to sit in the quiet section. I've sat in a 3 hour train journey in standard class- that's life deal with it, not everyone has vast amounts of (tax payers) money. Also I earn about 20k a year, and I travel first class when I can, its just a more comfortable seat and power socket that does it for me. Laptop as entertainment system doesn't work so well without power.
Chad H

I regularly work on the train travelling in standard class. No table, but then it is a Laptop. I do have the option of not working however, so if it is particularly busy and I don't get a seat, I am unable to work. If I needed to work on every train journey I would pay for a first class ticket to ensure I got a seat.

But a 'different' type of person in standard class - absolutely, those with less money! Does not make them less likely to be "undertaking serious work or study, reading reports or amending reports". Sir Nicholas Winterton is seriously out of touch with normal people!
Varsha, Walton-on-Thames

I prefer travelling to a standard or cheaper class whatever be the time of day or night and whatever be the part of the world and that gives me a feeling of down to the earth and what is actually happening in the real world. I come across to all the different kinds of people which helps me a lot to understand and feel the sentiment and mindset of the public. Travelling in the first class, I feel, will alienate me from the real world. For the safety and security I prefer to wear simple cloths, not to carry valuables, keep quiet and talk with respect.
Rajarshi Pal, London

I always try to travel 1st class for all the reasons stated. More leg room, a table, less likely to be noisy and not so crowded. I have spent more time shooing people out of my reserved seat in standard class than I have setting up my laptop in 1st.
Ian Coghlan, Lydney, England

I don't see what all the fuss is about. If they want to travel first class, they just pay the difference from their own pockets. They can afford to,for goodness sake!
Joe S, Stoke on Trent, UK

I travel every few months between London and Hull and always regret not upgrading to first class. The price difference when booking advance tickets means much much more space, single seats and a quieter and more spacious coach - the free soft drink is a bonus. That is all i go for - nothing more!
John, Brighton

I don't travel first class, but can assure you all that i don't smell, put my feet on the seats, play loud music, threaten or abuse other passengers, or read over the shoulder of pompous MP's.

When travelling in standard class with the rest of the plebs, i'm considerate, polite and spend my time reading, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes educational material.

This is another perfect example of how members of parliment are completely out of touch.

I'd love to travel first class but i'd have the decency to pay this out of my wages (MP salary: £64,766 as of 1 April 2009 and soon to go up i believe.) I'm glad i'm a totally different type of person!
Lorraine Devlin, Scotland

I do not want the people who run my country to be travelling hundreds of miles wedged into the (fussily carpeted and heavily logoed) cattle truck of an inter city train I travelled on a couple of weeks ago. I certainly would not want then making serious decisions after such an experience, much less working on sensitive papers or computer files while in full view of several other passengers. When a future government comes to its senses and nationalises our railways then each MP should be issued with a first class rail pass for the duration of their time in office.
Cobbett_Rides_Again, Malvern UK

Members of Society generally these days are so scruffy [feet on seats], noisy [iPods, phones and laptops] and smelly [eating fast food!] that I only wish I had the cash to pay the difference. Another option would be to re-instate Third Class for these folk. MPs should have standard travel and pay the difference if they want to be in civilised company; they are paid enough already without First Class perks.
Bruce, London, UK

When my family went on holiday we were always careful to book cheap first class seats as that way the holiday seemed to start as soon as you got on the train.

It's the complimentary cups of tea that make it worth while. Although drinking thirty cups of tea on a train journey to Cornwall, or wherever, may not have been good for a small child.
Neil O'Docherty, Glasgow, United Kingdom

What's the point indeed? I paid for first class on a recent trip to London but on the return journey the train was 2 carriages short so they cancelled all reservations. I paid more than double standard fare to sit on the floor in the corridor.
Ian, Nottingham, UK

One anniversary my husband and I travelled first class on the train, it would have been very pleasant had some youths without first class tickets coming and sitting in first class and being a real pain in the neck, they only left when the train reached their station... no ticket collectors caught them out... what is the point... shall not do it again!
Elaine Thomas, Hull, UK

Being a commuter on a train with 300+ people, 1st class there is a nuisance, but I do value the opportunity to travel 1st class on long journeys cross country. If only they could add or remove seats based on the ticket bookings, so standard class does not overflow when 1st is half empty...

It does make a difference being in first class, but I can only afford to pay the upgrade, not pay for a full price first ticket. It is a good idea to have a first class though, more space for one thing. Quieter for another, but - "Virgin Trains is among the companies who like to offer customers the choice of paying a premium for ... complimentary food and drink" - No. If you pay for it, is is not complimentary.
Emma, Stalybridge

I have to travel to London by train on a regular basis. I have tried travelling standard class but it is always full and find it near on impossible to work, so I end up not completing anything that I planned. For this reason I now try and travel first class when I can afford it as I can spend an hour each way working with out problems. I also appear to be in a minority when I think that our MP's should be allowed to travel first class and get paid a decent wage, they are after all running the country.
Mark Edwards, Birmingham

I agree with the sentiment that the inclusion of first class compartments on commuter services is pointless... the compartments don't even look that much of an upgrade on standard class either.

But if you book far enough in advance on longer-distance journeys, it's quite easy to find first class fares that are barely more expensive than travelling in standard class. I have no qualms about paying an extra fiver for first class travel if its available. Mind you, we'll see if the benefits are all that.
Pete, Hertford, UK

In Ireland once, I upgraded to first class to guarantee a seat on the start of my journey back to the UK from Cork via Dublin and Holyhead . There were about three other people in the carriage. I felt a bit silly. Mind I wish I'd gone First Class on the outbound train to Holyhead. That was a bit of a Zoo in standard with people standing until Stafford.

When changing trains at Birmingham New Street, half the train was First class and largely empty.

Perhaps the class divide should be relaxed in the early hours?
Colin Hawes, Basildon

I do serious work, developing software, on trains, and I travel second class. N. Winterton is suffering from arrogance.
Isabella Jackman, Munich, Germany

So if we make MPs stand on their commuter train, which in all probability is going to be delayed, when are they going to do their work? Effectively we are stopping them from doing work outside office hours. It will be more equal if we stop them going first class but we'll all be worse off in the long run.
Luke, Portsmouth

I regurly make 5/6 hours train journeys. Always on standard class. I have met so many amazing people on standard who I'm sure I would never had met on first class.
Sam Scott, Leicestershire

Surely replacing the 2,3 or 4 empty First class carriages with Standard class ones will mean more space for everyone and more chance of a seat/table with a power connection - it's the First class carriages that cause the problems in Standard!
Karl Johnson, Thetford, Norfolk, UK

I have to say that I travel standard class for relatively short journeys, and have no problem at all. Yes, there are people with shopping bags and babies, but it's a lot better than taking the bus and having to put up with tinny grime music or loud and obnoxious phone conversations. I find that trains are quiter and a whole lot more civilised, like the first class mentality is rubbing off on the rest of the train.
Kathryn, Bristol, UK

I'm not sure some people understand, you get your own seat, its not like someone sits on your lap when it gets busy! You should feel proud to be doing something good for the environment and worried that an MP who is meant to represent the people is being horrendously judgemental to less financially secure people.
Emily Eldridge , Southampton

While working for a stockbrokers in Moorgate, my manager once said something along the lines of "first class is for the normal people, standard is for the plebs." then he looked at myself and a college who commuted on a standard ticket and said, "not you two, your semi-plebs"... This just goes to show the attitude some people take. I thought we were supposed to be a nation that no longer has a class system. Obviously not.
Daniel, Croydon, Surrey

Travelling first class feels safer, more comfortable and quieter. It is usually cleaner too. People don't put their feet on the seats, or make a nuisance for themselves. They respect the other people in the carriage and are respected in turn. No noisy, loud conversations or uncouth language. Altogether a more pleasant experience and if the rest of the train was like that it would not be a problem. But as there are some people who just don't respect others it is nice to be able to pay a bit extra for the peace and quiet. It is not about class - type of people is correct - those that know how to behave and those that don't.
Jane, Leicester

As a university professor I've only travelled first class once, when three other profs suggested doing so to prepare for a meeting in London. It was hopeless. First class was full of pompous twits barking instructions to their PAs on their mobiles. Ever since I've appreciated second class, which with some noise-cancelling headphones is much more relaxing to try to work in.
Ken, Cardiff

For a while I booked first class to travel from Maidenhead or Reading to London, thinking it would provide me with peace and quiet to work and read. But first class is like a magnet to those generally ticketless youngsters who want to bait the train staff and make a racket. It was much quieter in standard class, so that's where I always go now.
David Stewart, Bristol UK

I used to buy the off-peak first class to travel to my mother in a hospice in Kent, to alleviate some of the stress involved. I found it worth the extra cost for the additional quiet and overall experience. Yes, standard carriages would have been OK, but it was good to have the choice, and there are reasons other than elitism to choose first class.
G Morse, Wellingborough, UK

I commute daily between Milton Keynes and London Euston. Travelling first class pretty much guarantees a seat, as well as a working environment. It isn't about the free coffee and newspaper, although having access to wi-fi is a bonus. It is about the quality of the journey.
James, Stony Stratford

I'm with the man from Chiltern Railways - fewer first class carriages. I regularly travel on the West Coast Mainline with Virgin on Friday and Sunday afternoons, and walk past four virtually if not completely empty first class carriages before boarding in standard class. One, or at a push two on commuter routes, would surely suffice. Also, whilst you can get cheap deals booking in advance, I think the £15 weekend upgrade premium is too high, considering it basically includes free internet (£10 for 24 hours' access in standard) and one very small cup of tea or coffee (less than £2 although you do have to walk to the shop). If it was £10 extra I might be more inclined to pay it, or if it was staggered according to length of journey. Oh, and there are nearly always swathes of empty seats in the quiet coach, although then you have to sit at the back of the train and have the long walk up the platform...
Laura, Lancaster

Whilst working in the private sector, I have regularly used first class from Northampton to London. It was the best use of my time - no distractions or elbow fights for space. Now that I work in the public sector, I travel standard class meaning I can't work on the train any more - there are very few tables and if I do get one, my laptop is practically in the face of the commuter opposite, which I think is unfair (I would be annoyed), compounded by the risk of someone peeping into my work. End result I just try to nap unsuccessfully.
Pam, Northampton

First class is all about the size of the seats for me. In standard you get the smelly person sat next to you. At least in first they are some distance away or you can sit in the single seats.
Mark Hewitt, York

I commute first class for the simple reason the first class compartments are rarely full, nearly always I have nobody sat opposite me so have the benefit of stretching my legs, the seat back is higher and one can relax easier. Yes it costs more, but if you can afford the difference, and value the additional benefits enough to pay, then it is worth it. Interestingly I would note that some regular fellow travellers are not paying for their seats, they have railway ID badges around their necks or are police or rail police travellers. I do prefer to travel intercity first and with advance bookings available, the premium is not horrendous. If you are six foot and travel standard intercity your knees bump against the seat back in front in the airline seats and if you are in a four seat configuration it can be worse with someone opposite, particularly when it was a child with luggage between their feet as happened to me recently. You pays your money and makes your choice.
Beancounter, Cambridgeshire

Several operators now offer quiet carriages and surely not being in first class would put the politicians more in touch with the electorate?
Val Leath, Bracknell, Berkshire

By all means let them travel by first class if needed but let then claim the second class fare and pay the difference out of their own pockets. As Mr Winterton said, "it's a different class of person in second class" - due reverence paid by touching forelock with slight forward bend in spine.
Dave Hughes, Llangefni, Anglesey

My own local operator, c2c, did away with first class carriages years ago - in fact I think it was the operator before them who started the trend. While it makes little sense to have a first class compartment on our line, because of the short journey times (by the time you'd opened a laptop and logged on it would be time to get off again), I can see the attraction for longer commutes/journeys. When I was a student in Durham I always paid the upgrade price for first class from Kings Cross, as it made the 3.25 hour journey bearable.
Marcus Peters, Leigh on Sea, England

First-class travel is just a rail companies way of making more money, how many times do you see a train that has there carriages full? Most of the time there are no more than a handful of people in the two carriages and standard class is more like cattle class with people standing nose to nose. MPs are voted in by the people who sit in standard class so perhaps Nicholas Winterton should think about that the next time he gets onto a train.
Andy Porter, Morpeth

The inclusion of first class compartments is a complete waste of time on some local routes. During rush hour or disruption the unused space just antagonises the standing season ticket holders...
Barry, Bromley, UK

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