For the first time since 1956, rail users will soon be able to choose from three classes of tickets. Avanti West Coast have unveiled a Standard Premium ticket, which slots in between Standard and First Class. It offers “roomier seats, wider tables and the freedom to order food and drink at your table”. Avanti are keen to stress that an extra class of ticket doesn’t mean a return to Third Class. Who are they kidding? If there are three classes of ticket available, the lowest priced ticket is clearly Third Class!
Anyway, we British love our class system; even if we pretend we don’t! Third Class was discontinued in 1956, and in 1987 Second Class was badged as less class-conscious Standard. Unlike the real class system, it’s easy to buy into a higher class for a limited period. It’s long been possible to pay a supplement to convert your Second Class – sorry, Standard – ticket into an ersatz First Class ticket. It’s not a proper First Class ticket, but you’re allowed to sit in a First Class carriage. But be warned, when the writer, Alan Bennett upgraded, he was told by a ticket inspector that “you don’t belong in here. These are proper first class people”.
In 2011, I was commuting from Northampton to London. The annual season ticket started from around £4,500 – a Great Train Robbery if ever I saw one. Not flushed with cash, I took the entry-level option of Standard Class. The train took about an hour, and if was lucky, I’d get a seat just about big enough for a supermodel’s arse. It was hand-to-hand fighting for these narrow little seats because it wasn’t possible to reserve them. If there was no seat available you’d have to stand. Some people found a table, but you couldn’t order food from it. Nobody could. In this case it would be the equivalent of Third Class. Or Third Class Lower bearing on mind you don’t even get a seat.
Interestingly, you can sometimes travel First Class for free. On the return journey from London Euston, when the train was overcrowded, they’d open up the First Class compartments to those with Standard tickets. This would be nice for an upgraded passenger, but a downgrade for the bona fide First Class passenger who’d have cheapskates like me taking up space and breathing in expensive First Class air. If I’d paid for a First Class ticket I’d be livid.
I can’t even remember what company was running the Northampton to Euston service ten years ago: the provider seemed to change every year. It’s very confusing. The familiar Red British Rail logo still exists, but it’s no longer British Rail. Different companies compete with each other for routes. As I was writing this, BBC News announced changes coming that are expected to simplify things. I hope so. The fare structures between competing train companies are notoriously complex, as well as notoriously expensive compared with other countries – and that’s just with two classes of ticket to worry about.
I rarely buy tickets at the train station, I buy them in advance on the internet. I trust the computer to handle the permutations and select the right ticket based on my preferred route and time of travel. I’ve often wondered what it’d be like for a foreign visitor having to buy train tickets in Great Britain, unaware that they’d need to know what company they can choose from, and where they might choose to change trains.
My wife and I like to have a weekend by the seaside every summer. I plan the trip in advance like a military campaign. My journey to Eastbourne involves two trains each way with a change at Clapham Junction. But if I travel at the weekend the train to Clapham Junction doesn’t exist. In this case I need to make an additional journey across London by tube. Should I survive the threat of knife crime on the Pelham 123 I need to catch the Eastbourne train at Victoria. The total experience can be difficult if you have luggage with you or you catch the London rush hour. After all that, you’re not fit for much else but a sit on the beach with a beer.