/ Travel & Leisure

Do trains really need Premium Economy?

For the first time in decades, three classes of travel could be offered on Britain’s railways. But is it really necessary? Do we even need first class?

Avanti West Coast officially took over the West Coast Mainline from Virgin Trains on Monday, and along with it has come a curious announcement.

For the first time in decades, it looks likely that the new operator will offer three classes of travel; First Class, Premium Economy and the standard Economy fare.

It sounds like the new class of travel could be similar to airline-style Premium Economy offerings.

Avanti’s managing director, Phil Whittingham, told the Press Association that passengers could be entitled to:

“The bigger seat, better wi-fi and snacks rather than a meal”

But do we really need to be returning to the days of three-tier rail travel?

Third class was mostly abolished in Britain as far back as 1956! According to Business Traveller, the only exception was a ‘Silver Standard’ offering by British Rail in the early 90s.

And then there are the feelings people already have towards first class…

Class concerns

As a daily commuter, I’ve written extensively in the past about the problems faced on Britian’s railways – one of them is overcrowding.

At times when the carriages and platforms are full to the brim, people would give anything for a bit more space to move into, which is why it can be frustrating to see near-empty first class carriages.

As a result, it’s no wonder that many would rather see first class abolished completely to help ease the strain, let alone introduce another tier.

Much like with an airline, I’d also be concerned over exactly how much more you get for your money.

On a plane, you can usually expect a few extra millimeters of legroom, but do such small margins really represent a need for separate pricing over much shorter distances?

As you can probably tell, I’m pretty sceptical. Personally I’d rather see an end to different classes of travel, especially on commuter services, but what do you think?

Are you in favour of Premium Economy on the railways? Do you think we need three separate classes? Let me know in the comments.


At least in olden days, airlines used to try to fill up their aircraft by giving some travellers free upgrades to business or first class. Perhaps our railways should do that on crowded trains.

Eurostar have had three classes for sometime.

Travelling Virgin from Lancaster to MK a few weeks ago there were a lot of cancellations due to a trespasser and they opened first class to anyone.

The answer to overcrowding is more carriages. It’s only envious socialists who want first class abolished. If anyone wants to pay extra for a bit more comfort and service why shouldn’t they? Why not abolish luxury cars as well, they take up more road space and produce more toxic emissions than the average family saloon.

I certainly don’t mind my employers paying for me to have a bit more comfort on long journeys.

Then again, short distance commuter services could all be one class, as per the tube.

I don’t believe there is a shortage of carriages it’s just the way the railways were privatised means the operating company doesn’t own them. They have to be leased from another company called a ROSCO so obviously the operating company leases as few as it think it can get away with. If they actually owned their own rolling stock they’d have incentive to get it out on the track earning revenue rather than sitting in a siding depreciating.

ROSCOs by the way are the reason the railways couldn’t be nationalised “for nothing” as some people have claimed.

That’s the operating company saying they haven’t got enough carriages which goes back to my point about them not leasing adequate numbers. They also say serviceable which could mean a backlog of vehicles awaiting checks and maintenance.

Envious Socialist says:
17 December 2019

“Why not abolish luxury cars as well, they take up more road space and produce more toxic emissions than the average family saloon.”

Agreed, let’s do that too. But we won’t abollish them – let’s charge them more to use the roads.

You cannot book Eurostar tickets without a seat. Would you like similar system for normal commuters trains???

I agree with Phil.

In fact when I travelled back on the Eurostar a decade or so ago fro having delivered a technical presentation in France I got pally with a two star general who was also coming back on the same train. The general asked me what carriage I was on – I responded G (or whatever it was) – and noted that we would part on the platform as the general was in carriage B.

The train was comparatively empty, so I thought I’d go and keep my new-found friend company. As I walked along the train things got progressively more opulent – I had not appreciated there were several (at least 4) “classes” of travel. By the time I got to “C” I felt decidedly out of place and returned to cattle class where I belonged!

Most Eurostar trains have only two classes, but Business does exist and is only a couple of connectors ahead of Premium. Most of the Business and Premium seats have their benefits elsewhere – such as no-wait boarding. We always board from the St Pancras, where they provide an escort service to bypass the queues and carry your luggage to the train. It’s frankly worth every penny.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

He visited my father’s house to meet my father many years ago.

O.M.G. more ticket complications ! So much for simplifying the process. Also if a separate area of the train is cordoned off for these tickets First Class style there’ll be even less space available for the daily scrummage that is Standard class turn up and go tickets.

I don’t feel strongly but like Paul I’m generally in favour of simplicity.

The Avanti service is on the West Coast main line and some journeys are a few hours long, so I don’t think it is unreasonable to offer an intermediate standard of service for those who would like that. They are not commuter trains and although they can load heavily at certain times [largely due to pricing differentials on the shoulders of the peaks] overall the conditions are comfortable. There are more trains per hour to major destinations than ever before and even more are promised with the new franchise.

It is no longer possible to just add another carriage to a train. The stations, platforms, signalling, stabling sidings, and traction power are all designed for the general maximum length of twelve carriages. Eurostar trains have eighteen carriages so there is more room for adaptation of the seating arrangements. Those trains travel largely on dedicated tracks and only stop at a limited number of stations which are designed for their length. The new West Coast operator will also be responsible for the operation of the new HS2 line in due course which will probably also use longer trains for certain services, but because some trains on HS2 will go to destinations beyond the special high speed tracks and stations many of the trains will be of normal length.

Why should not all carriages on a service offer the same degree of comfort and space? Have quiet coaches for those who want a more peaceful journey.

I tend to agree with you, Malcolm; the class difference could just be in the at-seat service and other frills. Unfortunately I fear that equalising the space standards would be a regressive move and comfort would be a race to the bottom.

My experience of quite coaches is that they aren’t and the conductors decline to deal with any contraventions.

We have only used Virgin on the W coast lines. First class is quite different to Standard, in several respects: few seats (1 on one side and 2 on the other). at-seat dining service, generally quieter, wider seating, more leg room (I’m tall, so I need the length) and just generally more pleasant.

On Eurostar it’s pretty egalitarian, really; same seat size, number and length differentials as Virgin, the carriages for Premier are at the centre which is where most European stations have the escape elevators / escalators and the same dining service, but you do get unlimited wine, unlike standard.

The real difference is irrespective of which class: the journey is remarkabley smooth until the 180mph speed is exceeded, at which point the train complains as it moves around curves. Rocks a fair bit, too.

I think the last time there were three classes of travel was much, much earlier than 1956 – probably before 1910.

In the nineteenth century there were three classes of travel 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but most of the railway companies had abolished 2nd Class by the turn of the century leaving just 1st and 3rd and this persisted until 1956 when 3rd Class was reclassified by British Railways as 2nd Class. It was later renamed Standard Class.

When I travel up to London I usually go off-peak and book advance First Class fares at much reduced prices. The coaches on the existing trains are rather tired and worn – like this passenger – and the at-seat refreshment service somewhat intermittent, but you do get a more comfortable ride in a 2+1 seat formation with a table and individually controllable lighting and window curtains so you can customise the environment to a small degree. The armchair style seating is not well designed but that is a minor quibble. Speed is the same, of course, but the noticeable benefit is how quiet the saloon is with a lower density of occupation. Travelling home late at night is much better in First Class and well worth the higher price.

New trains are due to appear on the Norwich to London main line in the coming months and it will be interesting to see whether they are more comfortable. They will incorporate many new safety features and systems that will greatly improve travelling conditions for people with reduced mobility or other impairments.

Kevin says:
12 December 2019

The train operating companies were prevented from adding additional carriages to their rolling stock by the Strategic Rail Authority even when they needed them. Why on earth are there 4 and 5 car consists on Voyager Cross Country sets? Bonkers!

The SRA ceased to exist in 2006. Virgin lost the cross country franchise because the stupid Voyager trains were too small. After Cross Country took over they did run trains with two Voyagers coupled together for a while but don’t appear to do so any longer.

Possibly worth it on very long distance services, but on commuter services definitely not! It’s bad enough having empty 1st class carriages without another “class”, leaving even fewer seats in rush hour. That said Thameslink’s idea of first class is the same extremely uncomfortable seats with slightly wider spacing, tables and power sockets. Hard to see how they could do a premium economy anyway.

Scrap first class altogether. On many routes it is often less than 1/3. The result is that those passengers are playing less for carriage space than the other passengers. Treat everyone equally and let businesses and government employees spend less on their rail travel. The whole concept of classes on trains is one that should be relegated firmly to the past.

Susan Kodicek says:
13 December 2019

In East Anglia we would just like a train service. Currently Greater Anglia are unable to provide trains at all on many lines and commuters are in despair. The East West routes are the worst hit with service on the Ipswich to Peterbrorough line suspended for the past three weeks.

As someone who uses trains to London from an extremely busy train station, I think it’s a great idea. At the moment the differential in price between standard and first-class is often between 100% – 300% at peak times which often results in half-empty first-class carriages whilst standard carriages are crammed to bursting with some people left on the platform because they can’t actually fit onto the train at all. A mid-price point should help alleviate this issue without breaking the bank for most commuters.

Maybe sort out the current issues before adding another class. Commuters paying huge annual fees and having to stand for the duration of their journey – often over an hour!

Railway lines only have so much capacity over a given time period and the closer they get to the destination the more difficult it is to add any additional capacity or intensify the service. Most commuter trains on the busiest routes are already at the longest practical length to fit the infrastructure available. What can the railways do if more and more passengers are attracted to towns with very high loadings and the highest possible frequency?

Entirely new lines [such as Crossrail in London] can relieve pressure but they are extremely costly and take a long time to construct. Adding extra branch lines does not help if the trains are going to the same terminus. The only realistic answer is to relocate a large proportion of the office-based employment away from the cities most affected, to control house building and development in expanding areas to ensure that new provision is matched by employment opportunities, and to find ways to turn over the occupation of residential property in central areas from people who do not work for whatever reason to those who do.

It is time to regenerate some of the secondary cities in the UK as preferred employment locations with incentives and with new public transport infrastructure giving easy access in and around the city. Many companies did relocate their administrative operations to outlying towns during the 1960’s but new technology and commercial changes have left many of those now in excess of requirements and unsuited to modern ways of working.

Beyond all this is the need to limit the rate of population expansion as it is putting too much pressure not just on the railways but on all the public services, utilities, and energy supplies which appear to be incapable of keeping pace with rising demand.

Commuters generally pay substantially less to travel at peak times when rail costs are probably highest. In my local line the saving is 40%.

James says:
14 December 2019

I’m not a very regular traveller but live in the NorthEast, so when travelling to London (or often elsewhere) I work on the train – this is uncomfortable in second class (and leg room is cramped at the tables). My back tells me off the next day! The food offering is helpful as it takes me nearly four hours door to door. I don’t use 1st class on smaller trains/ shorter journeys. East Coast offers upgrades,and their first class is only very much more expensive at peak times; CrossCountry 1st class prices however are outrageous for what they offer, but if included a premium economy I’d be very interested.

Stop the HS2 rail link and spend the money on the infrastructure up north, help those who have been flooded recently, stop spending money on London and the North East, Boris Johnson needs to rethink what he has decided to do ie The HS2 Rail link, is it really worth all that money ? I question it ?

I agree that we probably don’t need a third class of travel and it is likely First Class could be curtailed a bit for shorter journeys/commuter trains. However I would like a decent service for passengers from all train companies. I know this is relatively trivial compared with what other passengers must endure, but it did make me cross: I recently booked a First Class Airport Advance Single from Manchester Airport to Edinburgh. I couldn’t book a seat at the time I booked the train and assumed this was a glitch on the website and contacted TPE about this.

I received this reply:

Thank you for contacting TransPennine Express regarding your seat reservation, I was sorry to learn of the circumstances that prompted you to get in touch.

I can confirm that you are booked on a counted place service, a counted place service is where you book on to a train but not given a specific seat. Not all of our classes of reservable trains have the facilities on board for either physical paper labels or electronic onboard systems. It also allows us to sell Advance Purchase tickets as the services have to be reservable for the ticket to be retailed.

As there is no indication for the seat, this means you may sit in any available seat on the service and on this occasion we are unable to book a specific seat for your journey.

Once again thank you for contacting TransPennine Express and I hope you have a pleasant journey.

I responded to TPE expressing my surprise and dissatisfaction at this “counted place service”. Although this would not make too much difference to me, travelling on my own, I can imagine that two or more passengers travelling together might find this a real pain, particularly if children or other dependent travellers were involved. I still can’t believe that there are no facilities aboard certain TPE trains where neither physical paper labels nor electronic systems can be used. I was blissfully ignorant so this is to warn other people who may consider booking with TPE.

It seems we’re mostly all agreed that

Different classes of travel are basically irrelevant on commuter services.

People vary. If you’re elderly , arthritic, or quite large, a bigger and better seat is much appreciated, particularly on longer distance journeys.

Yes something should be done about the short formation 4 / 5 coach “Voyager” trains used by Cross
Country. Would it be feasible to just insert extra vehicles to give a uniform 6 coach consist?

Such different requirements for different types of service just underline the actual diversity of
passenger needs and wishes , and the need for a “horses for courses” approach.

I believe there remains a case for a two-tier seating provision, even on some ‘commuter trains’. A train that starts at Brighton might attract a number of people going all the way to central London and wishing to have a comfortable seat and space to spread out a bit. By the time the train reaches East Croydon it might have standing room only in standard class but a few first class seats available for those who prefer to ride on a cushion. I see no harm in providing such amenities if enough passengers are willing to pay for it and it doesn’t compromise overall seating capacity efficiency.