/ Travel & Leisure

Is rail first class always in operation?

On some rail services, ‘first class’ doesn’t officially exist. Were you aware you could take a seat on these trains? And where else might these rules apply?

Today we’ve found that in 2018, rail passengers endured the worst train delays and cancellations since records began.

As a daily commuter on Southern, this announcement didn’t come as a surprise to me at all. The collapse of last May’s new timetable caused widespread chaos – and that was alongside the more ‘regular’ disruption commuters are forced to endure.

When the problems keep piling up, many of us can find ourselves facing overcrowding on both the trains and the platforms.

Passengers often then ask for first class to be declassified to help alleviate the crowds. But what if first class never existed in the first place?

Automatically declassified

You might remember that, back in November, I mentioned that first class doesn’t actually exist on Southern ‘metro’ services – it’s permanently declassified, so anyone can use it.

This is despite the carriages still using units with first class mark-ups, complete with warnings that you will be fined if you sit there.

So which services are considered ‘metro’? Scroll down to the Southern section of this map – you’ll see the metro lines are coloured purple. Your train must both start from and terminate on those lines.

You might also remember that I didn’t have much luck asking Southern to communicate this to passengers more effectively.

The ‘metro’ area stretches as far as the Horsham line, accounting for thousands of journeys – I’d like to see as many people taking advantage of these empty seats as possible – especially the more vulnerable.

Commuter stories

To see if people were taking advantage of the compartments, I asked three commuters who travel on a metro line if they were aware.

Carys told me she knew of the rule, but sees plenty of people every day who have no idea:

“I’ve seen people walk through empty seats in first class to another carriage to stand because they don’t think they can sit. I always get strange looks when I sit in first class myself because people don’t believe that anybody can sit there”

On the other hand, things were a little different when I asked Tony about his experience:

“I didn’t know. That’s outrageous! I tend to stick to the rules – I think I’ve stood before because I didn’t want to get caught in first class with a standard ticket. I can’t see the point of first class either – there’s no extra benefit and the doors take up space which could be used for other things”

While Ciara wasn’t completely sure, but had a strong feeling things weren’t as they seemed:

“I naughtily sit in there sometimes if there’s a spare plug socket! I haven’t been told off yet, but if I do see a ticket inspector I tend to move elsewhere. Signs and notices can be difficult for people with learning disabilities like myself to understand. There should be a clear policy or accessible notice to let people know they can use these areas”

Our rail campaign

Since our super-complaint in December 2015, our campaign for a better railway has helped achieve a lot in the last few years, including forcing better compensation rights and the establishment of the Rail Ombudsman.

The next step is ensuring the introduction of automatic compensation, meaning passengers won’t have to go through the extra hassle of giving up to 24 pieces of information just to get the money they’re owed.

In addition to all this, If I can help just a few extra passengers take a seat on these crowded services in first class compartments that don’t really exist, I’ll be pleased!

But while my own experience of this rule is confined to services in and out of London, I want to know where else in the country similar rules may be in effect.

I know that the rear first class compartment of Thameslink’s services are also declassified, but do you have any helpful tips for rail commuters in other cities?

Are there other positive policies that aren’t being promoted enough? Should this one be promoted to passengers more effectively?

Let me know in the comments.

Ciara Lawrence says:
20 May 2019

Signs and notices can be difficult for people with learning disabilities like myself to understand. There should be a clear policy or accessible notice to let people know they can use these areas” Thanks for including my quote!!

Another example of confusion is travel on Northern. Buy tickets, reserve seats and you will receive blank seat vouchers. The information on the website is a bit confusing too:

“You cannot reserve seats on Northern trains. You can reserve seats on many other train operators’ services and, if available, we will automatically try to reserve a seat free of charge. If a seat cannot be reserved at the time of booking, it will be because of one of the following reasons:

the train operator does not offer seat reservations (usually on shorter routes)
the train operator has not made seat reservations available
the seats that are reservable are fully booked.”

I presume that although you cannot reserve seats on Northern Trains if you book, through Northern, tickets with other operators who do allow seat reservations Northern will try to book you a seat. Have I got this wrong?

Presumably, Malcolm, but I’ve never booked via Northern to find out. It was just an example of information that could be clearer.

This is an interesting one as I travel frequently on a service where all the trains have a small first class section yet you can’t buy a first class ticket on the route. 8 out of 10 times there are people standing even though a couple of first class seats are empty and I’ve never seen a train manager invite them to use the first class area.

When I travel on the route now I always look out for the first class section as it’s always got spare seats.

Hi George, it was Gloucester to Bristol with GWR. I’ve since switched to travel via Cheltenham though.