17 JANUARY 2022


© 2022 Business Travel News Ltd.

Article from BTNews 17 JANUARY 2022

COMMENT: First or standard class *

The electric trains being re-deployed to the Luton Airport Express (which runs between London St Pancras and Corby) are being internally refurbished. Part of the work involves removal of the First Class accommodation: trains will in future be standard class only. This follows the lead of Stansted Express, which only provides standard class on its new trains.

OK, these airports do not carry as many business passengers as Heathrow and Gatwick. But after lockdown, there has been a trend for leisure passengers to trade up from Economy to Premium Economy or Business for their flights; with encouragement, they could be persuaded to trade up to First Class on the train to the airport.

Siren voices sometimes call for the routine declassification of First Class accommodation on commuter trains in the peak. This misses the point: providing two classes give choice. When I wish to travel from St Albans to London in the peak, I have three choices. I can travel standard class on a stopping train, where I know I will get a seat. I can travel standard class on a fast train where I know I might have to stand. Or I can choose First Class on a fast train, where I will be able to get a seat.

Consumers have a choice of newspapers (I can buy the FT at one price or the Guardian at another): they have a choice of cars (I can buy a Mercedes or a Ford Fiesta). Why shouldn’t I have similar choices when I travel by train?

Railways offering First Class accommodation have another advantage. If they mess up a passenger’s journey, they can always offer a free upgrade as part of the compensation!

When Heathrow Express started, market research showed that a viable number of people would pay a premium for First Class accommodation. Moreover, a significant number would not use the service unless there was First Class seating on the train.

And a tip for those travelling between Luton Airport and London – if you want to ride in First Class to ensure more space or a seat, you can. Just ride the semi-fast Thameslink trains instead. They stop at St Albans, Harpenden then Luton Airport and take 32 minutes instead of 25 – but connections to the London Underground and Central London are better!

Andrew Sharp
Andrew is BTN’s rail expert and a former Director of the International Air Rail Organisation (IARO).

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Colin Potter, United Kingdom

Prior to the pandemic the problem was that on busy train you could have either have twelve passengers seated or if you are lucky one or at best two first class passengers seated in a compartment that could hold eight. On longer journeys then there could be justification for a whole carriage or two with slightly larger seats. On a commuter service where capacity could be in excess of 150% where every spare inch matters, having an area set aside for just one or two is non economic at the price point that justifies their existence. This is even more so in the current climate with fewer passengers. There are simply not enough people willing to pay the extra to have a seat in first class tickets to justify the space on the train. In a post pandemic world, there are fewer trains so even more pressure on space. Given the relative cost of a train ticket in the UK when compared with other nations passengers should expect the whole train to be first class. On some commuter journeys the price is over six times the cost in Spain for a journey of a similar distance. On UK trains for most train operators determine if a train is full and standing if there is 0.45 square metres of floor space per passenger being used. However, for South West Trains a figure of 0.25 square metres per passenger used. Passengers on commuter services will not wait 30 minutes till the next service, they will crowd onboard and try to forget any worries of social distancing. Therefore the price point for first class to exist would need to be the equivalent of six to eight times the price of a standard fare and that would dissuade even more customers from using a first class ticket. In this day and age when the wealth is being spread among fewer and fewer people and we need to do more to save the planet, is it not right that services are homogenised to save fuel and therefore emissions be they direct or indirectly produced.

John Davidson, Paris, France

My traveling days dare done. But when I was working, the French taxman got me up to 50% on my last francs or euros. In other words, it was 50% off for purchases at the end. If you see the calculation. So first class was highly appreciated AND 50% off. Though a French resident for 40* years, my favorite airline was BA First. At 50% off. Now I’m an armchair traveler — or better still a passenger in my recently bought used Mercedes. France holds gems, as does « near » Europe.

Allan Schoenherr, Prague, CZ

I find the newspaper comparison here rather weird. The others are comparing a higher quality with a lower but there you have picked two of similar journalistic quality, albeit with different political view. Surely more appropriate would have been FT or Sun/Star/Mail/Express? Kind regards, Allan

John Hepworth, United Kingdom

Business Travellers do travel on STN flights because they live in the STN catchment area and are not going to drive to LHR just for a non economy flight to Europe.Long yes.

David Starkie, United Kingdom

The public sector, of which the railways are effectively part, is not good at offering choice (and manipulating the price system to do so). It has a tendency towards offering an homogeneous product.

Frank Butler, West London

I think the answer is very simple. Heathrow has flights that offer First Class and Stansted does not.