As a regular commuter to London during the past three months, I have first-hand experience of our dysfunctional railway market. The 19:00 train on Fridays from Liverpool Street to Norwich, for example, is one of the busiest services of the week. Usually every single standard-class carriage is full to the brim with passengers. Aisles are blocked with a queue of people, many of whom have seat reservations in another part of the train but cannot access them. Those who are lucky enough to get a seat have great difficulty getting up to go to the toilet or retrieving items from the luggage compartments. In short, the whole affair is a shambles.
The problem of overcrowding will only get worse as demand for rail travel continues to grow. The obvious answer is to increase capacity in the railway industry by building more, and bigger, carriages, and platforms to accommodate them. However, the current terms and conditions of the rail franchises offer train companies few incentives to provide additional seating so it has been left to the government to invest taxpayers’ money in white elephant schemes such as HS2.
In the short term at least, the reintroduction of an ‘economy-class’ is a more feasible solution. Scrapped by British Rail in 1956, proposals to bring back a three-tiered travel structure have been met with hostility, with passenger groups and trade unions saying it will add complexity to the system and ‘push people out of their seats’.
However, I believe economy-class can only be a good thing. Train companies will be able to set aside certain carriages for standing-only, alongside the current standard- and first-class coaches. Those who place less value on the comfort of a seat will have access to cheaper, economy-class fares. Given that many standard-class passengers are forced to stand as it is, people will now have the option of paying a lower fare that more closely corresponds with the quality of their journey.
Economy-class passengers won’t be the only ones to benefit, however. Pressure on standard-class coaches will be eased, resulting in clearer aisles and more comfortable journeys for commuters. There is also likely to be a reduction in standard- and first-class ticket fares due to the extra train capacity.
On the face of it, bringing back a third class might seem like ‘turning the clock back 50 years’, as RMT leader Bob Crow put it, but in reality it is an effective method of relieving overcrowding on commuter and inter-city lines. Doubtless the rail market does require longer-term structural reform, which means giving train companies greater incentives to invest in extra passenger services, but for now, taking out seats is far cheaper than lengthening trains and platforms, and rail travellers will see the benefits immediately. We need more choice in the rail industry; a three-tiered system could be just the ticket to achieving it.