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Wednesday 14 November 2012

Third Class Journalism

One side-effect of national newspapers and their staff being based in London is that they obsess about issues that many outside the capital, and certainly outside the south east, don’t rate so highly. And one of these issues is commuting by train, which a lot more folk outside London are doing, but still not in the proportions that make any murmur about rail travel into instant news.

Pendolino: no new seating proposed

Latest of these murmurs is the unearthing of news that bidders for franchises – all being subject, of course, to sorting the shambles at the DfT after the InterCity West Coast (ICWC) bidding collapsed recently – could add a third class of accommodation as part of their offer to customers. This has set rail unions and hacks into a temporary alliance, where both are behaving like headless chickens.

‘Third class’ rail travel could return for first time since 1950s, unions claim” warned the Telegraph. “Return of third class” echoed the Mail. “Third class return: ‘Cattle class’ train travel” was the Mirror version. Only at the HuffPo was it stressed that there wassome confusion” over exactly what was being proposed. And that was the problem: most hacks just filled the gaps with false assumptions.

As has been correctly told, third class was abolished by the then British Railways in 1956. However, and as so often with these stories there is always a however, this did not mean any change in passenger comfort: all that happened was that third class accommodation on trains became second class. And, of course, rather later, this became what is now called standard class.

The reason that we had ended up with First and third classes is that the old second class had gradually fallen out of use, beginning with the Midland Railway doing away with it on most trains well before 1900, and improving third class. Maintaining three distinct classes wasn’t worth the extra cost involved. So the idea that a third category of service or accommodation would be a return to the 1950s is bunk.

In the case of First Group’s bid for ICWC, it seems that a kind of Premium Economy (to once more borrow from airline speak) was being proposed. Given the large amount of First class seating on the existing Pendolino trains, that may have meant nothing more than making one or two First class coaches “Premium Economy”, so passengers would get more space, but not the at-seat service of First class.

The idea that accommodation for commuters might be downgraded is laughable. There is no proposal for such a move, and some of the press coverage has at least admitted it – although in the Mail’s case, this is characteristically not conceded until the end of the article, by which time commuters in the south east will already have been mentally worked over by the “Cattle class” fallacy.

Still, it keeps the hacks busy and the readers alert. So that’s all right, then.

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