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First-class train carriages axed

A Southeastern train - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
A Southeastern train - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

First-class commuter carriages could be on the way out after Whitehall officials gave an operator the green light to axe them and free up seats.

Train companies have been ordered by the Department for Transport to find cost savings, with demand still below pre-pandemic levels.

Last week, Southeastern, the nationalised operator that runs more than 1,500 services from Sussex and Kent into London every day, said it would scrap first-class tickets entirely.

The decision came after rail chiefs revealed just 28 annual season ticket holders paid for first-class fares.

The move was welcomed by the DfT. A spokesman said:  “Commuters have often been vocal when forced to stand overlooking empty first class seats in packed trains. Southeastern has taken action to ease crowding and increase comfort.”

Whitehall sources said that ministers will now monitor the impact of Southeastern’s culling of first-class seats and what it could mean for other lines.

Greater Anglia, West Midlands, East Midlands and the Stansted Express have all quietly phased out first-class seats in recent years on “non-intercity” routes.

Northern, the train operator that stretches from Liverpool in the west to Newcastle in the north-east no longer has first-class fares, a spokesman for the operator confirmed.

Great Western Railway, which removed first class seats from the majority of its local train services in 2016, said the move came after "businesses changed their travel expense policies in response to economic conditions".

A spokesman added: "At the same time we converted around half our long-distance first class carriages to standard to increase overall space for customers."

Only a handful of operators - such as Thameslink and Transpennine - are continuing to offer first-class tickets on commuter routes.

Keeping rail services running during the pandemic cost taxpayers more than £16bn and with demand still below pre-crisis levels, the train network remains a drain on the public finances.
Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary, scrapped rail franchising in May 2021, turning the rail industry’s financial model on its head. Instead of paying a fee to the Government for the right to collect fares on a given train line, operators are now paid a fixed-fee by taxpayers to run a service and hand the fares over to the Exchequer.

While first-class seats on commuter trains appear to be a thing of the past, Government sources said that there are no plans at this time to enforce the scrapping of first-class carriages on long-distance intercity services.