A simple question in Parliament about the possibility of reintroducing ‘third class’ train travel has had a curious effect in the highest traditions of the silly season — which is not usually thought to include November.
This debate was sparked by Lord Myners of Truro, who asked in the House of Lords on 9 November ‘whether invitations to bid for new rail franchises permit the introduction of a third passenger class’.
The answer was that, yes, such a thing was possible, so long as it was in the franchise agreement and complied with the ticketing and settlement rules.
We don’t know why the noble Lord was inspired to ask such a thing (overcrowding on the Falmouth branch?), but it has come as a gift to those commentators who enjoy rabble-rousing — accompanied by a blithe disregard for reality, historical and otherwise.
So, at the risk of spoiling a good story, here are some facts. The earliest passenger railways soon developed First and Second class, and a third class — intended for the ‘lower orders’ — then began to be offered on a few of the slowest trains. However, this was soon criticised for its extremely spartan nature.
The matter came to a head partly as the result of an accident early on 24 December 1841, when a Great Western train from London to Bristol collided with a landslip in Sonning cutting. This train was mainly for goods but also included two primitive third class ‘coaches’ marshalled behind the engine. These were crushed by the following heavy wagons, and eight passengers were killed. They had been travelling through the frigid darkness in roofless vehicles with low plank seats, protected by sides just 60cm high.
The outcry which followed led to an Act of Parliament in 1844 which required railway companies to run at least one ‘all stations’ third class train daily over their passenger routes at a minimum speed of 12mph (19km/h) inclusive of stops. The passengers were supposed to be protected from the weather, and their fares were capped at a penny a mile.
These trains still did not have to be lit or heated and, in spite of the new Act, Punch could still lament in 1845: “Pity the sorrows of a third-class man; whose trembling limbs with snow are whitened o’er; who for his fare has paid you all he can; cover him in, and let him freeze no more!”
Nonetheless, third class spread rapidly, partly because the rapid expansion of London caused equally rapid growth in what would now be called commuter services. These had to cater for the ‘lower orders’ who had frequently been forced to move further out because their former inner city homes had been demolished to make way for new railways.
The Midland Railway caused convulsions among its more conservative neighbours when it announced in 1875 that it was abolishing second class as such, reducing its first class fares to the level of the former second. The Midland had also led the way by providing third class carriages on all its trains three years earlier.
This innovation took a long time to catch on elsewhere. The class-conscious Great Western still clung to the old ways by offering three levels of fare until 1910, and an intermediate second class survived on some other lines for another 20 years or so.
Continental railways were even slower to abolish second. As a result cross-channel ferries — and their connecting trains — maintained all three classes until the 1950s. However, in 1956 second class was finally declared extinct. British Railways removed the figure ‘2’ from a few boat train coaches, and the old third could be renamed ‘second’ throughout the country.
And this is where confusion is now rife. BR did not abolish third class in 1956 at all. It simply renamed the lower of its long-established two classes ‘second’.
What a modern genuinely third class might be like, heaven alone knows — if such a thing was remotely possible. But then, they get some funny ideas in Truro.