That’s Class

Sadly I missed Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 this afternoon,and if you did too, talk a quick listen to the 40 second clip below before reading the rest of this article…

First Class rail travel is certainly not what it used to be, as Mr William Hanson eludes to here. Hanson is the leading UK expert on etiquette, apparently including that for public transportation. In my experience, First Class travel is also far from what Hanson wishes to forbid the public from doing. Whilst it is true that First Advance tickets can now be bought very cheaply – occasionally cheaper than for Standard – it doesn’t mean that the extra legroom taken up by people who would ordinarily be packed into the other, less pricey carriages of the same train are unsavoury types.

A seat in First Class will offer more than a seat with the peasants – although this varies from one Train Operating Company to another. Leading the way are Virgin Trains, who offer complimentary snacks and tea, free WiFi and a table and power socket for every seat. Trailing behind are my oft-frequented TOC, London Midland, who offer in First nothing more than a slightly bigger, reclining seat, and a power point between two. Sharing is caring! It is worth mentioning that the difference in service is reflected in the price you pay, by which logic I assume that in buying a First Class ticket on a CrossCountry service you get a lesson in how to drive a train from Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself…

I rather suspect that Hanson is being satirical here, a point rather missed by Clare Stutely on Facebook who said “William Hanson, what a pompous a**e you are. Who decided the First Class section is an extension of the office eh? When I last looked the train, all of it was classed as ‘Public’ transport…. Get over yourself Mr Hanson, and stay in the office if us ‘rif raf’ bother you so much” and a point well taken by Clare Wolf who said “How wonderful this caller was. If I see him in a first class carriage I will intentionally buy a first class ticket, grab the nearest noisiest snottiest child I can find and go and sit next to him. I will also ensure I’m wearing a pink cowboy hat and reading the Daily Mail!

Actually, a lot of the backlash on the Radio 2 Facebook Page is from those who might be predisposed to buy Standard Class tickets, but have snapped up ticket cheap upgrades to 1ST. They’ve often been greeted with rudeness, arrogance and the sort of snobbery business people would be clever to avoid. Ms Stutely’s comment regarding the train not being office space is reiterated by many of the 150+ commenters, a lot of whom seem to feel that the passengers that travel in the more expensive seats are those who see their carriage as a place of work, and wish for the same respect as if they were in their own office.

MPs, for example, feel that travelling in First Class is a right of their job, and is necessary for doing it correctly. That’s a different kettle of fish, frankly, but we remember the news story from October of a certain Chancellor who got himself into a spot of bother when he was travelling First Class without a ticket and allegedly refused to move.

Picture from an ITV reporter who was on the train at the time.

This incident occured on a Virgin Trains service, and whilst they were insistent that there was no disagreement at all, Mr Osbourne did not simply move seats to the lower class, he spent over £150 of taxpayer’s money on a seat upgrade. Probably because the commoners in cattle class would have made it difficult to concentrate on the film he was watching with his aide – I wonder what Hanson’s etiquette advice would be about that! It’s all too easy to pick on Hanson, actually – especially if your only source of moral information comes from Radio Two. Instead let’s pick on Macclesfield MP, Sir Nicholas Winterton, who said this:

“If I was in standard-class, I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction. They [standard-class passengers] are a totally different type of people – they have a different outlook on life. They may be reading a book but I doubt whether they’re undertaking serious work or study, reading reports or amending reports that MPs do when they travel”

A charming chap, for sure. What’s interesting, among all of this, is that for a lot of people, train travel is one of the last places where a class system seems to exist. Whilst the upper tiers remain making money just for the sake of it, and the lower class are probably poorer than ever, [and neither take the train] everything in the middle is getting a bit blurred – maybe not at the extremes, but the transition between working class and middle class is more undefinable than ever. Except on trains it seems, where one is assigned to a certain carriage by their social status, and that is the end of it. That’s not exactly what Hansom says, but you know that’s what he means – bankers are hardly like to have a Gangam Style ringtone or “free-range” children, and he knows it.

Last time I travelled in First Class, I was on the 7:34 London Midland service from Liverpool Lime Street to Birmingham New Street. I was in the same carriage as an architect, who was preparing his presentation of designs for a new hotel in Birmingham. Everyone else looked rather serious, and sneered at the passengers who walked through the centrally-located First Class cabin to the loos at the other end of the train. I just sat their, munching my pasta salad, ignoring the glares through the seats. It’s true that I bought my 1ST ticket so that I could use the power point for my MacBook and work on the train. It became an extension of my working space, and I respected that it was calm. But I certainly didn’t have a problem with other passengers passing through. However, this view wasn’t shared by First Class passengers on the service featured on this week’s The Railway: Keeping Britain Moving when Liverpool-bound football fans returning home were moved to 1ST to maintain safety on the crowded service. Paying FC passengers feared for their safety, with one lady claiming “I was rather worried they might be sick on me, you know. On my head.”

Hanson’s amusing, if not slightly rude broadcast underlines a grey area of modern society that so many people feel different about. Should First Class be reserved as an area of the train where people can work, without disruption, so long as they have paid the price? Should all of the train be for the use of everyone, with different areas of the carriages just more expensive for the amenities of a plug socket and free coffee? Isn’t it much like an upmarket wine bar, which occasionally attracts lager louts by  virtue of it selling bottled Carlsberg? What is about train travel that brings out snobbery in people?

My opinion is that First Class certainly has its place. Largely, I think the people that listen to Radio 2 have got it wrong. Hanson was probably trying to be a bit funny, and the whole this has been exaggerated in a rather tiresome “them and us” fashion, it must be said. We don’t live in a communist country, and you will get people on different rungs of the social ladder sniping at each other – and it’s not unheard of for the BBC to incite situations like this. With comments such as “free-range children” Hanson – aged just 23 – will win no friends with BBC R2’s demographic, but the keyboard warriors slating him are riled just because they’ve missed the joke and they think they were insulted. In a somewhat capitalist manner, my belief is that if you’re willing to pay more for something, you may have it, and that entitles you to a certain expectation of behaviour – indeed, an etiquette…

Here’s more about William Hanson – with Russell Howard. Enjoy.