Economy Class carriages: is consumer choice a good thing?

The recent IEA study, Transport Infrastructure: Adding Value, discusses the concept of offering a number of standing-only carriages on commuter trains. Patrons using the carriages would pay a lower fare. It received good media coverage.

The clincher question for this concept is: who would be worse off? I suggest that some people would be better off and no one would be worse off. Those who would travel in the Standard Class would have a greater chance of getting a seat – and less likelihood of having a person standing in front of them. Aisles would be clearer for moving to quieter positions, and for getting on and off the train. Those choosing ‘Economy Class’ would save (say) 20 per cent on their fare – and if they normally stood through their journey then they would now be paying a sum that was more consistent with the lower quality they experienced.

One respondent to a national daily said she was not going to be standing for one hour.  However, her response showed that she failed to understand the concept. Travellers would be given the option to choose to stand in return for a discounted fare – this contrasts with the current Standard Class, which condemns travellers to stand without a discount.

The adverse responses to the idea are therefore somewhat curious, particularly as we are more than happy to pay for variable quality in other areas of the economy. Visitors to ‘Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’ receive a heavily discounted ticket to a production if they elect to stand through the performance. Other forms of entertainment offer similar discounts for seating with less space or viewing of performance. On the roads we can take the M6 free of charge – and maybe experience a slow journey – or pay for a faster journey on the M6 Toll. Ryanair travellers readily sacrifice a range of comforts for a cheaper ticket. Eurostar travellers can choose between three major ticket types – and I do not see the media describing their Standard Class product as ‘Third Class’.

Why, then, does the public embrace cheap Ryanair seats but bristle at the thought of a standing class on trains? It seems even more unfathomable when it merely formalises some patrons’ current standing experience while also offering a discount for making that sacrifice. We accept cheerfully the ticket refunds when our Underground journey goes seriously awry.

Maybe we demand a given standard of railway travel as if it is a God-given right? If so, there is no other product like it on the planet. Where strong demand prevails with limited capacity, we expect to be turned away (such as at football, rock concerts, Wimbledon or the Chelsea Flower Show) and/or to pay high entrance fees. We do not necessarily expect those venues to be expanded. Maybe the resentment towards Economy Class arises from the expectation that capacity should be expanded. Various schemes are planned to do just that – remembering that such expansion will have to be paid for from fares and taxes. In the meantime, the lack of train capacity will mean uncomfortable journeys. Economy Class offers the opportunity to reduce that discomfort for all travellers and offer a fare that is more commensurate with the quality experienced.