'Train class warfare': First-class criticism dismissed by €35 million annual profit

'Train class warfare': First-class criticism dismissed by €35 million annual profit
The existence of a first class is secured by its surplus value. Credit: Belga

First class carriages are often a cause for frustration among passengers who claim that they are usually empty whilst the rest of the train is overcrowded. But the revenue they bring continues to justify them.

On numerous occasions over the years, groups have called to get rid of this "train class warfare". In Belgium, about 2.5% of rail passengers book first class seats – a low percentage that has mainly to do with the comfort not being significantly greater for the increased price.

A first ticket is usually about 50% more expensive than a second class ticket. For a train from Ghent to Brussels this works out at a €10 difference for a train ride of around 30 minutes.

But despite the low passenger numbers, first class tickets still earned Belgian national railway company SNCB approximately €35.1 million profit in 2022. This is about 5% of the company's total revenue and almost €10 million more than in 2012.

A business operation

The figures were revealed by Federal Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet following a question from socialist PVDA party MP Maria Vindevoghel. Gilkinet reiterated that there is no plan to get rid of the first class option. SNCB itself has cited the financial argument for keeping the option: "After all, we are still a business."

"Maintaining first and second class remains pertinent, given that there is a clear demand for this from customers, especially daily commuters and the business public," he said. "With the comfort offered in first class, NMBS also wants to attract additional travellers."

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In the past, SNCB has refuted the claim that at busy times unused seats are left in first class while people are packed together in second class. The company stressed that it works to avoid such situations by "de-classifying the first class" when trains are overly crowded, allowing passengers can sit anywhere.

But this is only permitted if the train conductor specifically announces the "declassification" of the train. In these cases passengers with a first class ticket have priority for a seat in this carriage.

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