First class train travel: not just for toffs | Eva Wiseman

It’s tragic that there is talk of getting rid of first-class train travel – this is the only chance most of us ever have to feel properly posh

I’ve travelled first class on a train. I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like you’ve just left Manchester after a stone-setting in a mixed-faith cemetery in the rain, and the train smells like burnt nappies, and someone’s definitely smoking in the loo. And then you find your seat. And it’s almost leather. Very close to leather. Like it’s made of an animal from the future. And there’s a little curtain on the window – more of a gesture than a curtain, really, but you appreciate it. Like a bay leaf in a recipe – it does absolutely nothing except that show you that someone cared.

Everywhere there are signs that you are loved. The lighting is kinder than it is in coach B. The little sheets designed to soak up your head grease are made from a higher grade of polyester. The view from the window appears curated to maximise rural beauty, keeping dead sheep and plastic bags out of frame. Have you ever felt comfort that radiated from the inside out? That’s what it feels like to sit in a first-class carriage speeding past Macclesfield at dusk, with your phone charging in your very own plughole and a free tea on its way.

I understand why they’re considering scrapping first-class travel, but I’m mourning it still. For some of us, this is as close to living the Downton dream that we get. For those of us who wake up each day baffled to find that once again we’re expected to dress ourselves, who grew up believing we were as posh as it got, until we got a job at a newspaper and realised otherwise. For those of us who don’t like to be reminded of our proximity to the earth, the opportunity to upgrade from a standard ticket to first class for £10 is a rare chance to experience the thrill of leaping class boundaries. It’s here, with our hot drink refills and our mini-packs of shortbread, that we see how the other half lives, and we like it. We like it so much we put the free biscuits in our bag for later and get some free crisps for right now, and maybe a banana.

What company you have in a first-class carriage. The things you hear! Half a phone conversation about organising the viewing of a two-bed flat. A business meeting about fabric swatches for the upholstery of a boardroom in Stoke. The entire plot of Breaking Bad, in broad Scouse. In the first-class cabins of planes, passengers are treated like royalty, to the point where stewards sit at your feet to take your dinner order. Which is lovely, of course, when you’re eight hours into a 13-hour flight and you’ve forgotten who you are. But in the first-class coaches of trains, passengers are treated like people. Real living people. You get smiled at. Bit of light banter about your free banana. I saw an elderly lady engage the steward in 10 solid minutes of conversation about her grandson and he didn’t drop eye contact once. This must be what it feels like to be beautiful, I thought, from the comfort of my table, a free copy of Wallpaper* open before me on a feature about chair developments, smiles literally everywhere. I could have whatever I wanted, as long as what I wanted was another cup of tea, which it was.

If first-class train travel dies, where will I go for first-class thrills? Where will I go to experience the quiet excitement of being called “Madam”, and not in a sarky way? To feel the soft, soft vinyl of a slightly wider seat? To find a packet of Bourbons in my bag two weeks later, and fondly remember the heaven of passing through a small town with a podcast making you cry. To smell the aluminium of the air-conditioning vents, the smell of privilege itself.

I will miss this £10 bump into a world I’d otherwise just see through windows from the street. A single trip keeps me going for a year at a time. I don’t want to really be posh, I learn in first class. I just want to be treated as if I am.

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