I have just read a report by the Centre for Independent Studies which defends First-Class ("Business Class") sections as necessary to encourage longer-distance travel by train. As you can see by the title of this post, they convinced me.
My personal memories of the NSW rail system date to 2000 and can be considered "outliers", since that was the Olympics and we were staying at our cousins' house in the Blue Mountains. Thus I claim no personal expertise on that side of this issue.
But I do know Western Europe's rail well. For a long time, travelling on weekends and suburban routes, I had often asked myself why German Rail spent so much time and energy on first class carriages: they have separate ticketing windows and lounges at big stations, they have much more space when things are quite crowded in cattle-class, they have newspapers and are served at their seats. It's even the little things: the first class carriage is always positioned to be right next to where you're standing if you've just got onto the platform. It's always me who walks kilometres to a free seat at the far ends of the train. But I suppose, for them to keep doing it for so many years, it's obviously paying off.
Maybe it's an egalitarian thing we have in Australia. But let's be honest: if I am sitting in traffic in my un-airconditioned Mazda 121 (older than I am) and my father is next to me in his late-model Holden which is so modern it doesn't even have a tape deck, is that really equal? Perhaps that is why first class was abolished in 1974, a time when it became clear that in the future, everyone would have a car and trains would become superfluous. HA! They didn't think that one through, did they?
Most importantly, and a way for the company to generate carbon-credits is: it is obviously better for the environment if we're whipping through towns at villages on an electric train at 70km/h than if we're both sitting in traffic. And the inequality of the road is just mirrored while he's sitting in first class sipping his complimentary coffee and I'm cramped in second-class.
One final thing. My favourite quote from that paper, given what I read daily in Crikey about the start of NSW politics, is this: "High-speed rail connections may well be desirable but are beyond the scope of this paper. Nor do we seek to explore better organisational structures for delivering rail transport services in NSW."