A good excuse to reminisce about pre-privatisation diesel and electric multiple units

Alongside today’s Pacers and Sprinters, our first generation EMUs and DMUs were known in the late 1980s as Heritage Units. The bulk of which being slam-door trains.

Well after the start of privatisation, slam door trains remained part of the former B.R. Southern Region till 2010. Its last route, the Brockenhurst to Lymington line (which in its twilight years of slam door EMU operation saw its trains painted in the BR blue and light grey).

Today, slam door trains have no place in the modern railway. Firstly, the risk of falling out of the train for opening the doors too early (more in the pre-central locking era). Secondly, the width of the doors on some units and layout meant wheelchair bound passengers being sat in the luggage section. With the bicycles and parcels. Thirdly, the risk of leaning out of the door windows.

In spite of losing considerable brownie points on Health and Safety, and 2010 Equality Act grounds, there was one thing slam door trains had in spades. Comfortable seats that lined up with windows. The reassuring thud of doors being slammed by the guard before setting off. Also the glorious whine of electrical motor or grunt of diesel engine as the train left your station. The journey truly begun.

This month’s Not So Perfect Ten celebrates the old slam door trains. Please note there may be a slight bias to B.R.’s London Midland and Eastern Regions. Our ten are as follows:

  • Class 101: Metro-Cammell (1956);
  • Class 304: BR Wolverton (1957);
  • Class 104: Birmingham Railway and Carriage Company (1957);
  • Class 110: Birmingham Railway and Carriage Company (1957);
  • Class 120: BR Swindon (1958);
  • Class 308: BR York (1959);
  • Class 108: BR Derby (1959);
  • Class 504: BR Wolverton (1959);
  • Class 309: BR York (1962);
  • Class 421 (4-CIG): BREL York (1964).

At odds with previous Not So Perfect Tens, each entry is denoted in the countdown in chronological order of construction.

*                               *                               *

Class 101 (Metro-Cammell, 1956):

The last slam door DMUs I remember seeing in regular service were the Class 101s built by Metro-Cammell. This was on the Rose Hill Marple and New Mills Central routes via Hyde Central. I loved the springy seats and found them preferable to the Pacers and Sprinters which replaced them.

Towards the end of their service, they were seen in the Regional Railways livery with the RR replaced by First North Western. One unit reverted to BR’s green livery.

Class 304 (BR Wolverton, 1957):

After the Class 506s left the Hadfield line in December 1984, the previous 1,500 V d.c. system was converted to 25 kV a.c. Its first replacements were the former Glasgow Blue Trains – designed as BR’s Class 303 EMUs. Also playing a part on the 40 minute journey from Piccadilly to Hadfield and Glossop were the Class 304s.

The Class 304s were also dependable workhorses on the Crewe, Altrincham, Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent services. Before being replaced by the (soon to be exiled) Class 323 units, its high density of carriage doors made for quick embarking and disembarking. Seats were comfortable enough for modest journeys, though could have been just as comfortable all the way to Stafford.

In their twilight years, they were decked in the last version of the GMPTE livery. The white and two tone grey livery (with red strip and M-blem) looked well on some of Longsight’s oldest EMUs.

Class 104 (BR&CW, 1957):

My earliest memories of the Class 104s were aboard the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line. Spookily, this continues our link with rolling stock used on present-day Metrolink lines. In 1984 (when I first remembered boarding the said trains), the Class 104s seemed to have been a step up from the Class 101s.

The use of teak panelling made for a nice baronial look. Probably to mask the nicotine stains on the 1025 to Manchester Victoria from Oldham Werneth. From my infant observations, they had a better layout than the 101s. Particularly near the front or rear of each car.

Class 110 (BR&CW, 1957):

The Calder Valley DMUs really had character. They were more powerful than the usual Class 101s and Class 104s seen in the London Midland Region. Their extra power was designed for the higher gradients.

I had the joy of boarding an early morning Class 110 in late August 1986. This was en route to Morecambe for a day trip. The Calder Valley DMU covered my leg from Stalybridge station to Manchester Victoria where I (along with my late Nana, my father and my sister) would change for The European to Lancaster. (A Class 101 did the short trip to Morecambe).

Unlike my favourite Metro-Cammell DMU, seats were in a more agreeable layout in the centre of each car. In other words, backward/forward with gaps for luggage like the Mark 1 carriages.

Class 120 (BR Swindon, 1958):

The first train in the video clip was originally built for Inter-City/Cross-Country services. By the 1980s, they had moved to the Scottish and London Midland regions of BR.

In Greater Manchester (where the author of this piece boarded his Class 120), they would be seen at Manchester Victoria station. Their usual haunt, the semi-fast trains to Blackpool North or Southport.

One thing I did enjoy was the wide 3+2 seating. Though I may have seen similar examples prior to reaching my sixth birthday at the time, it seemed a novelty sharing a big seat with my Dad. Lording it with a pack of sandwiches and a copy of the Sunday People (which I remembered at the time had a nice new masthead).

Class 308 (BR York, 1959):

Cast-off rolling stock and Northern English rail operations seem to have been Britain’s third most successful double act after Divide and Rule (Morecambe and Wise is still top dog in my book). The arrival of Class 308s in West Yorkshire was no exception. Starting out in London and Essex, they moved from Chingford to Bradford a few years before rail privatisation was completed.

Though the present Class 333s are fantastic trains, I liked the 308s. Sharing the same angular look as the Class 304s, they operated on the Leeds – Skipton and Leeds – Ilkley services. For me, it was the transition from silence to floaty whine that made a July 1999 journey to Keighley most attractive. My next train that day wasn’t much older: that was a…

Class 108 (BR Derby, 1959):

On that 04 July 1999 journey, my father and I sat in the First Class section from Keighley to Oxenhope. The first time I remember boarding a Class 108 was on a more mundane outing with the Ewing School: a trip to New Mills Newtown from Stockport. The generous windows and view of the scenic route were aided by its bus style seating.

Though passable for a short journey, the seats were a slight comedown on the Class 104s which had frequented the Buxton line. Its seating layout – and engine noise – more akin to a bus than the other DMUs I had been accustomed too. Even so, still better than the bus derived Pacer units.

For a time, they were a staple of the Cumbrian Coast Line. A joy which I have had myself, though without the forward facing cab view the Class 108s had. Due to restricted clearances, windows on doors of the Cumbrian trains had three horizontal bars (for safety purposes).

Class 504 (BR Wolverton, 1959):

Before the Metrolink came in 1992, Bury’s electric trains had a unique 1,200 V d.c. side contact third rail. This being a hangover of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s electrification scheme. In 1959, British Rail Wolverton built 26 two car sets for the largely self-contained line from Victoria to Bury Bolton Street. There was no corridor connections between carriages within each set.

By 1991, all but a handful of the units were scrapped. Two sets went to the East Lancashire Railway, pending restoration as coaching stock. Unfortunately, I never got chance to board the Class 504s so I am unable to pass comment on how comfortable they were.

Class 309 (BR York, 1962):

For a time, the Class 309s were hailed as the finest EMUs in the British Rail fleet. Known as Clacton Electrics (due to regular operations from Liverpool Street station to the resort), they were a cut above your typical commuter EMU. Plush First Class and Second Class seating (with tables!) was the norm. With a top speed of 100 mph and a griddle, they could have been suitable for short distance Inter-City operations.

Consistent with pre-XP64 era carriage stock, First Class passengers were seated in compartments with really plush reclining seats. On my journey (from Manchester Piccadilly to Stockport), I would have lovingly stayed longer – and in First Class, as FNW declassified First Class at the time.

By 1994, the Clacton Electrics had a new lease of life at Longsight. As well as Manchester Airport trains, they were regulars on the peak hour stopping service to Birmingham New Street. With Commonwealth bogies, this made for a smoother ride than most EMUs and DMUs I had experienced.

Sadly, being surplus to requirements, most of the Clacton Electrics were scrapped in late 2000. I had the joy of boarding on in May 2000 – only months before the cutter’s torch came calling.

Class 421 4-CIG (BREL York, 1964):

Earlier on we mentioned the Brockenhurst to Lymington line. Our last slam door train of this month’s countdown focuses on one of the Southern Region’s electric trains. The Class 421 – or 4-CIG to give it is Southern Railway influenced subclass – were a common sight on services out of London Waterloo to Southampton and Portsmouth. My experience of the third rail EMU was a fairly springy ride from Guildford to Waterloo, in 1987.

Compared with what I was used to in my locality, a fast ride, even on the all stations service that began in Alton, Hampshire. Whereas slam doors on many commuter trains were between most forward and back seats, the 4-CIGs had theirs at the front, middle and back of each car like a typical Mark 1 carriage. Where doors would have been placed between seats was a little table for resting cups of coffee.

*                               *                               *

It is cliched to say that the above electric and diesel units had character. In all honesty they did. Throughout our ten, all the seats were more comfortable. Especially the First Class compartments on the Class 309s and any of the standard train seats from the Mark 1 derived DMUs and EMUs. The seat from a Class 101 could be comfy enough for any dining room. First Class seats of any Class 108 or Class 309 would be great for watching television with.

Today I cannot say the same about today’s trains. Given the need for maximum capacity in minimum space, some of the creature comforts that have made UK train travel have disappeared. Not only good seats, also the joy of a good meal. For me, even the reassuring thud of slammed doors by guards over the antisepticness of the push button doors.

One thing I wouldn’t like to take away is how today’s trains are safer and more amenable for wheelchair bound passengers. If they made the seats more comfortable and eschewed the withdrawal of buffet cars, I would say – in the words of a mid-1980s advertising campaign – we’re getting there. But that’s another story, straying from my yearnings of a return to Rail Blue and diesel hauled trains. How I miss the old Saver and SuperSaver return fares!

S.V., 10 September 2015.

5 thoughts on “Slam Door Trains We Have Known and Loved: The Not So Perfect Ten

  1. Hello Stuart!

    From memory Sowerby Bridge lost her slam door DMUs pretty early on. It was unusual enough for me to be surprised boarding one at Bradford Interchange around 1987.

    I think Chiltern trains still operate some class 121s on the route between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough.

    The nicest thing for me is the opportunity to drop the window and commune with the outside world for a few moments. Something I can only practically for now on the few InterCity 125 services between Leeds and London.

    Another great article!



    1. Hi Ben,

      As detailed in your penultimate paragraph, I loved that aspect of slam door carriages. It felt right. Also the same with windows on the early B.R. Mark 2s, all Mark 1s, Heritage DMUs and Heritage EMUs. Opening the window to full belt was sufficient enough to look through.

      You are right about the Pressed Steel ‘bubble cars’. Two Class 121s are still in revenue earning service from Aylesbury to Princes Risborough.

      This summer, you could have had the joy of proper opening and closing windows on the Mark 2Ds. Due to rolling stock shortages, Direct Rail Services’ Class 37s have been hauling a quartet of the said carriages on Northern Rail’s Barrow-in-Furness to Carlisle service. Real trains on the Cumbrian Coast Line – epic win!

      It was around 1987 when the last of the Calder Valley DMUs ceased to serve Bradford Interchange and all points along the way. The last Class 110s on B.R. metals were seen in October 1989.

      Bye for now,



  2. Hi Stuart, another great article I missed the first time round. Have been fortunate to experience most of these classes. Although not strictly speaking slam door stock as first generation Mk1 EMUs I am surprised you didn’t include the Class 303s, particularly as they were latterly in GMT livery! Also refurbished 305s temporarily replaced 304s in the Greater Manchester area for a while.


    1. Hi Jim,

      The Class 303s had pneumatically operated passenger doors, hence their omission from this piece. I too remember the Class 305s, fairly similar to the 304s.

      Both the 304s and the 305s had two versions of the GMPTE livery. The first being the orange and brown ones (also seen on the Class 504s). The other was the two-tone grey livery with red and white strip below the windows. The Class 303s never had the second GMPTE livery.

      Bye for now,


      P.S. A nice picture of a Class 303 in the first GMPTE livery:


      1. Hi Stuart,

        I love that photograph thanks – it is one of my favourites! Just a slight clarification, please note Classes 304 and 305 never received the first ‘GMT’ version of GMPTE livery.

        Some of the 304s went from Blue / Grey to Regional Railways. Others were withdrawn still in Blue / Grey.

        The three car 305/1s arrived in NSE livery with the red stripe replaced by light blue whilst the four car Class 305/2s on Manchester Airport duties received the second version of the smart GMPTE livery.

        Only Class 303s and 504s EMUs (along with 142 Pacers) received the original ‘GMT’ GMPTE livery.

        It would be great to see a piece on the Class 303s in the NW of England and GMT livery on trains.



        PS I am old enough to remember as a four year old in 1980 the Class 304s as four car units still in overall BR Blue on my local Styal loop line!


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