Train Seats in All Parts: The Not So Perfect Ten

A selection of the best train seating positions on Network Rail metals and preserved lines

BR Mark II 2nd Class carriage interior
An interior shot of a British Rail Mark 2 carriage (TSO).

If you travel by train in the peak hours, there are two inevitabilities. One is the fact you’ll need a mortgage for the rail fare or the season ticket. The other, are the chances of getting a seat. Which is pretty rare at ten to six on the 1757 to Huddersfield.

Enough of the mini rant. This post looks at optimum seating positions on a selection of electric and diesel multiple units, and carriages. It is worth noting that, for example, no Class 150 car has the same seating configuration across the board. These vary according to rail franchisee and any rolling stock inherited from its predecessors.

The Metal Rear Factor

A wee while back, East of the M60 did a similar post entitled The Best Bus Seat in the House. It looked at the best seating positions on services buses (as of 2008). In that post was a bit of pseudoscience known as Metal Rear. This was based on the amount of minutes one spends on a bus, train, tram, or Hulme’s Ferry seat. Quoting from the 01 November 2008 entry:

“Results are determined on the impact one’s rear has on the cushion over an half hour bus journey on a scale of 1 to 5. Seats with the highest Metal Rear Factor are uncomfortable within 5 minutes, whereas those with the lowest rival the most comfortable of settees.”

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1. Class 142 Pacer DMUs

Few train sets attract the ire and awe of rail enthusiasts in equal measure. With passengers, mainly the former. Derived from a bus body with a wagon axle chassis, the Class 142 Pacer units turned out to be the longest stop-gap solution in British railway history. By 2022, we should be seeing the back of these trains, nicknamed Nodding Donkeys and Skippers.

In terms of seating, no two units are ever the same. Some have the standard bus seating, a feature since their arrival in Autumn 1985. Others have dual purpose style bus seating. Then there’s the ones refurbished to Merseytravel PTE specifications. Enough said.

Best seating positions:

  • Standard bus seated Pacers: any of the backward or forward facing seats in the centre of each car. Good for conversation and legroom;
  • Dual purpose bus seated Pacers: originally refurbished for Northern Spirit with forward seats on one side and backward seats on opposite side. Any seat facing the front door glass panel (best for legroom);
  • Merseytravel PTE specification Pacer units: the worst units for back and posterior support. Standing up is better. Failing that, the retractable bus seat next to the doors (if the metal frame doesn’t dig into your back).

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Standard bus seated Pacers: 3/5 (fine for an hour).
  • Dual purpose bus seated Pacers: 2.5/5 (slightly more plush cushions, better back support, poor legroom).
  • Merseytravel PTE specification Pacer units: 6/5 (yes, they really are that bad; intolerable for any journey greater than ten minutes).

2. Class 150 Sprinter DMUs

Launched around the same time as the ubiquitous Pacer units, the Class 150 family are commonly seen on Northern and GWR (the ersatz FirstGroup bastardisation of God’s Wonderful Railway) routes. Arriva Trains Wales have a few, recently refurbished to include tables. Which British Rail Engineering (York) Ltd should have done in the first place.

Common peeves with the DMUs are the lack of seats that line up with the windows. This is marked on the Class 150/0 and Class 150/1 Sprinters with the closed ends. The Class 150/2 Sprinters with end connectors fare better in that respect, but the single longitudinal seats are great if you like staring into window pillars. There is also a longitudinal bus seat at one end of the Class 150/0 and 150/1 units.

Just to complicate things (like our Nodding Donkeys), no two layouts are the same. They do have a good bicycle rack at one end though. Some units, especially the 150/2s have the original British Rail seating, though with the present franchisee’s moquette. More abundant are the Chapman seats seen on 150/0s and 150/1s.

Best seating positions:

  • Class 150/0: any of the backward or forward facing seats, especially the seat closest to the aisle on a triple seat, facing the entrance vestibule (good for legroom on quiet journeys);
  • Class 150/1: as above;
  • Class 150/2: any forward or backward facing seat opposite the entrance partitions. For legroom, go for the one nearest to the aisle that is adjacent to the single longitudinal seat.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Chapman seats: 3/5 (good for a trip to Blackpool from Manchester but wearisome if doing Southport to Leeds).
  • BR seats: 2/5 (better for longer journeys due to their plush cushions).
  • Longitudinal bus seats: 3/5 (fine for hopping from pub to pub on an Ale Trail Saturday).

3. Class 319 EMUs

Since 2015, the Class 319 electric trains have been the North West of England’s latest set of cast-off rolling stock. The earliest examples were built in 1987 with later examples built in 1990. They were originally for Thameslink services. In 2018, they could have made a switch from the Thames side to Tameside, as part of a new service from Stalybridge to Wigan. Some are being converted into Flex diesel electric trains (DEMUs), making a trip from Liverpool Lime Street to Buxton a possibility. Without a 25kV a.c. system east of Hazel Grove as well as in electric form.

Most of the Class 319s have similar seating to the Class 150/2 units. Plus, like their Class 150/0 and 150/1 brethren, more restricted window views. The ride is very smooth and the seats, if you can forgive their Sprinter style shortcomings, are pretty decent. Northern’s fleet at Allerton depot have the more comfortable BR seats.

Best seating position:

  • Class 319/3 EMUs: any of the backward or forward facing seats, especially the seat closest to the aisle on a triple seat, facing the entrance vestibule (good for legroom on quiet journeys).

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Class 319/3: 2/5 (the combination of its plush cushions and the smooth ride is enough to send you to sleep if you’re not careful).

4. British Rail Mark 3 carriages

My favourite carriage seating on any modern train has to be the IC70 seats used on the BR Mark 3 carriages. They were clearly designed for services like The Highland Chieftain and the London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly express (beat that, Claire Pendolino). The Mark 3s form part of many a High Speed Train set and – shock horror – some franchisees have ditched the IC70s for (in my view, inferior) Chapman seats. Which are fine on a Super Sprinter for an hour.

One issue with the IC70 seats is the kind of plastic used. Should the worst happen, the plastic could shatter and be dangerous to passengers. Another stumbling block are the armrests: unlike the Chapman seats, they are static. Which is no good if you’re sat at a window seat and need the loo or an overpriced Kit Kat from the buffet car. And need to pass your travelling companion.

Best seating position:

  • BR Mark 3 carriage: any table seat, about a third or two-thirds the way of each carriage.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Chapman seats: 3/5 (Bristol Temple Meads to Cardiff Central yes, but London Paddington to Swansea? I’ll pass on that).
  • IC70 seats: 1/5 (the best all round seat for comfort over long distances).

5. Class 158 Express DMUs

In the late 1980s, the loco-hauled train began to give way to DMUs or EMUs on secondary express routes. The Trans-Pennine Express routes are a prime example, with Class 47 hauled Mark 2 carriages usurped by DMUs. Sometimes Class 150s or Class 142s even. Also Class 156s. In 1991, the Class 158 Express DMUs replaced the Sulzer diesels and Mark 2s. They are pretty comfortable so long as you are 5’6″ or shorter (tight legroom).

Most importantly, they offered a real improvement on other members of the Sprinter family: air conditioning; proper table seats. Also a payphone near the rear doors and toilets. Even so, they couldn’t hold a candle to the air conditioned Mark 3s and Mark 4s but one of the better DMUs to grace NR metals. In some parts of the British Rail system, they were used on branded Alphaline services.

As with the Mark 3s and other members of the Sprinter family, a wealth of different interiors and seating styles. The original BR seating was the most comfortable. Chapman seats are commonplace. A recent refurbishment for Northern saw a reupholstering of the seats inherited from BR. The previous marble effect tables were replaced by ironing board shaped tables which are lower down and permit easy movement.

Best seating position:

  • All units: as with the Mark 3s, at least a third or two thirds the way of each carriage.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Chapman seats: 3/5 (not bad).
  • Original BR seats (unrefurbished): 2/5 (about right for doing Doncaster to Scarborough).
  • Original BR seats (refurbished 158906): 1.5/5 (better than any of the more modern trains used on inter-city routes; legroom still a problem).

6. Class 156 Sprinter DMUs

Before the Class 158s entered the scene, the last word in luxury in the Sprinter family was Metro Cammell’s Class 156 Super Sprinters. On arrival, they had the same British Rail seats seen on the Class 150/2s. The moquette trim, red downward chevrons (like those on a Hummel football strip). Thankfully, they solved the window/seat position issue which marred its contemporaries. As for the balance between airline seats and tables, agreeable.

After refurbishment, the BR seats on most units were ditched in favour of Chapman seats. These were a popular choice among the UK’s rail franchisees, and North West Regional Railways in the run-up to privatisation (on North West Express services to Blackpool North, Windermere and Barrow-in-Furness). NWRR’s seats had blue moquette with a repetition of North West Express triangles.

In 2001, Northern Spirit – later Arriva Trains Northern (and ultimately, Northern) – opted for Richmond seating. In terms of comfort, they trumped the Chapman seats, making them suitable for some Trans-Pennine Express workings (if a 158 was unavailable).

Best seating position:

  • Class 156: the table seats near the centre of each carriage are a good choice. Especially if you back onto the thin central partitions between window seats.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Chapman seats: 3/5 (good for a trip to Blackpool from Manchester).
  • Richmond seats: 2/5 (almost the equal of the BR seats seen on the Class 158s).

7. Class 323 EMUs

Hunslet TPL’s Class 323 EMUs are at this moment the mainstay of South Manchester commuter services. Their rapid acceleration makes them the best electric train to keep up with the Hadfield route’s tight timetable. As well as Greater Manchester, they have been seen in the West Midlands on London Midland services.

The seat cushions are a little on the thin side, but adequate for many short to medium distance commutes. From Glossop to Manchester Piccadilly, perfection due to their wide doors. If there’s any drawbacks, it is the positioning of luggage caddies near the vestibules. A slight peeve if you’re trying to get your suitcase past fourteen commuters at Ardwick Junction. As for the view from the windows, some sanity: few views of window pillars.

Best seating position:

  • Class 323 EMUs: for socialising, any of the backward or forward facing seats by the driver’s cab. Also halfway through the carriage.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Class 323: 2.5/5 (very good for short journeys).

8. British Rail Mark 1 carriages

Due to safety concerns (crashworthiness, asbestos, slam doors, and openable door windows), the Mark 1 carriage is only seen on rail tours or preserved lines. With the first examples built in 1951, they were British Railways’ first standard carriage design. The classic one that many people are familiar with are the Second Class open saloon cars. Partitions are seen two to four windows into the carriage with doors halfway.

There was also the suburban version of the Mark 1s without connecting corridors at each end. Nor gangways between the seats. Also the corridor compartment versions with space for ten in each compartment without armrests (or six in First Class with armrests). Composite carriages saw one half of the carriage having First Class compartments with Second Class compartments in the other half.

As for the seating, the wooden frames, high headrests and plump cushions make for a good combination. Coupled with deep windows, possible for the smallest of passengers to enjoy the ride. In the 1970s, the wooden frames gave way to plastic and formica. The seats, though lightweight, were just as comfortable.

Best seating positions:

  • BR Mark 1 open carriage: if you like airline seats, you have found the wrong carriage: they don’t exist on a BR Mark 1. Any table seat which backs onto the wooden partition.
  • BR Mark 1 compartment corridor carriage: anywhere, especially a compartment left of centre or right of centre from the middle exit door.
  • BR Mark 1 compartment, non corridor carriage: anywhere, especially if you have eleven other friends and/or family members (but, go to the toilet beforehand).

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • First Class Compartment: 1.25/5 (a close run between that and the IC70 seats, like sitting on your own sofa).
  • Second Class Compartment: 1.75/5 (slightly springier but plush and wide enough to have a snooze – especially if you have the compartment to yourself).
  • Second Class Open: 1.75/5 (great for long rail tours, especially if you’ve got a few beers).
  • First Class Open: 1.5/5 (not quite as comfortable as the compartment seats but as good as sitting on your own sofa).

9. Class 153 and 155 Sprinter DMUs

As these are more or less the same diesel unit, the shall be dealt with as a joint entry. Without the Class 155, the more successful Class 153 wouldn’t have come to fruition. Built at Leyland’s Workington plant (hence the Leyland National style windows), the Class 155s owe a debt to the Pacer units. They were Leyland’s answer to the Class 156s but sagging bodywork made the DMUs problematic. Apart from seven two-car sets that remain in service on Northern routes.

The Class 153 – or ‘runaway carriages’ – was 1991’s replacement for the Class 121 Pressed Steel ‘bubble cars’. They are characterised by a cramped driver’s cab at one end of the carriage. They are commonly used to strengthen peak-hour services, or on their own on lightly used routes. As for the passenger seats, great if your 5’6″ or shorter. For the rest of us, pretty cramped. Worse than the Class 158s.

Best seating positions:

  • Class 153s and Class 155s: any of the eight table seats at the front, middle, and rear of each carriages. If you value your legroom, avoid the airline seats.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • Chapman seats: 3/5 (not bad on short distance workings).
  • Richmond seats: 2.5/5 (as seen on Metro West Yorkshire PTE’s Class 155s, good for the Calder Valley line, but nothing on the 158s).

10. Class 101 DMUs

For our final one of our Not So Perfect Ten on train seats, we look at a diesel multiple unit which was last seen on NR metals in 2003. Of the 524 Class 101 DMUs by Metro-Cammell, only a few exist on preserved lines. Making their début in 1956, they were the most ubiquitous diesel multiple units on British Railways routes. Also the most successful design with the Marple/Rose Hill Marple – Manchester Piccadilly routes their last stamping ground.

The Class 101s had character. They were seen in two car and three car variants with a little First Class compartment in one of the driving cars (blue seats in First Class, green seats in Second Class). They were refurbished in the 1970s with blue seats in Second Class and orange in First Class. On declassification, they were latterly re-trimmed in Regional Railways grey. Another good thing about the 101s was being able to get a driver’s eye view of the route ahead. Sadly missed on today’s rolling stock apart from light rail vehicles.

As for comfort, the springy seats were a cut above the seats on today’s trains from Rose Hill Marple. Besides local trains, they must have been comfortable enough for longer distance workings. Even on Trans-Pennine duties on Summer Saturdays in the late 1970s.

Best seating positions:

  • Class 101 First Class: behind the driver’s cab.
  • Class 101 Second Class: ditto the above, though with less generous seat sizes.

Metal Rear Factor ratings:

  • First Class compartment original seats: 1/5 (train seat based evil doing on a grand scale; probably comfier than your settee).
  • Second Class original seats: 2/5 (brilliant for the Hope Valley line ‘back in the day’ but just as good on preserved lines).

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Chuffed or confused?

What do you think of our Not So Perfect Ten train seats? Do you agree with the above selections or would you like to add to the list? Either way, feel free to comment.

S.V., 21 June 2017.

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