Ten things about British rail travel that people born after 1980 never had the chance to enjoy or endure

For many passengers, today’s trains are shiny and efficient beasts. Some might say they are a little devoid of character. Sometimes they look scruffy or sport garish liveries.

In the space of forty years, the joys of British rail travel has changed beyond recognition. Besides preserved railways, today’s trains look more like buses or aeroplanes. There are some that look exactly like buses that are due to cease operation this year.

Back in 1980, you could never see if your train was running by telephone. You didn’t have to fight for a seat as much as you do nowadays because (a) the trains were longer; or that (b) that today’s railway carries considerably more passengers than in 1980. For our latest Not So Perfect Ten, we look at ten things that millennials have missed out on – or never seen – on our railways.

  1. The British Rail Sandwich;
  2. Station concourses without High Street eateries;
  3. Shunters;
  4. Loco changes;
  5. Compartments;
  6. Mail trains and newspaper trains;
  7. Lo-tech written real time information;
  8. Widespread use of the Rail Alphabet;
  9. Excursion trains;
  10. Drivers’ cab views from the front seat.

1. The British Rail Sandwich

Like it or not, Travellers Fare played an important part in the development of Britain’s multi-million pound sandwich industry. Without Prue Leith’s role, our sarnies would still be stale or soggy. Or seen on shelves before being passed on to your plate. Thanks to their innovation, triangular packaging became the norm.

It had often been said that the British Rail sandwich was either curly or soggy. Or bland, owing to the ingredients of one popular butty (Mother’s Pride bread, Kraft cheese slices and sliced tomato). Before the privatisation of Travellers’ Fare (and the later privatisation programme from 1994 to 1997), the British Rail Sandwich was purely in-house. Today, you are more likely to see branded sandwiches on the 1020 Avanti to London Euston.

2. Station concourses without High Street eateries

If you go to a modern-day station owned by Network Rail’s Major Stations or any of our franchisees, the shopping concourse would grace many small towns. The principal London stations and many outside the capital appear to be shopping centres in their own right with Greggs, Sainsburys and a NatWest branch. St. Pancras International even has a Wetherspoons.

Before the mid-1980s, there was no Burger King at Manchester Piccadilly station. You had Travellers’ Fare’s outlets like Casey Jones’ Burger Bar, buffet bars with the red fascia and yellow Rail Alphabet text (next to a circled double arrow). There was also vending machines with Nestlé’s chocolate bars along station platforms. As for coffee, no Starbucks Coffee (in the UK) or Caffé Nero in the 1980s. Once again, the station’s unbranded buffet bar or the Travellers’ Fare Quick Snack refreshment point in a plastic cup.

3. Shunters

Before diesel and electric multiple units ruled the earth, medium or long distance trains were hauled by locomotives. At principal railway stations and goods yards, the humble shunter was a dependable workhorse. Instead of having fixed formation train sets or a loco at each end (top and tail), a shunter would pass the carriages or wagons to the locomotive

On British Rail metals, the most common shunter was the Class 08, based on an earlier design by LMS. Instead of the usual BR Blue, some had the Inter-City livery, with 08 673 Manchester Piccadilly being a notable example. I could remember there being a shunter at Huddersfield station in April 1984, through the window of a Mark II carriage bound for York.

4. Loco changes

For similar reasons further to the dominance of DMUs, EMUs and bi-mode DEMUs, the loco change is a thing of the past on Network Rail metals. Loco-hauled stock has been superseded by these plasticky trains with hard seats. Depending upon which section of line you travelled on, there would sometimes be a change of locomotive on your journey.

Using The European as our example, the long distance train from Harwich International would have been diesel hauled (by a Class 47 for example) up to Preston or Lancaster. During a fairly long wait at either station, our Class 47 would join another train. Thereafter (as the West Coast Main Line has been all-electric since 1974), a Class 87 electric locomotive would take over up to Glasgow Central.

At one time, another locomotive would be waiting in the wings at Carstairs Junction for the Edinburgh train. Back then, The European used to be split there with some carriages continuing to Edinburgh Waverley. Today, there are no express trains to Carstairs Junction as Transpennine Express’ 8-car EMUs take the strain. Some of TPE’s Edinburgh trains take the East Coast Main Line.

5. Compartments

Unless you visit a preserved line or use a sleeper train, compartmented carriages are a thing of the past. At one time, some trains had a mix of saloon and compartment rolling stock, with the latter having side corridors. A Second Class compartment could carry eight passengers (or ten thin passengers), whereas First Class compartments could carry six passengers. In seats that were more akin to armchairs compared with today’s plastic cack.

It is worth noting that personal security issues led to the demise of compartmented rolling stock. Some passengers felt unsafe which is why saloon carriages are the norm.

6. Mail trains and newspaper trains

Forty years ago, when passenger services wound down for the night, principal railway stations seldom fell silent at the dead of night. Platform bays were taken up by newspaper trains and mail trains. Before new technology and union bashing became a prerequisite of any 1980s newspaper mogul, our newspapers were sent by rail. These trains would depart between 2100 and 0500 the following day dependent on distance.

Further to the newspaper trains, the Travelling Post Office was another feature of the rail network. Again they left at an ungodly time, but they didn’t half keep the Royal Mail vans off the road. For an extra penny on a stamp, you could post your letter via the postbox of a Travelling Post Office carriage.

Sometimes there would be a single passenger carriage to accommodate any latecomers. The York to Shrewsbury TPO service was one example that we looked at in a previous East of the M60 article.

7. Lo-tech written real-time information

At most stations (apart from Denton, Reddish South and Teesside Airport perhaps), written real-time information is the norm. In most cases you see LED displays detailing forthcoming trains to and from a given station. Sometimes, full colour displays on flat screen display units.

Back when we used to rely on our ears or the sage advice of the station master, there was only one dependable form of lo-tech written real-time information: a blackboard.

Often the size of a newspaper stand, the blackboard would have the British Rail double arrow followed by ‘Information’ in the usual Rail Alphabet typeface. Thereafter, Ashley Sans Serif (other names of station masters past and present are available) would tell us if the 1105 to York has been delayed or cancelled. Or it would inform passengers of emergency engineering works or forthcoming industrial action.

In the Southern Region, before LEDs and VDUs, the fingerpost would be an alternative to the Solari departure board. At Guildford (other Southern Region/Network Southeast stations are available), a member of station staff would place a fingerpost sign that details each station served by the 0945 to Portsmouth Harbour.

8. Widespread use of the Rail Alphabet

The Rail Alphabet, lovingly conceived by the Design Research Unit, is in my view one of Britain’s finest typographical gifts. The Transport typeface is another one, courtesy of Margaret Calvert. Thanks to the successor of another Margaret, the trusty Rail Alphabet has been devalued in favour of other typographical abominations.

If you travel from Stalybridge to Harrogate, there’s no feeling (from the platform edge) of there being a national rail network. Transpennine Express (who manages Stalybridge station) uses Arial. Northern (who manages Harrogate station), uses Frutiger. A good typeface in its own right, the change of typeface according to each franchisee exacerbates the fragmented system of our privatised railways. Imagine if we did that with our road signs?

If you wish to see what we have lost or devalued in terms of our typographical heritage, take a look at the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual. A reprinted copy is also available via the British Rail Manual website (£75.00 including for a limited time only Postage and Packaging).

9. Excursion trains

Today’s excursion trains are run by private operators like West Coast Railways and Retro Railtours. Their aim is to recapture the spirit of 1970s rail operations with proper diesel hauled trains – and real carriages. The kind you see on preserved lines though without the 25 mph speed limit.

In addition to British Rail’s scheduled services, BR used to run excursions to places of national interest from principal stations. Instead of fighting for a seat in Mossley on the infrequent stopping service from Leeds to Manchester Victoria (as was the case in 1980), you could travel to Birmingham, Cheltenham, London or Bournemouth for a modest price. Many trains used otherwise under-utilised rolling stock, which would have been handy for summer holiday special trains or football matches.

By the late 1980s, the Special Trains department of British Rail had transferred over to the InterCity business sector. There was more of a market for premium priced charter trains instead of a Christmas shoppers’ special to London. The loss of excursion trains have largely been superseded by marked increases in scheduled service frequencies.

10. Drivers’ cab views from the front seat

Our last point is one that is still enjoyed by Metrolink and Tyne and Wear Metro passengers, though not rail passengers. If you ever boarded a first generation diesel multiple unit (i.e.: a Met-Camm Class 101 or a Cravens Class 105 DMU), there was always one seat on the train that was more equal than others: the front seat.

Why the front seat? The First Generation Heritage DMUs had forward facing windows that gave you a view of the driver’s cab. If the Second Class part of the train was facing forward, you were in luck. For a bit extra (and considerably more padding on your posterior), you could have done the same in the small First Class section of the DMU. If you were truly unlucky, the driver would have blocked the view with some black window blinds.

Oh, and one or two things we don’t miss…

  • Wheelchair users being placed in the guard’s van;
  • Smoking on trains;
  • A post-Football Special Mark I carriage after a bout of hooliganism;
  • Being sat in the wrong carriage of a corridor-less compartment carriage with no way of getting to the next part of the train;
  • The lack of real time information at most unstaffed stations.

Before I go…

Do you have any further additions to our Not So Perfect Ten, or wish to elaborate on our chosen ones? Are you just as sniffy about the devaluation of Rail Alphabet? Do you crave a Casey Jones Burger instead of a Whopper meal? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 09 February 2020.

5 thoughts on “Ten Things That Millennials Never Enjoyed About Train Travel: The Not So Perfect Ten

      1. As does Liverpool Lime Street now! The North Western. I called in there whilst waiting for my train back to Wolverhampton last summer. A really good place to watch buses at Queens Square Bus Station (or Hood Street Gyratory, as it used to be known as!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, that brought back so many memories. Excursions which cost just £7 day return from Bangor to Dundee and Pymouth with a then local trainspotting group for example – not that *I* was ever a trainspotter and not that the trainspotters aboard did very much other than drink, especially once we’d got to Dundee where pubs were already open through the day, but it was a great and cheap way to get out and about for the day. Have since searched the internet in vain for such groups/ trips but, as you say, they seem to have all disappeared unless you’re looking at the top end of the market.

    Also, hadn’t realised the phasing out of compartments had been largely to do with security. I’d thought it was to do with bums on seats. Terrible shame, though. Travelled by train in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia last year and it was like going back fifty years bur marvellous all the same. Better stop before I go on all day about mail trains, guard’s vans, football specials etc…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ohhh, those Nestle’s machines! Using all your strength to pull out a Dairy Crunch which, in the dead of winter, would break your teeth from being rock ‘ard with cold! Happy, happy days!

    In so many ways, today’s Railway is better (in spite of, rather than because of privatisation, mostly) but rail travel was more magical back then! I think that’s because, as a general rule of thumb, it was less of a commuter railway back then (certainly outside of London, most people worked rather closer to home than is the case today-the main reason for the increase in today’s rail use-hence most train journeys were taken for leisure purposes, hence our memories are rather fonder than is the case today!

    Liked by 1 person

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