A guide to British Railways’ first railway carriage design for the absolute beginner

If you go to your nearest preserved railway line, there’s a good chance your train would be hauled by 1950s carriages. They will certainly be slam door carriages with doors at either end of the carriage, with another set half way through. In many cases, the middle set of doors are sealed up to make extra luggage space.

There’s a great chance you may have been in a British Railways Mark 1 carriage. In such a short space of time after its 1948 nationalisation, the first Mark 1s entered service in 1951. They were built until 1964 when they were superseded by Mark 2 family of coaches. After the last Mark 1 coaches were built, BR continued to make DMUs and EMUs (Diesel Multiple United and Electric Multiple Units) using the Mark 1 jigs till early mid-1970s.

In regular service, the Mark 1s were a common sight till the 1980s. They were last on scheduled services till 1997 on the North Wales Line. In multiple unit form, Mark 1 derived coaches were last seen on the New Forest Line in 2010.


From 1951 to 1964, BR Mark 1 coaches were built at British Railways’ works in Derby, Swindon, York, Doncaster, Eastleigh and Wolverton. It broke new ground in being a standard design for the whole British Railways network, replacing various designs inherited from the Big Four operators (London Midland and Scottish Railway, London North Eastern Railway, Great Western Railway and Southern Railway).

The Mark 1 coaches have a solid chassis. This is stronger than the coach body itself which makes them easy to maintain. When they were developed, they had better crashworthiness than pre-nationalisation designs.

There are four different types of bogies (the wheels underneath the coach): the BR1, the BR2, the Commonwealth, and the B4. As the BR1 turned out to be a poor design, this was superseded by the BR2 and Commonwealth bogie designs. There was marked improvements in passenger comfort as the BR1’s design was inspired by pre-nationalisation era design standards.

The fourth and final bogie design for BR’s Mark 1s was the superior B4 bogie. Its improved ride quality was a boon for inter-city routes. They were later added to DMUs and EMUs derived from the Mark 1 carriage and BR Mark 2 carriages.

Inside the coach

There are various versions of the Mark 1 carriage. As well as First Class and Second Class coaches, there are Buffet, Kitchen, and Restaurant carriages. For goods and parcels, the Mark 1 design was used for parcels vans, sleeper coaches, bullion cars, mail trains and newspaper trains.

As a passenger, there’s every chance you know that Mark 1s come in open corridor, corridor compartment, and closed compartment forms. Many people associate elderly carriages with closed compartments, which have no connecting doors at each end of the carriage. This means you can’t move to the next compartment if you don’t like the person you are sat beside. If you need to go to the toilet, tough luck (unless you have enough time to detrain and rejoin the train via the next carriage). This version of the Mark 1 carriage was used on local routes and have slam doors for each compartment.

Some compartments have corridors on the side. In First Class, six people could make themselves comfy, whereas Second Class passengers could fit eight to a compartment. Some coaches – known as Composite Coaches – have First Class and Second Class accommodation on the same carriage. With the Mark 1, there would be a 50:50 split with First Class up to the middle set of doors, then Second Class up to the rear set of doors. The corridor would change ends at the carriage’s halfway point. They also have connecting corridors at each end.

The most commonplace Mark 1s are those with open corridors, like you see on today’s trains. Seats are often positioned in a 2+2 format, either with a full length table or a small coffee table between seats. In Mark 1 derived multiple units, they may be in a 2+3 layout. In First Class carriages, 2+1 seating. This was also the case on a small number of Second Class coaches designed for Boat Trains.

Earlier coaches had wooden panelling, with seats having wooden arms and frames. By the 1960s, expensive hardwoods gave way to Formica® panelling. Apart from giving the carriages an airier, more modern look, they were easier to clean.

What happened next?

By 1964, British Railways’ top carriages became the Mark 2. They have a different, more integrated body design to the Mark 1s. There are subclasses of Mark 2 carriage from A to F. Whereas the original Mark 2s, and those from 2A to 2C retained slam doors and self-opening windows, air conditioning was added to Mark 2 carriages from Mark 2C onwards.

By the 1970s, the Mark 2s were the last word in passenger comfort before the Mark 3s arrived in 1975. The Mark 1s were later used on secondary inter-city and cross-country services. They were regular performers on Trans-Pennine InterCity routes before being replaced by early Mark 2s. By 1991, when loco-hauled services ceased on the Trans-Pennine routes, they were seen on Regional Railways routes to North Wales and on the odd Blackpool train.

Almost from the start of their operation, Mark 1s were seen on longer distance local Scottish routes. To this day, you see them on The Jacobite steam hauled service from Fort William to Mallaig.

Carriage classes

When the Mark 1 carriages first entered service, you either travelled in First Class or Third Class in most parts of England, Wales and Scotland. For the purpose of this article, First Class and Second Class is used instead of First Class and Third Class to reflect more contemporary operations.

Up until 1923, there used to be three classes on Britain’s railways: First, Second and Third Class. With the exception of a few Southern Railway Boat Trains, Second Class was abolished. By 1956, Third Class was abolished and renamed Second Class. In the 1980s, Second Class was renamed Standard Class, which is partly why Standard Class on Transpennine Express services is different to Standard Class on a NORTHERN StalyVegas Shuttle.

As for the 2+1 layout carriages for Second Class in the European style, only fifteen such carriages were manufactured. For a time, they were a step up from the post-1956 Second Class carriages in terms of bigger cushions.

Carriage codes

Did you know that every type of carriage built by British Railways and its successors have a code? Each letter code tells you what type it is: for example, TSO stands for Tourist Second Open. Here’s a few more to get you started.

  • TSO: Tourist Second Open – the most common type of carriage, your usual Standard Class carriage seen from Penzance to Wick. Has corridor between seats and connecting corridors at each end.
  • SO: Second Open – more of the same as above.
  • FO: First Open – usually the poshest and most expensive part of the train.
  • FK: First Corridor – the First Class carriage with compartments and a side corridor.
  • SK: Second Corridor – the SecondClass carriage with compartments and a side corridor.
  • BG: Brake Gangwayed – a coach with a brake for the guard’s part of the carriage with interconnecting doors at each end.
  • BRK: Restaurant Buffet with larger kitchen.
  • RB: Restaurant Buffet.
  • BCK: Brake Composite Corridor – has two classes and a brake for the guard’s part of the carriage.

Further viewing

Here’s the West Somerset Railway’s comprehensive video on the BR Mark 1s.

Before I go…

If you have any anecdotes on the operational idiosyncrasies or your personal experience of the BR Mark 1s, feel free to comment. Was the steam heating a treat from Queen Street to Stirling? Comment away, we say.

S.V., 15 June 2022.

One thought on “A Beginners’ Guide to British Railways Mark 1 Coaching Stock

  1. Just a tip on terminology: the passageway down the centre of SO/FO and along the side of of SK/FK/BSK is known as a ‘corridor’. The passageway which connects two adjacent coaches and allows people to walk from one coach to the next is correctly known as a ‘gangway’.


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