3 June 1956: Third-class rail travel ends in Britain

Third-class travel on the railways came to an end in Britain on this day in 1956, when it was renamed by British Railways as "second class".


Third-class rail passengers in the 1930s

Britain is famous for its class system. And nowhere was the division between the well-to-do and the less well-off more visible than on the railways during the 19th and early 20th century.

Broadly speaking, the upper class would repose in the comforts of first class. The middle classes went about their business in second, and for the workers, there was third which was originally little more than an open box car.

In 1844, Parliament passed the Railway Regulation Act. It stipulated that passengers in third class must be sheltered from the elements and be provided with seats (a luxury for anyone who currently commutes to London).

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

These parliamentary trains' had to run at least once a day, and often did so at awkward hours. A penny a mile was the most the railway companies could charge their humbler passengers, for which the third-class fares were tax-exempt.

Over the next 100 years, standards improved considerably, and by 1956, third class was looking decidedly old-fashioned. On Sunday, 3 June, British Railways did away with third class altogether, and from then to the present day, only first and second class remained.

To begin with, the change was in name only. Third class became, confusingly, second class, while the figure three' was painted off the sides of the carriages as and when they came in for repairs. The prices and accommodation were unchanged.

Yet the class system continued to haunt the railways, and in 1987, British Railways (now called British Rail) renamed second class as the more egalitarian "standard class".

Could third-class rail travel return? In 2013, a leaked document, which drew a furious reaction from the RMT union, appeared to suggest the government was considering a form of it on the East Coast Main Line. The government was quick to deny it.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

You can follow Chris on Instagram.