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

Third-class rail passengers in the 1930s © Getty images
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).

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.