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Sunday, 8 May 2011

'Preferred in Finer Weather' - Early Third Class Passenger Accommodation

I don’t often write about the rolling stock of Britain’s railway on this blog. In fact, I don’t think I have so far. I don’t know why. The development of rolling stock on Britain’s railways relate to many aspects of the social, managerial, governmental and technological history of the railway network. But, as will be shown, the earliest third class accommodation was appalling because of the profit motive of the earliest railway managers.

Unlike today, where the majority of us sit in what is now ‘standard class,’ a much smaller proportion of customers travelled by the lowest class in the earliest days of Britain’s railways. Yet, this was not necessarily by choice and the railways before 1850 were reluctant to provide third class accommodation on many services. A return from 1847 showed that in the year ending June 1846 just over 6 million 1st class passengers were conveyed in Britain (14.07%), just under 17 million 2nd class passengers travelled (38.66%). The rest of those conveyed were about 18.5 million 3rd and Parliamentary class passengers (the latter of which more will be mentioned in a moment) (42.26%). However, the preference for carrying 1st and 2nd class passengers was logical considering they contributed £3.6 million of the £4.7 million (76.18%) of the revenue generated by passenger traffic in that year.[1]

Thus, for early railway managers providing accommodation for third class passengers forced up operating costs, reduced revenues and ultimately diminished profits. Indeed, on many railways, for example on the opening of the Hampton Court Branch of the London and South Western Railway, the company didn’t mention third class travelling arrangements at all.[2] Furthermore, many companies did not attach third class carriages to the regular passenger services, instead attaching them to goods trains. Of course, this wasn’t to say that the addition of third class carriages to a train that was ‘running light’ didn’t add profit to the overall service, but in the main, railway managers preferred to convey the more profitable first and second class traffic.

Furthermore, the low rate of return on conveying third class passengers also affected the quality of their accommodation which was, especially in winter, dreadful. Thus, early third class accommodation rarely had a roof, glazing, and almost always forced the passengers to sit on wooden seats. In short, these coaches were little more than slightly modified goods wagons.[3] However, by not spending large amounts of money on the coaches for third class travellers, railway managers were reducing the overall cost of conveying them. On the opening of the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway one reporter tried to make the best he could of the third class coaches which were ‘of common appearance but substantial in structure, and being open will probably be preferred in fine weather.’[4]

However, such poor accommodation carried with it substantial risks when an accident occurred. While individuals had come to harm falling from the coaches,[5] it was an accident on the Great Western Railway on Christmas Eve 1841 that brought the matter to the government’s attention. Late in the evening a luggage train, which was comprised of three third class coaches and some heavily loaded goods wagons, was going from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington and was passing through Sonning Cutting, east of Reading Station. Rains had caused a landslip which had covered the track with earth. In the dark the train hit this and derailed, causing the third class carriages, which were between the engine and the goods wagons, to be crushed. Eight people died at the scene, and one died in hospital a day later. 16 people were seriously injured.[6]

The accident report stated that one of the principal causes of fatality was the lack of protection afforded to the passengers within them. Indeed, many of the passengers had been thrown out of the carriage on impact.[7] As such, the Board of Trade initiated a general inquiry into the conveyance of third class passengers nationwaide, culminating in the 1844 Regulation of Railways Act. This compelled all companies that derived a third of their revenue from passenger traffic to provide one train daily calling at all stations, that did not go less than 12 miles per hour, which did not cost the traveller not more than 1d per mile and, crucially, used enclosed carriages with seats. These were called ‘Parliamentary Trains.’ Reflecting the fact that the operation of these services would be a financial burden for the railway companies, any company meeting these requirements would not have to pay taxes on the fares.[8]

While this piece of legislation was a landmark, given it was the first by government that actively intervened in railway affairs, it also showed the future of the third class carriage. Of course, the legislation did not stop the usage of open coaches immediately, and they continued to be used until as late as the early 1870s. Yet, what this story shows is that the from the very earliest days of the railway industry it was the government that had to intervene to restrict the railway’s earliest urges simply to make as much profit as possible. Indeed, it is also possible that this early intervention by the government instilled in railway management the idea that they had an obligation to the public, something that would have an effect on railway profitability in later years.

[1] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers [HCPP], 1847 (706) Railways. Summary of returns, showing the number of passengers carried on 63 railways of the United Kingdom during the year ending 30 June 1846, the fares of each class, and the receipts from each class of passengers, and for goods.

[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/227, Traffic & Coaching Committee Minute Book, 19th January 1849, p.301

[3] Harris, Michael, ‘Carriages,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.76

[4] The Sheffield Independent, and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser, Saturday, November 03, 1838; pg. 2; Issue 908

[5] The Champion and Weekly Herald (London, England), Sunday, October 27, 1839; Issue 163.


[7] Accident Returns: Extract for Accident at Sonning on 24th December 1841,

[8] Simmons, Jack, ‘Parliamentary Trains,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, p.369

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