5 Things You Never Noticed About British Trains

Trains are enjoying something of a resurgence in recent years, with passenger numbers up. Particularly if you’re young and can get a railcard, it is a truly excellent way to travel, especially outside peak hours when the trains are quieter. Smoother and faster than a car, and with no parking, tax, MoT, etc. to worry about, this is the way to see Britain.

While you’re out and about on trains this summer, here’s some things you might not have noticed:

The front of the train is yellow
No really, this is true on (almost all) British trains, regardless of operator. The rule is that a certain area of the front must be painted yellow, because this makes it more visible and thus safer (a bit like a hi-vis jacket). This was first introduced in the 1960s, and has since stuck. Newer rules mean that if you have sufficiently bright headlights, you no longer need the yellow front, so some newer trains (notably those for Crossrail) are painted different colours. Tube trains too are different, but they’re not on Network Rail metals.

The number(s?)
Yes, you have probably noticed that the train has a number on the front, but you probably didn’t notice what it means. Let’s take an example, 170114.

The first 3 digits, 170, tell you what sort of train, or “class” it is. This is a class 170.
Some types have 2 digit class numbers, but most trains these days have 3.

The last 3 digits are an individual identifier.
In the old days, 114 might suggest the 114th train of that type built, but these days the first digit is more like a “subclass” number. With many different operators, there are minor differences between members of the same class, hence this addition.
This number tells us that it’s the 14th Class 170/1.

The individual carriages also have numbers, but these are not nearly so organised.

The doors are a different colour to the rest of the train
This one applies to all service trains in the UK, regardless of company (even on Crossrail). This is not so much for safety, though it might help. The real reason is that it helps visually-impaired people to find the doors and board the train, though of course it doesn’t help blind people.
The rule has been around since the early 2000s, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change.

(Numbers again) The fastest trains (mostly) do 125 mph
Apart from High Speed 1 in the South East, the fast trains all do 125 mph, or 200 km/h. There are good reasons for this:

As the resistance to motion increases exponentially with speed, you have to have a lot more power to go faster
The track maintenance cost would be much higher if you went faster, unless you use different track
A lot of British trains are capable of 140 mph, but it is difficult to read signals at that speed, so without in-cab signalling, 125 mph is a safe limit

Trains Also Drive on the Left (except when they don’t)
In the UK, we use left hand running traditionally. This is much easier to achieve with a train than a car, since you’re literally on rails.

That said, many lines are now bi-directionally signalled, so trains can in theory go in either direction, though in practice left hand running still dominates.
The other thing to notice is that there are fast and slow lines on many routes, so slow freight trains and fast passenger trains can be separated. Trouble is, in some places the lines are separated by direction, and in others by speed, so it can appear as though trains are running on the right.

In fact, if you look at the National Rail (formerly British Rail) logo, you’ll notice that the top forms an arrow pointing to the right, indicating left hand running:


So there we are, 5 things to notice next time you’re bored waiting for a train, or want to sound intelligent and/or boring. Good day.

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A blog about nuggets of history, technology and sometimes railways. Peculiar.

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