How early UK train doors opened

train doors, early UK

Unlike today's train doors which are opened with a passenger button and closed electrically along the length of a train, each door of early trains had to be opened and closed manually. So whoever wanted to get in or out had to open and close the doors themselves - not the simple procedure that it first appears. This page describes and illustrates the procedure.


By the webmaster based on her early recollections with additional research and firsthand contributions

Danger and safety of manually opening train doors

During the 1940s and 1950s, I particularly remember how difficult it was to open train doors from the inside. The problem was the small size and stiffness of the latch which was possibly by design to make sure the door couldn't be opened by accident.

As there was no central locking mechanism to prevent doors being opened while the train was moving, I suppose it was sensible to make the latches stiff for safety reasons. There were certainly notices up about not opening doors until the train came to a standstill.

Inside of a train door as common in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s showing its very stiff inside latch

Inside old train door

Detail of the small and very stiff internal latch/hnadle of train doors, common in 1940s and 1950s Britain

Detail showing the small stiff latch*

In practice, men in a hurry, always did seem to open the door and jump out while the train was still drawing to a halt on a platform, but they must have been fit anyway or they could never have managed it.

Old films often added drama by showing people being thrown out of or jumping from moving trains, and this was certainly possible in theory. However, the latches were so stiff that I for one, even as a teenager, needed both hands and all my force to open them.

Man jumping from an old British moving train because train doors could be opened by passengers even while moving

Man jumping from a moving train, having opened the door themselves from the inside, a screen shot from an old film

Closing the train doors

Before a train started up, all the doors had to be shut. So the guard would walk along and check that every door was properly shut. The platform gates of a main station or terminus would always close a few minutes before departure to give time for him to do this. In smaller stations, where only a few doors would be opened at any one stop, the guard would look out of his window to see which doors might need his attention. Then, if necessary, he would get out and close a door himself.

Guard checking a train door

Guard or other station employee checking that a train door is securely shut

Door handles only on the outside

Some of the later mid-20th Century trains had door handles that only opened from the outside - which was, I suppose, to improve safety. It meant, though, that if no-one on the platform wanted to get in at a particular door, and passengers wanted to get out, the passengers had to lower the window and lean out to get to the exterior handle.

A grab handle and a door handle on the outside of a 1950s train door, reached from the inside by leaning out of the window

The outside door handle and grab handle, reached from the inside by leaning out of the window. No such handle inside.**

leaning out to open a train door

Leaning out of the door window to open the door

So opening this type of train door was a dirty business as the inside of one's sleeve had to go tightly over the open and invariably sooty window. It also required a certain amount of strength. The above photo is misleading in that the passenger's shirt does remain clean. However, you can see that for a short woman, particularly if she hasn't managed to unlock the window to its fully down position, her arm or long sleeve would get very dirty indeed. When I needed to open a door to get out, I would walk along the corridor to find a male passenger with a long arm waiting to leave the train, and let him lean out of the window to open the door.

How much better is today's system where passengers open doors with buttons, and only when activated to be safe!

Cleaning train door handles

In 1955 between school and National Service, I needed work. One job was to clean train carriage handles with pumice stone - a type of volcanic rock that forms when lava suddenly cools. The handles were brass and I was instructed by the regulars to clean what showed only. Thus the fronts of the handles were shining but the backs were mucky and remained that way. Just think how many people had wrapped their hands round them!

Barry Hooper

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

*Photographed by the webmaster on the Watercress Heritage Line
**Photographed by the webmaster at Mizens Railway, Woking

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