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Rail Travel mid 20th Century

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What train travel was like for passengers in 1940s wartime Britain

train snaking through the countryside belching smoke

Train travel was the only realistic means of long-distance travel for ordinary people during 1940s wartime. This page elaborates and explains what it was like to travel by train at that time: the dirt, soot and over-crowding and the hypnotic effect of looking out of the train window. Specific features of train travel are on other pages - see the above menu.

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By the webmaster: her childhood recollections with further research in museums and firsthand discussions.

Why travel by train

Trains were by far the main mode of travel for any distance in Britain during World War Two.

Very few families had cars, and even where they did, the car driver was invariably the man of the house who was away serving in the armed forces. Petrol was rationed anyway and often unavailable for anything other than essential services. So trains were the only realistic option for relatively long distance journeys.

Overcrowding and discomfort on trains

My memory is that trains were not particularly comfortable because they always seemed to be packed with army, navy and airforce personnel, often with standing room only.

WW2 poster urging housewives to free up trains, buses and trams for the war workers

Poster urging housewives to free up trains, buses and trams for the war workers**

Also trains were dirty because the engines, being still steam engines running on coal, produced an enormous amount of soot. You could watch it in clouds wafting past. If the windows were open, it got into eyes and made clothes dirty.

Only necessary journeys

Long distance journeys were a matter of necessity or special treats for families - although not of course for forces personnel. Money and resources were in short supply, and everyone felt that they shouldn't travel without good reason.

1940s World War Two poster encouraging people to save on train journeys

World War Two poster encouraging people to save on train journeys*

Back in the 1940s, my mother did take me with her on what we called a 'long' journey. That was to visit her friend no further than the other side of London. Also on one occasion she took me on an even longer journey to see my father who was on leave from the army. A leave of absence from the armed forces was invariably short and often measured in hours rather than days, so my parents probably thought they would have more time together if my father didn't have to do the travelling.

The hypnotic effect of looking at telephone lines out of windows

A major amusement on a train for me as a child was looking out of the window - but this was not just at the scenery. Let me explain:

At that time the wires connecting telephones to the exchange were not buried underground. It was quite normal to see roads and railways lined with them, which may have been why they were known as telephone 'lines'. They were carried up high, strung between poles known as telegraph poles.

Telegraph poles strung with telegphone wires, a common sight beside British railways in the 1940s and 1950s

Telegraph poles strung with telephone wires along a railway in the 1940s and 1950s before the lines went underground. Detail from an old painting.

Engineer climbing a telegraph pole with special grips on his legs, 1940s and 1950s Britain

Engineer climbing a telegraph pole with special grips on his legs. Detail from a picture in Milton Keynes Telephone Museum.

Heritage station platform showing telegraph wires along railway lines

Station platform showing telegraph wires along railway lines. Photographed along the Swanage Heritage Railway.

Telegraph wires runing along the side of a road, common in the 1940s and 1950s

Telephone wires running along the side of a country road. Screenshot from an old film.


It was almost hypnotic to fix one's eyes on the telephone wires as the train moved. The train windows were very much narrower than those of later trains, so it was rather like viewing through a slit - albeit a wide one. So the telephone wires seemed to swing up and down as the train moved from the high points of the poles to the sagging points mid-way between.

Trains after the war

After the war and into the 1950s, little seemed to change on the railways from a passenger point of view. Britain was still recovering from the ravages of the war and there was hardly any spare money for investment.

Certainly I remember, in the late 1950s, my face being black with soot after travelling between London and Exeter in a train pulled by a steam engine and powered by burning coal. There was always a great deal of smoke from these engines. Of course my sooty face was my own fault for leaning out of the train window!

Text and images are copyright

*Photographed by the webmaster in Lincolnsfields Childrens Centre, Bushey
**Photographed by the webmaster in Brooklands Museum.

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

sources: early 20th century material      sources: ww2 home front and other material     contact
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