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'Stop moaning about Southeastern trains memories of slam doors and smoking carriages strike a chord'


Columnist Chris Britcher remembers the old slam-door trains on Kent's railways. Memories of a by-gone era of discomfort.

If you've been able to catch a Southeastern train recently - and that is by no means an easy task given the scale of the current industrial action - then you'll be used to sitting in a relative amount of comfort.

A slam door train arrives at Ashford Picture: Terry Scott
A slam door train arrives at Ashford Picture: Terry Scott

The carriages are warm in deepest winter, cool in the heat of summer. There's a table on which to lay your drinks and half-eaten sandwich. You even get an electronic display telling you how many stops you have to endure until you reach your destination, and a clock.

Yes, the service is still as prone to being delayed as ever but it's a pretty pleasant experience on-board.

But it wasn't so long ago the swanky carriages we are shuttled about in today were the new kids on the block. Because it was only in 2005 that the last of the slam-door trains were withdrawn from Kent's railways.

For those who don't remember, there were no automatic doors which swooshed open on the press of a button. If you were inside and wanted to get off, you had to pull down the window, stick your arm out and open the door from the outside.

Air conditioning? You had to open (or indeed close) a window. Seems rather archaic now.

'There were even smoking carriages, vile places with ashtrays more often than not overflowing...'

The final departure of the old-school rolling stock from our stations was, in truth, a blessing. They were, on the whole, a throwback to a by-gone era.

Today, they're the sort of trains you see in Downton Abbey or any number of period dramas - just minus the sense of romance or steam-powered engine.

I am, however, of an age of regular commuting to London during the 1990s and early 2000s when they were the only option you had.

There were some good aspects to them, at least for the daring.

Train pulling away as you ran onto the platform? Well never fear... assuming you were prepared to risk life and limb and had a bit of pace you could run alongside the moving train, turn the door handle and hurl yourself in. It certainly got the adrenalin pumping at the end of a long working day, I can tell you.

Dangerous too, but then so was the train in many respects.

There was, of course, the age old danger of pulling down a window by a door and sticking your head out of the window only to have it knocked clean off if you stuck your neck out just as you were going under a bridge.

While on the subject of windows, it was almost an inevitability that in the depths of winter and in that desperate rush to ensure you got a seat when boarding - where you have a fraction of a second to identify and then secure somewhere – you'd find yourself sat in a carriage where one of the windows didn't close properly... or, as so often was the case, fell half open. Which meant for the 90-minute ride into the capital you faced an icy blast.

A modern Southeastern train Picture: Southeastern
A modern Southeastern train Picture: Southeastern

Choosing a seat in a carriage not reduced to sub-zero temperatures by a dodgy fitting was no easy task either.

Many of the older trains had a bench capable of seating three people facing another with two. If ever you wanted to see a look of pure hatred in the eyes of your fellow commuter you got them to shift over to take the central seat in the row of three. It comfortably fitted three beanpoles - any more and it was thigh-to-thigh stuff. But faced with that or standing in the corridor it was a no-brainer.

The more stubborn and resentful would purposely keep their elbows tucked in to prevent you from enjoying any comfort. Good times.

In the early 1990s – and this will sound bizarre to today's young – there were even smoking carriages on trains. You could tell when you approached them by the smell.

They were vile places - the ashtrays built into the seats more often than not overflowing. It was not somewhere you wanted to be when it was packed. And I smoked at the time. It wasn't just your clothes which would become like a sponge to foul scent, but your skin too. If you were to bleed, I am pretty sure your blood would reek of tobacco too.

The cloud of smoke hung in the air making the whole carriage look grey.

Yet the option of sitting there was one which may be preferable to standing in the corridors or, potentially worse still, the post carriages - where the only seating was on the ground.

So next time you're moaning about your train, just remember that a few years ago you could be stuck between two strangers on a chilly evening with a window jammed open.

What do you think? Comment below or email opinion@thekmgroup.co.uk We're always looking for diverse views on the biggest issues. Get in touch if you'd like to contribute

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