In the UK, most long distance trains are laid out in a similar pattern. At one end is a standard class quiet coach, often with bike storage. Then it's standard class most of the way, and first class at the other end. Normally, coach A will be the standard class quiet coach at one end, and letters increasing to the other. Typically, the first class will be at the "London" end of the train, but not always, especially on cross country trains that don't go to London!

Unlike in some European countries, there is no display / poster on the platform saying where each coach will be. At some stations there will be boards up roughly where each coach will stop with a coach letter, or something similar painted on the floor or on roof supports. Almost always, the announcements will say things like "first class at the front of the train" or "standard class on the rear on arrival"

Twice in the last two days, I've turned up at the station, seen the announcement about which end of the train would be first class (and hence which end standard class), headed to the right place for that, then discovered when the train pulled in that it was the other way around! This meant running to the other end of an 8 coach train, while half the people trying to get on were doing the same thing, not fun...

That leads me to two related questions:

  • How can a train end up the wrong way round?
  • How can this come as a surprise, with all the automated and manual announcements saying it's one way around, then have it be the other when it appears?
  • Anglia Abellio just gives the number of coaches and which sign the engine will stop at.
    – Gayot Fow
    Mar 4, 2016 at 19:49
  • @Evert If you try that on a peak time train out of London, and especially with luggage, you'll spend at least 30 minutes standing in a vestibule before there's any hope of being able to walk anywhere...
    – Gagravarr
    Mar 5, 2016 at 11:05
  • @Evert not an option if you've got a bike, whch must be at one end. Aug 16, 2017 at 8:44
  • Just to confirm that the problem can occur in Germany too - it happened to me with ICE train. The 1st class was on the opposite side than the announcement (and the board at the Frankfurt Airport station) said. To top it off, after fighting through 8 carriages with luggage, our reserved 1st class seats were taken, because there is time limit (10 min?) after the train departure, when you may claim your reservation, after that anyone can sit on your (previously reserved) seat. In Germany, of all countries!
    – xmp125a
    Apr 16, 2018 at 15:43
  • At a guess, the fragmented nature of the UK railway system - in which the train operating company is not necessarily the company operating the stations that the train calls at, and the train may have been prepared for service by a third company under contract to the operator - means that there's no common system for this information to be passed on automatically and no contractual obligation or incentive for it to be communicated manually.
    – nekomatic
    Apr 17, 2018 at 9:07

3 Answers 3


A train can end up the wrong way around by going round a triangle (essentially, doing a three-point turn). This can happen in a variety of ways.

  1. Some routes call for a train to stop at a station to one side of the main route, which requires a reversal to continue the journey. For example, the station might be a little way to the east of a north-south line. A northbound train will take a right turn to get to the station, then reverse and turn right again to get back onto the main line: the effect is essentially a three-point turn. If not all trains stop at that station, some will be reversed and some not. Even if all the trains call there, trains that have been running on some other route for half a day and then move onto the route via with the reversal might have been turned around a different number of times to a train that's been running via the reversal all day.

  2. The same can happen with the maintenance depot.

  3. Occasionally, trains get diverted via unusual routes which may require reversals.

  4. Trains from A to B and trains from C to B might both pass through station D. Because of reversals or other reasons, the trains from A might be consistently oriented in the opposite direction to the trains from C. Perhaps the announcer just made a mistake.

As to how it can come as a surprise, I guess they just don't pay much attention to the actual orientation of the trains. On some lines, almost all the trains are oriented the same way. For example, the London to Edinburgh line has no opportunities for turning trains so they're essentially all facing the same direction. If one did get turned around for some reason, the automated announcements would probably just plough on regardless because it's such a rare situation.

In general, there are usually signs saying where each coach of a long distance train will be if the trains arrive in a consistent orientation.

  • This once happened to me on a train in Wales. I think it was Carmarthen, which seems to be accessible only by way of a short spur line.
    – phoog
    Mar 4, 2016 at 19:49
  • 3
    @phoog It also happens outside the UK, for example in Leipzig. I was on a train from Berlin to Jena and had been facing backwards the whole way. At Leipzig, the people on the other side of my table got off, so I took their seats, a new passenger sat where I'd been and the train set off in the opposite direction to what I'd expected, so I was backwards again! Mar 4, 2016 at 19:54
  • Actually CrossCountry's current route map shows that SW-NE trains go via Tamworth and Derby, and so don't need to reverse at Birmingham New Street. Mar 5, 2016 at 9:33
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby: It's alright -- I had momentarily forgotten the easterly route via Bordesley even existed, so I thought reversing in Birmingham would involve something like reaching the northeast via Manchester. Now since both lines are there, and the XC trains don't call north of Kings Norton anyway, one will almost certainly be available as a short-notice diversion route for the other, in which case the train will end up in an unplanned orientation. So the example is still good. Mar 5, 2016 at 20:35
  • 1
    @HenningMakholm Executive summary: it's complicated[TM]. :-) Mar 5, 2016 at 20:57

Another common reason why trains don't have the expected composition is a last minute change due to some malfunction of the scheduled train. In such a situation the priority becomes often to have a working train - any train - rather than making sure that the position of the coaches is as expected.

I've even had a case where reservation was mandatory, but the scheduled train was out of order. They replaced with another train, but some people had reservations for seat numbers that didn't exist on the replacement train.

Also the electronic displays on the European continent are not always correct. I've recently had a train in France where the numbering of the coaches the inverse of what was shown on the electronic (so easy to correct, I'd think) signs. It also resulted in people running from one end to the other in both directions. I've never known what was the reason in that case.


This is not really an answer, as David and ptityeti have both covered the reasons why trains may not always have the same "orientation", and why the announcements may not match reality, but illustrates a few more related situations (but is too long for a comment).

  • Eurostar trains are (or at least were, not sure about the new e320 train) fully symmetric (they are actually composed of two identical half-sets), with "Premier" coaches in the middle and "Standard" coaches at the ends. So even if they get spun around at any point (AFAIK, the only reason for them doing so would be to have a train do an out-of-service Brussels/Paris trip, or a more exotic Marne La Vallée/Paris Nord), they can just switch the numbering of the coaches (which is of course electronic), and voilà! it's back to normal. The #1 coach is always at the London end.

    Strangely enough, when picking a seat on the Eurostar website, they will tell you that for some seats they can't guarantee which direction they will be facing. Not sure if that was a very, very early anticipation of the e320s being introduced, as the composition of the e300s is really very well determined. Maybe the refurbished (ahem) trains have a different layout?

  • in France, TGV trainsets usually have 3 coaches of 1st class, the bar, and 5 coaches of 2nd class (though the exact composition varies a bit, and of course TGV Atlantique trainsets have a total of 10 coaches). In many cases, it would make sense to always have the 1st class coaches at the Paris end (as they are all terminal stations, while most -but nor all- other stations are through stations), but on a given line, you can see both orientations, even for a service at the same time on different days. And with coach-to-platform position indicators on the platforms, you would expect that the train actually matches what is advertised prior to arrival (and it usually is), but I've seen instances of reversed indications which lead to the obvious mad dash (especially as TGVs have compulsory seat reservation).

  • some trains, notably the TGV Réseau trainsets have double-numbering of the seats. When you book, you can choose whether you'll be facing the direction of travel or not, and the numbering inside each coach is designed so it can be reversed to match (all seats have two numbers, and only one set is illuminated). That means they reverse assignments within a coach, but the order of the coaches may be different (which is different from what happens on Eurostar trains).

  • interestingly enough, other recent trainsets, such as Duplex trains, have electronic seat number displays, so you'd think they could reverse seat number assignments, but they don't provide the "facing direction of travel" option.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .