Coaching Stock in the BR Blue TOPS Era

By Andy Joel

This is an article about British Rail from about 1972 to about 1985, often referred to by modellers as era 7. It lists N gauge coaches because that is what I model in. If you model in another scale, I would be delighted to know what is available in it from that era.

It is very much a work in progress. If you see any errors or have suggestions or further information, do please let my know. It is a follow on from the Freight in the Eighties article, and you should go there for details on air and vacuum braking.

The seventies and eighties was a period of change for coaching stock as BR moved from the vacuum-braked, steam-heated coach designs that it had inherits from the Big Four to air-braked, electric braked coaches with air conditioning.

Coaches were classified in two way, the first giving the era, or “mark”, and the second describing the facilities. Thus we might have a mark 1 BC or a mark 3 FO. To complicate matters, the mark 2 coaches were subdivided into seven divisions, with later types denoted by the letters a to f, and the Mark 2f coaches more closely resembled mark 1 than they did mark 2f.


The Mark

Mark 1

By the eighties all the coaching stock of the Big Four had gone, but the designs lived on in the mark 1 stock. They were built in two lots, from 1951 to 1960, then, with a “commonwealth” bogie from 1961 to 1963 (to 1974 when you include multiple units and non-passenger stock). Commonwealth stock numbers from 2579 to 2691.

They were mostly 63′ long, but a few were 57′ to allow for places where track curvature was greater. They generally had slam doors at either end as well as a third somewhere around the middle. They were designed so the tables were aligned with the windows, to allow passengers the best possible view out of the window – imagine that! They were built with safety in mind, and are believed to have been a significant factor in a fall in railway fatalities in the 1950s.

Steam locomotives can readily provide steam and vacuum, and all mark 1 coaches were steam heated and vacuum braked when built, though some were subsequently converted to be air braked and electric heated, especially catering and brake coaches running with later stock.

Mark 1 coaches started to be painted in blue and grey from the mid-sixties – some had been done before the end of steam. They had pretty much all been re-painted by the mid-seventies.

Suburban coaches

Some mark 1 coaches were built as “suburban” coaches. They were designed for services with frequent stops so had several doors down each side, with no corridor connection from one coach to another. Most did not have a toilet. They were painted blue, rather than the blue and grey of standard coaches. Most were 57′; on the southern region they were 63′.

Suburban coaches were replaced by multiple units and the last were withdrawn in 1977 (I think their last use was out of Kings Cross and Moorgate).


Mark 2

Mark 2 coaches were built from 1964 to 1975, and were of a semi-integral construction, making them stronger than the mark 1 coaches. The big difference visually between mark 1 and early mark 2 was that the mark 2 (and all subsequent coaches) had rounded ends; on the mark 1 they were square. Nearly all mark 2 coaches were painted blue and grey from being built.

They were slightly longer than mark 1s at 64′, and rated at 100 mph.

Mark 2 (64-66) were vacuum braked, though some were later converted to air.

Mark 2a (67-68) were the first to be built air braked.

Mark 2b (69) were the first without the central doors; a toilet at each end, rather than two at one end only.

Mark 2c (69-70) had provision for air conditioning, though it was never fitted; the roof vents were different and there was a space between the interior ceiling and the coach roof.

Mark 2d (71-72) looked very different to earlier coaches. They had air conditioning, so no need of opening windows, the windows therefore being a single pane, as on a modern train. They did not support steam heating. Some of these were the last corridor compartment stock built.

Mark 2e (72-74) minor interior changes.

Mark 2f (73-75) minor interior changes.

There is an interesting discussion on the visual differences between 2d, 2e and 2f here.


Mark 3

The mark 3 coaches were somewhat similar in appearance to the later mark 2, but considerably longer at 75′, and rated at 125 mph, rather than 100 mph.

The original 10 were built for the prototype HST.

The layout of the windows was based on the seating in the first class coaches. In second class, the same window spacing was used, but a shorter spacing for the tables and chairs, leading to obstructed views for many. This “innovation” is still seen on modern trains. They can be distinguished from later mark 2 as they have eight, rather than seven windows on each side, and the equipment under the carriage is hidden away.

They appeared in the mid-seventies, and were first used on HSTs on the ECML and lines out of Paddington, and loco-hauled on the WCML. Only the loco-hauled coaches had buffers, and for many years there were no loco-hauled brake or buffet coaches, so services out of Euston continued to use mark 1 buffets on improved bogies, rated for the higher speed. 


Mark 4 and 5

A quick mention as we drift out of the era…

Mark 4 coaches were introduced in 1989, for use on the newly electrified ECML. The most notable innovation was the use of automatic doors, rather than slam doors. I think these were the first coaches to retain sewage from the toilets, rather than just discharge to track (though mark 3 sleepers  may have been earlier).

Mark 5 coaches were introduced in 2016 on the Caledonian Sleeper service from Euston, and also in 2017 for Liverpool to Scarborough service by TPE. It is not clear to what extent these are a similar design, though both were built by the Spanish company CAF.

There was an earlier planned mark 5 coach for the WCML, but it was abandoned due to costs, and instead Virgin introduced the Pendolino.


Coach types

A set of letters is used to describe the function of a coach, so for example FK indicates first class seating in compartments with a corridor (K is used as C was taken for “composite”), and SO indicates second class seating in an open coach. Full list here. This was a system developed originally by LNER; there is also a TOPS system, but while this is used for wagons and did include coaching stock, I have not come across anyone actually using it for coaches.

A composite coach has seating for both first and second class, and was only used for mark 1 coaches (and multiple units). Corridor coaches with compartments fell out of favour due to issues with vandalism.


FK (First Corridor) (marks 1, 2, 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d)
CK (Composite Corridor)
SK (Second Corridor)
FO (First Open) (marks 2c, 2d, 2e, 2f, 3)
SO (Second Open) (mark 2)
TSO (Tourist Second Open) (marks 2, 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d, 2e, 2f, 3)
BFK (Brake First Corridor) (marks 2, 2a, 2c, 2d)
BCK (Brake Composite Corridor)
BSK (Brake Second Corridor)
BSO (Brake Second Open) (marks 2, 2a, 2c, 2d, 2e, 2f)
BFO (Brake first open) (mark 3)

DBSO (Driving Brake Second Open) (mark 2f only)

The TSO had two seats either side of the aisle, while the SO had two on one side, and one on the other (as the FO). SOs were unusual, and tended to be used as restaurant cars. Note that in multiple units, “T” is used to denote a trailer.

The DBSO was converted from, I think, a mark 2f TSO, for use on push-pull trains, originally between Glasgow and Edinburgh, powered by a class 47/7; the rest of the train was made up of mark 3 coaches.


No mark 2 catering coaches were built, but at least two were converted from other coaches, including M1800, an RSS from a mark 2f TSO.

There seems to have been a bewildering array of catering coaches in the early days (Wikipedia lists 20 types). I get the impression this had been rationalised to some degree by the eights, but I am not sure how much. This is a selection:

RU (Restaurant Unclassified)
RKB (Restaurant Kitchen Buffet)
RB (Restaurant Buffet)
RBR (Restaurant Buffet Refurbished)
RF (Restaurant First)
RFO (Restaurant First Open)*
RB(K) (Restaurant Buffet with large Kitchen, FK conversions)
RK (Restaurant Kitchen)
RSO (Restaurant Second Open, SO conversions)*
RUO (Restaurant Unclassified Opens, SO/TSO conversions)*
RMB (Restaurant Miniture Buffet; converted from a TSO)

I believe the RFO and RSO had no catering facilities of their own; would be run together with a RK between them  for passengers to dine in. A shorter version would be RF and RSO, combining the kitchen and first class into one coach. Not sure how long that went on for, but I would guess was long gone by mid-seventies.

Worth noting that around this time catering went from actually preparing food as you would expect in a restaurant to heating up pre-prepared food as is the practice nowadays. This meant less kitchen facilities were needed. I am note sure when this happened, but mark 3 catering was only ever designed for heating up pre-made food. The later thinking was to provide a buffet where passengers could get food, but then return to their own seats, and I am pretty sure this was already coming in by the eighties.

The restaurant griddle appears to be a smaller version of the kitchen. Six were built, and used between Glasgow and Aberdeen, but looks like they were withdrawn around 1978.

For mark 3, there were four types, the first three for use on HSTs, the fourth for other trains:


In the early days, some HSTs had two catering cars, one a restaurant car for people wanting to sit, and one a buffet. Seems likely other trains at the time had similar arrangements.

Note that the HST was often considered a multiple unit, and its coaches were designated accordingly, for example, prefixed with T for trailer.


SL denotes sleeper, E denotes either class, P pantry, not sure about the T.

There were no mark 2 sleepers.

SLE (mark 3)
SLEP (mark 3)


I believe there were no mark 2 or 3 coaches of this type. I think only the BG would be used routinely on a passenger train, as it is the only example to be gangwayed. Many BGs were converted to ETH and air braking, with improved bodies for high speed running so could be found running with mark 2 and mark 3 coaches.

CCT (Covered Carriage Truck)
GUV (General Utility Van)
BG (Brake Gangway)
POS (Post Office Sorting; some were built with arms and nets to pick up and drop off mail whilst on the move, but had been removed by the late seventies)
POT (Post Office Storage)
BPOT (Brake Post Office Storage)
SLB (Bullion van, converted from BSK, five built)

Livery Variations

In this period there was remarkably little variation in the liveries of coaches.

Suburban coaching stock was painted all-over blue, but had almost all gone by 1968, the only exception I know about being on routes out of Kings Cross, which lasted until electrification, around 1976.

The last coaches in passenger service in maroon (itself introduced in 1956 to replace the blood and custard) had essentially disappeared by around 1974, though exceptions might be found on excursions and reliefs until 1977 at the latest (there is a good article on early liveries here). Although some mark 2 stock was originally maroon, as prestige stock it was quickly repainted, and in blue and grey by the end of the sixties. Parcel stock in maroon will have been around longer – but so grubby it is hard to tell!

Pullman coaches had a reverse livery of grey, with blue round the windows. Two loco-hauled Pullman services were started in 1973, from Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street to Euston, when the line was electrified, replacing the “Blue Pullman” DEMU service that ran on the midland mainline. These were purpose-built mark 2 coaches. Curiously, the coaches were vacuum braked, so could not be pulled by a class 87 (mark 3 rolling stock was used from 1985). The Liverpool service only survived for a few years.

Coaches in the APT set had a very different livery.

Locos and Rakes

When building a rake for a train, you need to consider both the brakes and the heating. All the coaches need to have the same type of both. The loco hauling them has to support both as well.

With regards to braking, all locos had vacuum braking up to the class 56 and class 87, which were only air braked. Many of the earlier classes were later converted to be dual braked, and later still some were converted to exclusively air braked.

The situation was similar for heating, with nearly all the early classes built for steam heating (and was a major source of failures across the classes), with electric heating introduced later. The class 33 was a notable exception being built with ETH, rather than steam heating from the start. Later addition of electric heating was often denoted by a sub-class; thus a class 47 with electric heating was considered a 47/4.

More on locos here.

Models In N Gauge

Graham Farish do several mark 1 coaches: GUV, TSO, SK, BCK, RU, FK, BSK, FO, CK

They do a rather limited number of mark 2a: BSO, TSO, FK (not on their web site when I looked!)

They do some mark 2f too: RFB, DBSO, BSO, TSO, FO (the RFB is not out yet; I am not sure when the prototype appeared, but I think it was a conversion and was relatively late – too late for me!)

There are also 2e from Graham Farish. I think these are an older version of the 2f, but can still be found on Ebay, etc.

Dapol do a selection of mark 3, most in both HST and loco-hauled version: RB, FO, TSO, TGS (a BSO for HSTs)

Looks like Dapol have a mark 3 sleeper coming out soon.


Photos of unusual coaches:

This page is about coaches for virtual modelling, but useful nevertheless: