Lifting the lid on train toilets

15 Nov 2010

What happens when you go to the toilet on the train? A question commonly thought by many, but rarely voiced out loud.

To celebrate World Toilet Day on 20th and 21st November, The National Railway Museum York is giving the public the chance to find out by hosting a unique ‘Toilet Trail.’

The story of sanitation throughout the history of the railways is an interesting one. On an awareness day that highlights the plight of people across the world who still suffer from poor sanitation, it is worth remembering that not so long ago the western world didn’t have the facilities we now take for granted, and especially not on the transport network.

Over the last two centuries, the history of the humble toilet has developed from nothing at all provided on trains, other than the opportunity to relieve oneself when the train stopped, to the introduction of the modern flushable toilet. Even as late as the 1870s, shops near to major London stations such as Euston, sold medical appliances called urinals which could be used by passengers to cope with the lack of toilets on longer journeys. Until the 1880s, train carriages were basically wooden boxes on wheels. There were few toilets in people’s homes, so there was certainly no chance of one on a train. On long and gruelling journeys from say Scotland to London, trains would stop regularly to take on more water and allow passengers to take comfort breaks, where they could use ‘hole in the floor’ urinals or if lucky find a new WC to answer the call of nature.

The modern flushable toilet arrived in the late 19th century, when locomotives became bigger and more powerful. As toilets became normal in homes, they were also expected to be on trains. Railway companies became rival competitors as they vied for more people to use their trains. They found that people who travelled on journeys needed their home comforts and so introduced a toilet in each carriage. By the beginning of the 20th century every train except those on local and urban lines had a toilet.

During the early 1900s, some people thought it unthinkable for different classes to use the same toilet. On the London & South Western Railway first, second and third class would have a toilet in the middle of each seating area. These trains did not have a corridor and were not very spacious. They were also very expensive for railway companies to produce and were soon scrapped.

For visitors wanting to brush up on their knowledge of toilet history, the NRM York holds a fascinating treasure trove of toilets and other WC related objects such as a porcelain toilet, from the age of Edward the VII. Together with tile flooring, railway companies wanted to give journey-goers a better experience and a feeling of luxury. Other interesting artefacts include London and North Eastern Railways (LNER) branded toilet paper dating from the 1930s.

There is also the chance to see Queen Victoria’s ‘royal throne’. The  monarch’s ‘palace on wheels’, built in 1869 by London and North Western Railway, had toilets for each class as her Royal Majesty couldn’t be expected to share a toilet with her servants! There are three different toilets in the royal carriage on display at the NRM: one for her majesty, one for the ladies in waiting and one for the lower class attendant who travelled with her.  The royal flush did cause some problems even on Queen Victoria’s beautifully grand carriages thanks to its position in the carriage. The Queen’s toilet was over the train’s wheels. The royal waste would smatter the wheels and in the summer would create an unsavoury aroma.

You can also see how the rich travelled in style aboard the Pullman carridge Topaz. Just like the Orient Express, it had plush furniture for the carriages which was not fixed to the floor and so could be moved around. With luxurious travel came better toilet facilities with better travel so would-be passengers definitely had to be ‘feeling flush.’

Finishing off the toilet trail is a modern 1960s train with clean and comfy seats and facilities to match. Although the construction of trains had developed, the design of the toilet never changed. That was until the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) campaigned for toilets that wheelchairs and prams could actually fit into. This led to the toilets we have today: half moon shaped toilets that still have queues outside them (some things never change).

All jokes aside, World Toilet Day also brings awareness to the hundreds of litres of water that are wasted every day and the NRM are taking steps to prevent millions of litres of water literally going down the pan.

As well as reduced flush on toilets, movement sensors in taps and cutoffs on taps that fill locomotives, the Museum is set to install rainwater harvesting in the next few months. This involves a tank placed on the roof of the Museum’s Station Hall which filters rainwater into the toilets. This massive container can keep the Museum toilets ‘on a roll’ for an impressive one and half weeks and future initiatives include the use of grey water harvesting for hand water and an aim to show clear water pipes to educate schools about water conservation. All these measures will save the NRM a whopping 5.2 million litres of water a year.

And the answer to the burning question of what happens when you flush a toilet on a train?  Until the 1980s, it generally went straight on the tracks, that’s why, traditionally, you should not flush when the train was in a station. Since then, waste retention tanks have become standard equipment. These tanks collect our waste and are usually emptied between journeys. If there’s an ‘out of order’ sign above the toilet door, it usually means the tank has not been emptied.

The World Toilet Day Trail takes place 20th and 21st November at the National Railway Museum York. Visit for details.


For further information contact:
Hollie Cowan, Press Office, NRM
Tel: 01904 685708

Notes to Editors

• World Toilet Day together with organisation WaterAid, hope to transform the lives of the 2.5 billion people (that’s half the world’s population) who are without clean and healthy facilities, by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest countries.

Background: L&SWR Adams 563