The British Rail Sandwich

Fortunately I am too young to have faced any prolonged exposure to this thoroughly besmirched foodstuff. Perhaps you dabblers have a particularly piquant memory of these curly triangles of terror?

In British humour, the phrase British Rail sandwich refers to sandwiches sold for consumption on passenger trains of the former British Rail (BR). Its use principally arose in British popular culture through comedic references to the food item as emblematic of the unappetising fare available aboard Great Britain’s railway service during the period of nationalisation from 1948 to 1994.

According to former BR caterer Myrna Tuddenham, the poor reputation of BR sandwiches likely owed to the practice of keeping the sandwiches “under glass domes on the counters in refreshment rooms until the corners turned up”. Despite the many jokes at its expense, British Rail documents show that in 1993, its last full year as a public company, eight million sandwiches were sold. Historian Keith Lovegrove wrote that it was “a sandwich of contradictions; it could be cold and soggy, or stale and hard, and the corners of the isosceles triangle-shaped bread would often curl up like the pages of a well-thumbed paperback”.

The British Rail sandwich was often ridiculed on British radio and television and in numerous books. An episode of The Goon Show entitled The Collapse of the British Railway Sandwich System was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 8 March 1954. In 1972, the show Milligna (or Your Favourite Spike) included spoof news items, including “Long-missing Van Gogh ear found in a British Rail sandwich”.

In his book Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life From Breakfast to Bedtime, Joe Moran describes the British Rail sandwich as “a metaphor for social decline since it became a running joke on The Goon Show”. Bill Bryson wrote in Notes from a Small Island: “I can remember when you couldn’t buy a British Rail sandwich without wondering if this was your last act before a long period on a life-support machine.”

The British Rail sandwich has been used as a negative point of comparison for other ready-to-serve meals, especially regarding transportation in the United Kingdom, and representative of the negative effects of British nationalisation of industry in the middle of the 20th century. A 1997 article in The Independent referred to the sandwich as “an indictment of statist, bureaucratic corporations” privatised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had “swept aside James Callaghan, prices and incomes policies and the British Rail sandwich”.

It has also been used as a negative point of comparison for poor service in general. In 1988, Investors Chronicle described British Telecom’s quality of service as “attracting the sort of public abuse once reserved for the British Rail sandwich”. In 2007, Sir Michael Bishop, then chairman of airline BMI, wrote that Heathrow Airport “now has the reputation formerly held by the British Rail sandwich”.


In 2001, the National Railway Museum in York discovered a November 1971 document featuring sandwich recipes, issued by Director of Rail Catering Bill Currie. The document states its aim to make BR meals “the best on the track” and describes the precise amount of sandwich filling to be placed on the sandwich. A typical ham sandwich would contain one slice of ham, another slice of ham would be folded in half and be placed diagonally over the first slice. When the sandwich was cut diagonally it would make it appear that it contained three slices of ham when in reality it only contained two.

In France, this kind of unappetising sandwich is named “sandwich TGV”, by assimilation with the quality of sandwiches sold in French high-speed trains.


Share This Post

About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

12 thoughts on “The British Rail Sandwich

    June 1, 2013 at 10:17

    Being on my last legs I did experience the joys of the BR sarnie, mainly in the ’70s. There was nothing quite like going to, say, Newcastle (a sandwich in itself: 5 hrs each way with ten minutes of – need I say tasteful – radio promo in between) and then, starved to madness, seizing a sandwich somewhere on the return leg. The way in which the thin slice of sweating processed cheese and the de facto soggy tomato, cohabiting beneath the lights for uncountable minutes, had in some way fused with the sliced, heavily aerated bread, plus the fact that all were also slightly warmed, was, in its way, the perfect comment on the value of the day’s excursion. Perversely, faced by the products ‘inspired by’ some smart chef or, worst of all (stand up, Eurostar) Waitrose, I rather miss them: the sandwich equivalent of flock wallpaper and Murgh Mussalam, ‘must be ordered 24 hours in advance.’

      June 1, 2013 at 14:04

      Rather you than me JG – I have often found my father in his kitchen eating some despicable retro austerity foodstuff (such as corned beef, shippams paste or even sardines in tomato sauce on toast -eek) and wondered what noisome nostalgia food that my own offspring will be disgusted to find me eating – my initial thoughts turned to the fray bentos pie..

        June 1, 2013 at 19:22

        Ahhhh… Fray Bentos! Are they still going? And here was me over the last few days wondering how to bake something similar. We ate them a lot when I was a kid, and then we always kept a couple of used tins to serve as dog bowls. Blackie never complained about that. She was just a lovely girl, happiest especially when Brek from across the road came over to visit: Brek of the blue and green eyes; good old lively Brek! Poor lad, the day after Blackie left us, he ran around the house following her scent everywhere, but couldn’t find her.

        • Worm
          June 1, 2013 at 19:38

          Unfortunately you cannot recreate Fray Bentos pies at home Graham, as they are hewn from satanic rocks at the Fray Bentos factory mine in Argentina before being summoned into tins by warlocks

        June 2, 2013 at 12:13

        Despicable? I eat sardines in tomato sauce straight out of the tin – delicious! And a corned beef and piccalilli sandwich…just makes my mouth water thinking about it. I’m with worm senior..

    Hackney Shamus
    June 1, 2013 at 12:51

    How much of this did you actually write? The whole thing appears to have been lifted from the wikipedia page you referenced…. Lazy dayz?

      June 1, 2013 at 19:27

      Pity your Sherlockian detective skills didn’t lead you to read a few more Wikiworms, which would have revealed the entire point of this weekly feature (the clue is in the name).

    June 1, 2013 at 13:18

    The wikiworm articles are articles from Wikipedia that I seek out for their oddness. I then edit them, juggle them around and post them. It’s not supposed to be my work, just an interesting read!

    June 1, 2013 at 19:30

    There used to be widely available this really cheap fruitcake – sliced rectangles in plastic wrappers – which my parents always referred to as ‘railway cake’.

    Incidentally, on the subject of British Rail, people do complain (with some justification) that the railways was the privatisation that didn’t work (unlike telecoms for example). But they do tend to forget that BR was a national joke.

    • Worm
      June 1, 2013 at 19:39

      Yep nobody complained at the time they were privatised as everyone was sick to death of them

Comments are closed.