The Anonymous Widower

Why Do Trains Travel On The Left?

Next time you board a train on a double-track railway, notice which side of the tracks the train runs.

In the UK, the trains are virtually all driven from the left-hand seat and the trains go on the left. A lot of this is tradition, as early trains had to be compatible with existing traffic in the early days of trains. As the British helped built French railways, they followed our lead, as did many countries under British influence. Metro systems, which tend to run on streets at times, have to be compatible with road traffic, so they could be on the right. There’s a detailed explanation in Wikipedia here. This paragraph sums up a lot.

In France, for instance, cars keep to the right, but the first train lines were built by British engineers, so kept to the left. The Paris RER trains keep left, but the Paris Metro was designed to run on the right. Another anomaly occurs in the Alsace-Moselle region, where trains keep to the right because the lines were built in the late 19th century when Alsace-Moselle was part of Germany. Bridges at the former border allow the trains to swap sides. High-speed TGV trains, however, operate on dedicated lines which were built more recently, but they keep left because they interface with older lines.

The question was asked by our guide in Sweden. He had noticed that main line trains in Sweden run on the left and that most Metro systems run on the right, except for Stockholm, which runs on the left.

Wikipedia says that in Sweden trains generally run on the left except for Malmo and further south.

I uspect that the Stockholm Metro is on the left, as it was built in the 1940s when Sweden drove on the left and thus was following the more or less universal Metro compatibility rule. The first line was also converted from a underground tramway, which would of course be compatible with road traffic.

So we’re still left with the Malmo anomaly in Sweden.

September 13, 2013 - Posted by | Transport/Travel | ,


  1. In Australia most systems including the national system run on the left with the driver on the left. As you said that is due to the British influence, most of our systems were designed and built by British engineers. We even imported British navies to build them.
    I was always told that the driver was on the left as the signals could then be on the left and therefore not between the tracks. Of course when you have more than 2 tracks you do end up with signals between the tracks but there is no alternative.

    Comment by Jim | September 13, 2013 | Reply

  2. There’s even anomalies in Oz, with Victoria being different. Trams and light rail would go on the left, as you drive that way. The Swedish experience is odd, but probably more because they changed the side they drive on quite recently.

    But generally, it’s all down to history and in the future, it won’t matter, as trains will have a single driver in the cab and signals will all be in the on board computer.

    Comment by AnonW | September 13, 2013 | Reply

    • Yes Queensland is different too they drive on the right side of the cab but use the left track in double track sections. In NSW the XPT drivers sit in the centre of the cab as it only has a single seat, other railcars may be similar.

      In cab signalling is the future but I think it will take a long time to arrive in many areas due to expense and need for all equipment to be compatible. Some lightly trafficked sections here have track warrant operation using computers so have no actual signals.

      Comment by Jim | September 14, 2013 | Reply

      • I’ve actually been in the cab of the UK HSDT train, on which the design of the XPT was based.

        The driver sits on the left, with another seat on the right. Partly, this was to avoid union trouble in the 1960s, when they were designed, but many British trains have a roomy cab and a second seat on the right, as it has all sorts of purposes like training and in my case, PR.. Some newer trains have just a single seat in the centre

        Comment by AnonW | September 14, 2013

  3. Interesting observation. Does this mean that you and Jim are ‘train line spotters’?

    Comment by pipmarks | September 14, 2013 | Reply

    • I don’t really think of myself as that but others might!
      I’ve always had an interest in rail history, particularly on its influence in the development of Australia. The story of European settlement here is heavily linked to transport development. Railways are also one subject I enjoy photographing along with buildings especially if they are old, plants and much else.

      Comment by Jim | September 15, 2013 | Reply

      • Hi jim. I too love photos of old stations etc. there was a good overgrown train yard photo in a recent post by simon wild:

        I am interested in how cities grew up along rivers & train lines & have been reading about how changes to shipping containers have changed cities in the last 50 years or so.
        Just never thought much about the lines before except for non- standard gauges.
        Thanks to you both!

        Comment by pipmarks | September 16, 2013

  4. Not really. But my guide in Sweden asked the question, so I wrote him an answer.

    Comment by AnonW | September 14, 2013 | Reply

  5. I made my money writing project management software and large projects fascinate me. The biggest you can see in the UK are new rail infrastructure like lines, tunnels and stations.

    Comment by AnonW | September 16, 2013 | Reply

  6. Both Metro and trains run on the left in Portugal. The metro was introduced in the 50’s, and we always have been a country that drove on the right side.

    Comment by Roberto Roque | March 16, 2016 | Reply

    • It’s probably because the original railways were built on the left by the British or the French. They seem to have been built to standard gauge not Iberian gauge.

      Comment by AnonW | March 16, 2016 | Reply

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