The origins of the Class 153 date back to 1990, when British Rail needed replacements for its ageing fleet of Class 121 and 122 “Bubble Car” diesel railcars for use on the quiet Cornish, Welsh, North-Western, Norfolk and Lincolnshire branch lines, as well as augmenting rural two car units. Originally built as a two-car Class 155 “Super Sprinter” by British Leyland between 1987 and 1988, using a construction technique similar to that used in the Pacers, pre-formed panels were riveted together, creating a lightweight body on a welded floor assembly. Introduction was rapid, but teething troubles with the door mechanisms soon emerged, consequently the fleet was taken out of use and modified, with the Class 156 units taking over the duties.
The conversion to Class 153 was carried out by Hunslet-Barclay at Kilmarnock between 1991 and 1992, with 70 vehicles being produced. The layout of the original non-cab ends was different from the original cab end, so the ends are noticeably distinct with the vehicles not being symmetrical. Powered by a 285hp Cummins NT855-R5 Diesel, working through a Voith Hydraulic transmission, the maximum speed of a Class 153 is 75 mph, making it perfectly suited for small cross-country services. They are fitted with standard BSI auto-couplers, allowing them to work in tandem with other multiple units from the 14X and 15X Classes fitted with the same coupler, as well as newer units like the Class 170. In 2019/2020, five former GWR 153s moved from Northern to Abellio ScotRail for use on the West Highland Line attached to Class 156s as ‘active travel’ carriages. These units have had their interiors heavily modified to carry up to 20 bicycles, along with large bags and sports equipment.