Travel topics > Transportation > Rail travel > Rail travel in Europe > Rail travel in Great Britain
With around 34,000 km (21,000 mi) of track, the National Rail passenger network of the United Kingdom is one of the densest and most well-used railway services in the world. It was several key British inventions that allowed for the development of modern railways, perhaps the most important being James Watt's reciprocating steam engine, developed between 1763 and 1775, and the first steam locomotive by Richard Trevithick, completed in 1804. The first passenger railway to use steam locomotives would begin operation between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington in north-east England in 1825. This means the network is the oldest in the world. Most was constructed in the 19th century in massive civil engineering projects, many of which are now iconic (such as the Forth Bridge) and noted for their elegance as well as being major feats of engineering. Although some parts are relatively Victorian and can be inefficient, there has been significant investment in recent years. Britain's railways played a key role in the Industrial Revolution, allowing raw materials, goods and people to be rapidly transported across the country.
Following World War II, British railways went into a steep decline with the advent of private car ownership and commercial air travel, and were often seen as an outdated mode of transport that was an impediment to progress. Under recommendations made in the early 1960s by engineer and then-British Railways chairman Richard Beeching, the British government proceeded to progressively dismantle or abandon many railway lines in favour of growing Britain's motorway network throughout the 1960s and 1970s. However, due to increasing congestion on British roads, increased fuel prices and increasingly cumbersome security measures for air travel, Britain's railways have been experiencing a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s, and passenger numbers in modern times have since surpassed their pre-World War II levels - over a network barely half as long.
Train travel is very popular in Britain—you'll find many services busy, and passenger numbers have been rising steadily. It is one of the fastest, most comfortable, convenient and enjoyable ways to explore Britain and by far the best way to travel inter-city. From High Speed 1, which connects London to Kent and mainland Europe, to preserved railways operating historic steam trains through idyllic countryside, to modern inter-city services and the breathtakingly scenic lines of Scotland, the train can be an enthralling and affordable way to see much that the UK has to offer.
There are two separate railway networks in the UK. In England, Scotland and Wales the extensive National Rail network covers some 34,000 km (21,000 miles) covering most of Great Britain, from Penzance in Cornwall to Thurso in the far north of Scotland and including over 2,600 stations. Train travel is very popular in the UK, with many services busy and passenger numbers rising steadily every year. A mixed system is operated, with infrastructure being state-owned while commercial franchises operate trains, to a destination and service pattern specified by the government.
In Northern Ireland there is a state-owned system called Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) which is separate and even uses a different track gauge (the Irish gauge). It is well-integrated with local and provincial bus services operated by Translink and trains in the Republic of Ireland operated by Iarnród Éireann. This guide does not cover rail travel in Northern Ireland. For more details on rail travel in Northern Ireland, see Rail travel in Ireland.
All infrastructure (e.g. track, bridges, stations etc.) is owned by the state while trains are operated by private companies (usually multinational transport companies) which bid for particular franchises. The system is tightly controlled by the national and devolved governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff which heavily subsidise it. Despite the presence of many franchisees, the network provides seamless journeys even if travelling on various company's trains - tickets can be purchased from any station in Great Britain to any other, irrespective of train company. The National Rail website provides timetables and a journey planner.
While there are issues such as overcrowding at peak times, the train is an effective and enjoyable way to explore Britain and get around places of interest. It is also by far the best option for inter-city travel, with most inter-city trains travelling at 200 km/h (125 mph) and stations in most cities and towns being in the city-centre. Regional services travel up to 160 km/h (100 mph). While this means that services are not as fast as the high-speed lines of France, Germany or Japan, there is a relatively high standard of service on both main and secondary routes.
In recent years the privatised system has been accused of many failings and there are frequent calls to re-nationalise the entire network, but today most train companies offer a good service, particularly on inter-city and mainline routes, though punctuality varies considerably. Despite the large number of companies, for the traveller the experience is remarkably well-integrated. Tickets can be bought from any one station to any other in Great Britain, no matter how far away, how many train companies or changes of train are needed to get there. However, you’ll find tickets cost less the further in advance you book – if you buy a ticket at the station on the day of travel, fares can be shockingly high (and surprisingly low if you book a few weeks in advance).
The award-winning National Railway Museum at York tells the story of Britain's railways and how they changed society from the 19th century to today, with many historic and record-setting locomotives, rolling stock and other exhibits. Admission is free.
The ownership and structure is complex, but you won't notice that when making a journey, although it may be discussed in the media (complaints about the service feature sometimes in the news). The track, stations and infrastructure (except for preserved railways) are owned and maintained by Network Rail, a "not for dividend" company limited by guarantee and owned by the government. Basically this means the infrastructure is all state-owned.
Trains to be run are specified by the government and operated by commercial train companies, known as Train operating companies (TOCs). These lease or own rolling stock to run the passenger services demanded in their franchise contracts. Companies compete to win franchises for a certain number of years. Their continued permission to operate, or ability to win extensions or future franchises, depends on factors including value-for-money, performance and customer satisfaction. Government officials and transport ministers play a heavy role in the process. There are also a number of open-access operators, which are independent from franchising and run trains in slots purchased directly from Network Rail.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) represents all the passenger train companies, and markets them collectively as National Rail. National Rail has inherited the iconic white-on-red "double-arrow" logo (see illustration) first used by British Rail, the former state-owned railway operator which was privatised in the 1990s (although the infrastructure was re-nationalised in the early 2000s). The iconic logo is used extensively to signify a railway station and on road signs, maps, tickets and other places.
Passenger rail companies
Some train operating companies cover a particular geographical region, while others operate inter-city lines which pass through various regions. As of 10 December 2017, the National Rail network of passenger operating companies consists of the following companies. All are private commercial organisations (mostly subsidiaries of global transport companies like Arriva-Deutsche Bahn, First, Govia, Stagecoach and Virgin).
Seeing Britain's railway heritage
If you are interested in the role railways have played in British society, railway heritage, or just historic trains, a visit to the award-winning, free (and family-friendly) National Railway Museum at York is a must. Sited next to the station, it is the most popular national museum outside London and the many exhibits include the fastest-ever steam locomotive, Mallard, Queen Victoria's royal train, and the original Flying Scotsman.
The world's first public railway opened between Stockton and Darlington in north-east England in 1825, marking the start of a railway-building boom. Most railways in Britain were built by private companies in search of profit; dozens of small companies ran local lines, merged and took over each other, as others entered the market. By the mid-19th century, these had grown into a national railway network. In the 1920s, the government decreed they all merge into the four large companies that are best known today: the Southern Railway, London and North-Eastern Railway (LNER), London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and the Great Western (GWR). What followed was a "golden age" of speed records, iconic locomotives such as Flying Scotsman and images of the train as an elegant yet everyday form of travel (you'll see modern train company names harking back to this golden age). Following World War 2, in which most of the infrastructure was worn down on war duties, damaged or destroyed by bombing raids, the government nationalised all railways in 1948. The resulting state-owned British Rail ran trains for nearly fifty years, during a time of change when steam was replaced by diesel and electric traction, large numbers of feeder and marginal lines were closed in the "Beeching Axe" as the age of the car arrived, line speeds increased, and the now-iconic double-arrow logo (sarcastically referred to as the "arrows of indecision") came to symbolise the railway network and the presence of a station.
British Rail's (and now National Rail's) double-arrow logo and associated typeface of the 1960s are recognised as design classics of the period (unlike almost anything else British Rail did) but are only one of many achievements of design and engineering accomplished by railway companies in Britain. In the 19th century, majestic stations such as London St. Pancras, Kings Cross, Paddington and Liverpool Street were erected by railway companies. These "rail cathedrals" symbolised the success of the companies who built them and the places their lines ran through (e.g. the Midland bricks of which St. Pancras is constructed). Iconic bridges and viaducts of the Victorian era such as the Forth Bridge have come to symbolise the regions they run through. In the 1920s and 30s, streamlined locomotives such as Mallard became symbols of modernity which now symbolise the zenith of UK rail travel, while railway travel posters between the 1930s and 1950s pioneered a style of art which showcased Britain at its most attractive.
Despite the lows of the Beeching era in the 1960s, British Rail rebounded in the 1970s and '80s as it fought back against the new motorways. The state-owned corporation developed a new unified brand for its long distance express services known as InterCity, and this, along with electrification of the two main line routes from London to Scotland and new, high technology rolling stock saw a boom in patronage that in turn safeguarded the loss making regional routes and remaining branch lines from closure. However, decline and neglect were still very evident throughout the system as it suffered from a lack of investment from government. With the political climate of the time favouring private operation of public services, it was inevitable that the network would be moved from state control to the private sector. This era also saw two major new developments in rolling stock. Unlike France, where new high speed lines were built all across the country, British Rail deemed it more feasible to build new trains adapted to the curvy and often non-electrified existing network. The "High-Speed-Train" (HST) was initially intended as a stopgap until the "Advanced Passenger Train" (APT) was to enter service. However, the latter was plagued with teething problems, a lack of political consensus in its favor and ultimately saw only very little revenue service. That said, the active tilting technology pioneered by the APT still sees use in the Pendolino trains that run on British tracks to this day.
Following a badly-conceived privatisation in the mid 1990s, the network was fragmented with different companies running track, rolling stock, and dozens of small companies operating trains but with heavy government intervention, subsidy and control of the system. The infrastructure (e.g. track, signals and stations) were re-nationalised in the early 2000s after a financial meltdown triggered by the fatal Hatfield crash in October 2000, and since then the system has bedded-in and developed into an effective transport system, albeit with some ongoing issues, to give a mixed public/private-sector railway. Profits accrue to the private sector but subsidies are paid and exact services to be run are specified by the government. In fact, the national and devolved governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff have much greater control over the railways now than in the days of British Rail. As of 2013, passenger numbers are booming despite annual rises in fares, and many passengers buy tickets on the internet and access timetables using smartphone apps.
Most scenic routes
Many lines cut through spectacular British countryside and run along dramatic coasts, particularly in Scotland, Wales and the north and south-west of England. In many places, elegant Victorian viaducts and bridges add to (rather than detract from) the beauty of the natural landscape. Of the many such scenic routes, here are a few that are part of the National Rail network and provide a transport service to the communities along the route, as well as attracting tourists. Preserved and heritage railways operate others (usually by steam train) in gorgeous countryside (see section below on preserved railways).
- Cambrian Line (Shrewsbury - Aberystwyth/Pwllheli). This is a route that travels first through the semi-mountainous upland terrain of Mid Wales, and then the Dovey Valley before reaching the coast. The route passes through Machynlleth before splitting at Dovey Junction some distance southwest. The southern portion heading for Aberystwyth, the northern portion to Pwllheli in [[North Wales]. On the northern arm, the coast of first the Dovey estuary and then Cardigan Bay is alongside. The mountains of Snowdonia are first to the north and then east as the line delicately weaves its way up the coast. The railway line crosses Mawddach Estuary on the noted Barmouth Bridge, continuing north, to reach Harlech and turning west to Minffordd and Porthmadog. A run west along the northern edge of Cardigan bay completes the run into Pwllheli. The route also connects with many of the narrow gauge "little trains of Wales" which can be used to explore the mountainous Welsh interior.
- Exeter-Penzance (also known as the Riviera Line): Designed by the famous engineer Brunel as part of his Great Western Railway, this line runs from Exeter, Devon to Penzance, Cornwall and includes long stretches where the railway runs directly on the sea wall, such as at Dawlish. It also runs through lush valleys, the dramatic Dartmoor, crosses viaducts by Brunel and enters Cornwall by the impressive Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar (pronounced TAY-mar). Images of waves breaking by the railway line at Dawlish are iconic of Devon. The stretch between Exeter and Newton Abbot is especially pretty, as the train travels along the sea wall through the pretty coastal towns of Starcross, Dawlish and Teignmouth (pronounced "Tin-muth"). Keep you eyes glued to that window for that 15-20 minute stretch!
- Heart of Wales Line (http://www.heart-of-wales.co.uk/). The entire journey from Swansea to Shrewsbury takes around four hours and takes in some of Wales' most stunning mountainous scenery and passes through historical towns and picturesque spas.
- Stonehaven-Aberdeen: The line north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen crosses the iconic Forth Bridge. At its northern end, between the pretty harbour town of Stonehaven and the "Granite City" of Aberdeen it runs for 20 minutes or so along a dramatic, craggy coast with spectacular cliffs soaring down into the north sea. Rugged inlets and churning waves breaking on the rocks add to the scene. The route is especially impressive at sunrise (as may be seen if taking the sleeper from London to Aberdeen)
- The Far North Line from the rapidly-growing city of Inverness to Britain's most northerly town, Thurso, runs through impressive Highland scenery as well as alone the Moray Firth, the Dornoch Firth and the impressive coast of Sutherland. Another scenic route leaves Inverness for Kyle of Lochalsh, with its links to the spectacular isle of Skye.
- The Settle-Carlisle Line runs 73 mi (117 km) from Settle in North Yorkshire (or you can join the train earlier at the major city of Leeds) to the city of Carlisle, near the Scottish border. The most scenic railway in England, it runs through the dramatic Pennine Hills and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Of the many viaducts, the dramatic Ribblehead Viaduct with its 24 stone arches is most notable, and there is good walking from many of the stations on the route.
- The West Highland Line from Glasgow to the west-coast harbour towns of Mallaig and Oban is probably the most spectacular in the UK and regularly voted among the top railway journeys in the world. The nightly sleeper from London Euston to Fort William also runs on the route and in the summer there is a daily steam train called "The Jacobite". Spectacular vistas include Loch Lomond and the Gareloch, the dramatic Rannoch Moor, the Glenfinnan Viaduct (as featured in the Harry Potter movies and Scottish banknotes) and spectacular views of the Hebrides from Mallaig, among many others on the 4-hour ride.
An achievement of British Rail which is still in place today is that you can purchase a through-ticket from any station in Great Britain to any other station, including whatever changes of train, train companies or even London Underground connections are needed.
Most inter-city services travel at 200 km/h (125 mph), even on non-electrified lines. Britain was the first country to introduce high-speed diesel services in the 1970s (using InterCity 125 trains that, refurbished, are still a mainstay of some routes today). Unlike some countries, high-speed services do not cost more than others, except for the trains running on the new High Speed 1 from London St. Pancras to stations in Kent. Here you pay higher fares than slower services that don't use the high-speed line and there are no cheaper Advance or Off-Peak tickets. Away from the inter-city lines, speeds are up to 160 km/h (100 mph) on main lines and less on more minor routes. In the old Southern Region (a region bounded by the River Thames and the South Western Main Line to Weymouth), even inter-city services are limited to 100 mph due to the constraints of third-rail electrification.
On non-inter-city services (especially in South-East England), you may hear the term fast, as in the following announcement: "Calling at Sevenoaks, Petts Wood, Bromley South, then fast to London Charing Cross". This does not refer to speed - it means non-stop. So the train in the above announcement would miss out the many stations between Bromley South and London Charing Cross. A "fast" service is non-stop, while "semi-fast" means calling at only certain stations.
Classes of travel
Two classes operate: standard class and 1st class. Commuter trains and some local services offer standard class only.
- Standard class accommodation generally has two seats either side of the aisle with a mix of 'facing table' or more private 'airline-style' seats. Some trains, designed for more intensive commuter use, may have three seats one side and two the other, or even just perches along the walls with plenty of standing space.
- First class accommodation has two seats and one seat either side of the aisle, with a larger seat, more legroom, and on inter-city routes, an at-seat service of drinks, refreshments and a newspaper (not all at seat services are available at the weekend). However apart from on long journeys (2 hours or more) or busy trains (i.e. 8:00am train into London) it is almost pointless to buy a first class ticket. This is because apart from the fact that you are more likely to get a seat (it is pretty likely though anyway) it has almost no benefits for the price difference. Do check prices when booking, though, as off-peak advance first class fares can sometimes be surprisingly reasonable, and on a longer journey extra leg and elbow room as well as the (often quite good) meals and drinks are nice. It's also worth checking the train operator's website to see what first class gets you, for example Virgin's essentially restaurant quality catering vs. some other operators who basically are just selling you a bigger seat. Also note that on weekends many trains offer a fairly cheap first class upgrade once you've boarded the train. This is usually announced, or you can ask the train personnel.
In both 1st and standard class, most trains also provide:
- Free seat reservations (not commuter or local services), indicated by a paper tag or electronic display above each seat
- A walk-up buffet, or a trolley service of drinks and refreshments moving through the train
- Air conditioning (not always available on commuter or local services)
- At least one carriage with a fully disabled-accessible toilet and baby changing facilities
- On inter-city services, a wireless internet service (a charge may apply)
- Most inter-city trains provide a "Quiet Coach" where use of mobile phones, iPods, conversations, and any other noise is not permitted. These can be found on trains operated by Virgin Trains East Coast, CrossCountry, Virgin Trains, East Midlands Trains, Eurostar, Great Western Railway and Abellio Greater Anglia's inter-city services.
Smoking and alcohol
Smoking is illegal on board trains in Great Britain (and in fact in any enclosed public place in England, Wales and Scotland). Trains are fitted with smoke alarms, including in toilets. If you are seen smoking, train staff will arrange for the British Transport Police to be waiting at the next station and you will be arrested and fined. Note that smoking is also illegal on station platforms and any other railway property, although at smaller or rural stations it is generally ignored if you smoke in the open air as far as possible from the main waiting area. Vaping electronic cigarettes is not allowed on board trains, but some train companies allow you to vape on the platform.
Whilst alcohol consumption on most trains and on stations is not necessarily banned, (the major exceptions beings noted below) you may get disapproving looks from fellow travellers and from railway staff, if you consume it openly on the platform.
During some events, train companies may restrict alcohol consumption on their services and will publicise such restrictions on the train or at stations. If you are found consuming alcohol where it is restricted, it will be confiscated. You will only be fined if you fail to surrender your alcohol or continue to drink after being warned.
British Transport Police can also remove you from any station or train, at any time if you are deemed to be unfit to travel through intoxication, and railway staff show no hesitation in requesting their intervention under Railway byelaws, when required.
In Scotland on trains operated by ScotRail from 20 July 2012, it is illegal to be in possession of alcohol or consume alcohol before 10am or after 9pm. This ruling does not apply to the Caledonian Sleeper Service.
Under separate by-laws, specific local transport networks such as the London Underground also implement alcohol bans.
On some rural, local services (particularly in the north-west and south-west of England), some smaller stations are request stops (this will normally be indicated on the schedule as well as announced on the public-address system). If boarding at a request stop, the train will slow down and may also sound its horn - if you wish to board the train then raise your arm so that the driver can see you. If you wish to alight at a request stop, you should notify train staff as to which station you wish to get off at and he will signal the driver to stop.
Regional, local and commuter lines
A vast network of lines provide services between towns and cities of regional importance (e.g. Liverpool - Manchester), local services (e.g. Settle - Carlisle) and commuter services around many major cities (the network is particularly dense around London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool). Most towns and cities of interest or importance can be reached by rail, or by rail and a connecting bus link (e.g. a bus service connects Leuchars Station with St Andrews). It's worth trying the journey planner on the National Rail website to see if a place you're interested in is served (see section on Planning your Trip below).
The inter-city network developed out of six historic mainlines. Line speed is up to 125 mph (201 km/h), but is up to 186 mph (299 km/h) for High Speed 1 which is only achieved by Eurostar with domestic trains limited to 140 mph (230 km/h), 110 mph (180 km/h) for the Midland Main Line and 100 mph (160 km/h) for the Great Eastern line. All inter-city lines connect to London at one end, except for the Cross-Country Route. There are numerous stations in London, with each mainline terminating there calling at a different station (e.g. Paddington, King's Cross, St. Pancras, Euston, etc.). These stations are linked by the London Underground network.
- High Speed 1 (HS1) connects London with many destinations in Kent such as Canterbury, Rochester and the Medway Towns, Margate, Dover, etc., and with the Channel Tunnel to France. Domestic services run at 140 mph (230 km/h) from London to cities and towns in Kent, and Eurostar international services run at 186 mph (299 km/h) to Paris and Brussels. This line runs from St Pancras.
- East Coast Main Line - from London King's Cross to Leeds, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, via Peterborough, York, other towns and cities in Yorkshire, Newcastle and stations in eastern Scotland. Services also depart from here to Cambridge.
- West Coast Main Line - from London Euston to Glasgow, via Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Carlisle.
- Great Eastern Main Line - from London Liverpool Street to Norwich via Colchester and stations in Essex and East Anglia.
- Great Western Main Line - from London Paddington through Reading to the West of England and to Wales: Bristol, Bath, Devon and Cornwall, across the Welsh border to Cardiff and Swansea. Services also depart for Oxford.
- Midland Main Line - from London St. Pancras to destinations in the English Midlands, including Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and on to Sheffield in Yorkshire.
- Cross-Country Route - connecting Scotland, northern England, the Midlands, southern and south-west England. Unlike all other inter-city lines it does not reach London and most services run via Birmingham.
While these are the routes showing high speed services, some operators run longer-distance "fast" or "semi-fast" connections on local lines, one such example being Abellio Greater Anglia's West Anglia Main Line "fast" service which only calls at London Liverpool Street, Tottenham Hale, Harlow Mill, Bishops Stortford, Audley End, Whittlesford Parkway and Cambridge. A much longer Arriva Trains Wales service travels regularly from Milford Haven to Manchester calling at towns and cities like Carmarthen, Llanelli, Swansea, Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport, Abergavenny, Crewe and Manchester Piccadilly. These trains are not served by high speed trains and will often operate at slower speeds. They may also call at intermediate stations on the route. It is worth checking where your train stops at, and whether there may be a quicker connection, for example, Great Northern's London King's Cross - Cambridge would be quicker than Greater Anglia's London Liverpool Street - Cambridge.
There are three scheduled sleeper trains in Britain that operate every night (except Saturday) in each direction. Travelling more slowly than their equivalent daytime trains, they offer a comfortable means of overnight travel. All feature a lounge car that is open to passengers booked in berths (although on busy nights ScotRail sometimes restrict access to the lounge car to first-class passengers only). A buffet service of food and drinks is available in the lounge car, offering affordable snacks and beverages in retro surroundings reminiscent of 1970s British Rail.
London to Scotland
Serco operate two Caledonian Sleeper routes, with each train dividing/joining en route to serve multiple destinations in Scotland.
- The Lowland Sleeper departs from/arrives in London Euston as one train, but divides at Carstairs in the early hours, with portions travelling to:
- The Highland Sleeper departs from/arrives in London Euston as one train, but divides at Edinburgh (passengers are not permitted to alight here, you should travel on the Lowland Sleeper instead) with portions travelling to (and calling at numerous stations on the way):
Reservations on Caledonian Sleepers are compulsory, and supplements may be payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. Reclining seats don't require a supplement, nor do special advance-purchase tickets known as Bargain Berths, priced at £19, £29, £39 or £49 depending on destination and availability.
Caledonian Sleepers offer three kinds of accommodation:
- Reclining seated accommodation (comparable to daytime first class but with no at-seat service). Passengers to and from Fort William have to change carriages in Edinburgh. However, this may be uncomfortable on a long trip; bear in mind the Highland Sleeper takes 12 hours and the lights are left on all night (a blindfold may be provided).
- Standard Class (a cabin with two berths, upper and lower, and washbasin; solo travellers usually have to share with another traveller of the same sex)
- First Class (an identical cabin but only one berth and more generous breakfast, toiletry pack and access to departure and arrival lounges at larger stations)
London to Penzance
Great Western Railway operate the Night Riviera Sleeper, which travels along a single route from London Paddington to Plymouth, Devon and Penzance, Cornwall, calling at numerous intermediate stations. Reservations on Great Western Railway sleepers are optional in seated accomodation, and supplements are payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. The Night Riviera offers three kinds of accommodation:
- Reclining standard class seated accommodation (comparable to daytime first class).
- Standard Class: either a cabin with two berths or (for a slightly greater supplement) a cabin with just one. Solo standard class berths also feature a wall mounted entertainment system pre-loaded with films and television programmes.
Planning your trip
Britain's longest train journey
The longest single train journey in Britain is the 08:20 from Aberdeen to Penzance, operated by CrossCountry . It takes nearly 13 and a half hours (arriving at 21:43) making thirty-three intermediate stops and covering 1162km (722 miles). It is operated by either a four coach Class 220 Voyager or five coach Class 221 Super Voyager diesel train, and is prone to overcrowding at busy points on the journey. A delightful travel piece in the Telegraph recounts a father and son's experience of the complete journey on a summer's day.
The best source of information is the National Rail website at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/. It has a very useful journey planner, gives live updates for all stations, has station information and plans, ticket information, as well as a useful Cheapest Fare Finder (however "split ticketing" may still be cheaper). Most of these services are also available by telephone from the National Rail Enquiries phone service on +44 845 748 4950. The National Rail website gives prices but does not sell tickets (however it will link to a choice of several websites which do). Among the train operators' websites, a useful one for planning travel and buying tickets is:
- Great Western Railway is a privately-owned train company which uses an easy-to-use ticketing system and unlike most websites also sells some rovers online here. As with all train company websites, it gives information and sells tickets for all services in Great Britain operated by any company.
- Other useful websites include virgintrains.co.uk, northernrail.org, scotrail.co.uk, southwesternrailway.com, takethetrain.co.uk and splitticketing.com/
It is advisable not to use the various independent train booking websites that also exist, which often charge unavoidable additional fees for tickets which can all be purchased without the fees from any train companies website! (e.g. for booking, using a debit card, using a credit card, receiving tickets by post or collecting them at the station).
- Do not use thetrainline.com, redspottedhanky.com, mytrainticket.co.uk or raileasy.co.uk as every ticket sold there can be purchased at a cheaper rate and without any booking or card fees from any train company's website! Some third party ticket websites charge booking/collection/credit card fees, while the official train company websites do not. thetrainline.com advertises frequently in the media in the UK, leaving some people convinced that it's cheaper, however in reality it's impossible to get a cheaper deal there no matter what anyone tells you!
A feature of the network is that you can purchase a through-ticket from any one station to any other in Great Britain, regardless of which or how many train companies you will need to travel on. You buy tickets at station ticket offices or ticket machines. Bear in mind that smaller stations may have no ticket office and very minor ones will not have a machine; in this situation you should buy your ticket on-board from the conductor as soon as you can. Alternatively, more and more travellers buy from one of the train company's websites, all of which have a journey planner and sell tickets for all services, not just their own. If you buy on a website one of the companies listed in the Passenger Rail Companies section above, you can receive your tickets in a number of different ways (depending on provider):
- Post: you can have tickets sent to you by post (takes 2-3 days), but note that this may have to be to the address that your bank card is registered at.
- Collection: you can pick them up at a train station you specify that has an automated ticket machine. If you are collecting tickets from a machine, you need any bank card plus the ticket collection reference in your confirmation email. Note that if travelling from an unstaffed station without a ticket machine, it will not be possible to collect your ticket there. You should use another method or collect your ticket from another station before travelling. However, if travelling within Scotland, ScotRail unofficially accept seeing your confirmation email instead. If travelling to a station with barriers, they may ask you to collect your ticket there to leave the station. For example, boarding a train at Achnasheen, you would show the conductor your confirmation email. When arriving in Inverness, you may need to print out your ticket from the machine there. In this case, select Inverness as your collection station when buying the ticket.
- Print at Home: you can print the ticket at home on your printer (only on some routes).
- Mobile: you can have your ticket delivered to your smartphone, which you just present on the train (only on some routes).
A ticket does not guarantee a seat unless you also have a seat reservation. Depending on ticket type and train company, this may come automatically with the ticket or you may be asked if you wish to reserve a seat - ask if you are unsure. Some trains (mostly local and commuter services) do not permit seat reservations. If you have no seat reservation, you may have to stand if the train is busy.
Tickets come in three types. You can usually book up to three months in advance and the further in advance you book, the less expensive tickets are. You can choose between flexibility (generally move expensive) and value (less or no flexibility), similar to an airline. Off-peak times are usually any time after 9.30am and all weekends and public holidays, although some companies around London also have a weekday afternoon peak. Services are much more expensive outside these off-peak times. In increasing order of cost, tickets are classed as:
- Off-Peak - Buy any time, must travel at 'off-peak' times, ticket is more expensive than Advance ticket. Change in travel plans possible. You can Break your journey anywhere en-route
- Anytime - Buy any time, travel any time, most expensive ticket. Change in travel plans easily made, plus you can just travel any time you like.
- Advance - are usually the cheapest tickets (although if you are making a return journey, a return ticket can sometimes be cheaper than two Advance tickets). Advance tickets must be bought in advance and you must travel on a specific train, at a specific time. Most train companies allow booking up to 6pm the evening before travel, but some companies sell advance tickets up to 15 minutes before departure, notably CrossCountry via. their mobile app. Advance tickets are limited, so once a set number have been sold, the only tickets available may be Off-Peak or Anytime tickets. If you get a different train to that stated on your ticket, you will need to pay for a new ticket (at full price) and on some trains you will also have to pay a penalty fare (at least £20 extra). You can not board or leave the train at any station except those stated on the ticket unless you have another ticket to that station.
Advance tickets are only sold as single (one-way) tickets. To make a return journey, simply purchase two singles. Off-Peak and Anytime tickets are available as single or return. With the exception of some suburban and commuter trains, the cheapest fares are almost always Advance tickets however these are not always the best value. These are released for sale in limited numbers approximately 12 weeks in advance, and advanced tickets can only be used on the train specified on the reservation. To check how far ahead 'Advance' tickets are available, visit National Rail's "Booking Horizons" page. If you have not booked in advance, short-distance travel is still affordable if you buy on the day of travel, but if you try to buy longer-distance tickets on the day (e.g. London-Scotland) make sure your budget is prepared.
When purchasing a less restricted off-peak or anytime ticket, note that return fares are normally only a small amount more than a single (one-way ticket). Off-peak and anytime return tickets usually allow travel back up to a month after departure, outbound travel must completed the day the ticket was purchased except if the journey is not possible to complete in one day, the ticket was purchased after the last through train left, or you are using a sleeper. However, you can change trains as many times as you want en-route if you want to get out and take in the sights. For shorter distance journeys a cheaper "Day Return" may be available, where outbound and return travel must be completed on the same day (a "day" is defined at ending 04:29 the following day). Tickets are valid until 04:29 the day after the 'valid until' date shown on the ticket. Tickets purchased after midnight are valid until 04:29 the following day (28 hours after purchase). These fare are extremely flexible allowing you to travel on any train operated by any company and break your journey as many times as you like. On some intermediate-length routes, eg between London and Cambridge, both returns and day returns are available. Often people (including ticket officers) will use "return" to mean "day return" -- this can cause confusion. It's always best to specify when buying your ticket either "period return" (return within a month) or "day return" (return the same day) just to be sure you're getting the right one.
Tips to save money
There are various ways to obtain discounts, for some people, some of the time. The simplest way to get cheaper tickets is always to book as far in advance as possible.
An example of the complexity and lack of logic in ticket pricing is that it can sometimes be cheaper to split a journey into two or more segments, and buy a separate ticket for each segment. This can apply to any of the ticket types listed above. For example, as at January 2013 a standard-class off-peak day return ticket from Reading to Bristol costs £42.50. But the same ticket type from Reading to Didcot costs £5.80, and from Didcot to Bristol costs £21.90 - a total of £27.70, saving over 34%. You would buy both tickets before starting the journey.
It is important to note that these tickets are valid only on trains that are scheduled to stop at the relevant intermediate station. In the example above, you would have to use a train that stops at Didcot - some but not all Reading-Bristol trains do so. But there is no need for you actually to break your journey at the intermediate station, unless you wish to. There is little rhyme or reason as to which journeys can be made cheaper by this tactic, although it seems that journeys starting and finishing at major locations tend to be relatively more expensive (in our example, Reading and Bristol are both much bigger places than Didcot). You have to do your own research by using the National Rail site mentioned above. Splitting at most locations increases the cost rather than decreasing it.
There's little risk if you're using more than one separate ticket for different segments of the journey on one train. However, this strategy carries risk if you're using more than one train: If you have two low-price, advance-purchase tickets which can only be used on specific trains and the first train is late and you miss your second, connecting train, then you will have to purchase a new ticket for the second leg of your train journey. This is likely to be at eye-watering, wallet-destroying cost as walk-up fares can be extremely expensive for journeys that are not short. If you are inexperienced with travelling by train in the UK, it is safer to purchase a through-ticket direct to your destination. This means that if one of your connecting trains is late, you should still be able to travel to your final destination at no extra cost.
You can buy tickets from any station in the UK to any other station in the UK at any ticket office allowing to purchase "split tickets" you can not buy these from self service machines. If the station you are starting your journey at has no ticket office, you can buy the first ticket from the self-service machine, and in some cases tickets from other stations as well. If not, then you can usually then board the train with the first ticket and then immediately find the conductor to purchase the rest, but this is not guaranteed.
- splitticketing.com is a website which finds split tickets and allows you book them online (for a small fee) if you want.
Change of route excess
A little known secret is the possibility to excess a ticket to a different route. This allows you to save money when travelling on a cheaper route one way and return on a more expensive route. Take for example off-peak returns from Dundee to Inverness. There are two different tickets available. One is free of any restrictions, bearing the inscription ANY PERMITTED, the other requires you to travel VIA AVIEMORE. The former costs £56.10, the latter only £36.90. An online journey planner will offer you the ANY PERMITTED ticket in this case. At at ticket office you'll however be able to buy a ticket VIA AVIEMORE and a change of route excess for the direction where you want to travel via Aberdeen (not passing through Aviemore). The change of route excess is only half the difference between the two tickets. You'll pay only £46.50, a saving of more than 17% compared to the ANY PERMITTED ticket.
Similarly, on a small number of routes it's possible to get a cheaper ticket if you travel with a specific operator. Usually this involves taking a slower or less frequent train. For example, a single with no restrictions between Glasgow and Edinburgh is 12.5GBP. A ticket for CrossCountry only is 8.5GBP. Similarly look out for Virgin Trains only fares between the south and Scotland or Abellio Greater Anglia only fares between Cambridge and London.
Break of Journey
Any ticket (other than advance tickets) allows you to break your journey as many times as you like within the day. So if you're going from A to C but getting off at B on the way, and B is on a valid route between A and C, you only need one ticket rather than two separate ones.
Discounts are available for:
- Children - up to the age of 15 Normally a half fare
- Small Groups – of between 3 and 9 people
- Large Groups – 10 or more people
- Railcards – discount cards for certain groups
- Regional Railcards – offering discounts within a specific region
- Some European railway staff
The most widely used system of discounts on National Rail are Railcards. These provide a discount of 1/3 off nearly any off-peak ticket (although a minimum fare is charged for short journeys below a certain ticket price). Railcards cannot be used for Eurostar fares. Railcards can be purchased from any station ticket office (after completing a form and providing of proof of eligibility and a photograph) or online from http://www.railcard.co.uk/. Although these are primarily intended for British citizens, the discounts offered makes them useful for visitors to Britain who plan to travel a lot by train. Some railcards are available in digital form where an image of the railcard is displayed through a mobile phone app; if you want one, be sure to state it when you apply for one online.
- 16-25 Railcard offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for anyone aged 16 to 25 and full-time students of any age (with a suitably stamped form from a university). Currently costs £30 per year or £70 for three years.
- Family & Friends Railcard offers a discount of 1/3 on adult fares and 60% on child fares. Up to four adults and four children can travel on one Family & Friends Railcard. At least one named cardholder and one child must be travelling together for the whole journey. Currently costs £30 per year or £70 for three years.
- Senior Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for anyone aged 60 or over. Currently costs £30 per year or £70 for three years.
- Two Together Railcard New card introduced in 2014 offering a discount of 1/3 for two named people (over 16) travelling together. Both people must have their photos on the card, and must stay together for the whole journey. If you change travelling companion you have to buy a new railcard.
- Network Railcard An unusual relic of the pre-privatisation British Rail era: it is a geographically specific railcard that relates to the now obsolete 'Network SouthEast', the British Rail brand for the region of trains that radiate from London and the south east of England. It offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for the cardholder and up to three other adults(restrictions apply Monday to Friday) and up to four children, aged 5 to 15 can save 60% on the child fare. Costs £28 a year.
- Disabled Persons Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 to eligible disabled or mobility restricted passengers. Currently costs £20 for one year or £54 for three years.
- HM Forces Railcard A similar 1/3 discount available to serving members of the British armed forces and their families. It can only be obtained from military facilities and cannot be purchased at a station.
Britain's most overcrowded train
The popularity of train travel in the UK has been soaring in recent years. If you plan to explore Britain by rail, it's worth noting that some parts of network - mostly commuter services around big cities - suffer from overcrowding. In response to a request for information under the 'Freedom of Information' Act in 2008, the government's Department for Transport released data  that listed the most overcrowded trains in the country. They were - with actual passenger numbers, official capacity and percentage over capacity. It must be noted that capacity does not just mean the seats but an agreed "comfortable-standing" level. Thus a figure of 176% means that the train has all its seats full and its allowed standing quota plus on top of that 76% more passengers than that total. A carriage designed to seat 76 passengers and have twelve standing quota will (at be 176% occupancy) be crammed with some 155 people :
Note that these are all commuter services. Planning journeys outside the rush hours (06:00 - 09:30 & 16:00 - 19:00) can make tickets cheaper and journeys significantly more comfortable.
Commuters who use the train every day for travelling to and from work can make savings similar to those offered by a railcard (but at any time of day) by purchasing a season ticket. These are available from staffed ticket offices and ticket machines for a fixed route between any two stations you specify. Periods available are 7 days, and any period from 1 to 12 months. The National Rail website has a Season Ticket calculator .
If a friend or family member has an annual "Gold Card" season ticket, they can purchase tickets for you to travel together at a discount. When travelling with children, this can often be a substantial discount.
There are three principal types of rail pass available to visitors to the UK which permit inclusive rail travel throughout the UK. Supplements are normally payable for Eurostar and sleeper trains.
- InterRail is a pass for EU citizens. Two different Interrail passes cover the UK. Interrail Great Britain is valid for travel throughout England, Scotland and Wales, while Interrail Ireland is valid for travel in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
- Britrail can be purchased by any non-UK resident, but must be purchased online or in your home nation before you depart for the UK. Britrail passes cover travel in Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland.
- Eurail is a pass for non-EU citizens that is valid for travel in Northern Ireland, along with most other countries in Europe, but not Great Britain .
See European rail passes for more information.
Ranger & Rover tickets
A relic of the nationalised British Rail era, Ranger and Rover tickets are tickets that permit unlimited travel with relatively few restrictions over a defined geographical area for a period of anything from one to fourteen days, including options such as "three days in seven". There are numerous regions available, with a full list of tickets (with their terms and conditions) on National Rail's page. These tickets include Rovers for almost every region of the UK, but notable tickets include:
- All Line Rover - These national Rovers allow 7 or 14 days travel on almost all scheduled rail services throughout England, Scotland and Wales. As of May 2012, they cost £450 (7 days)or £680 (14 days) for standard class, and £680 (7 days) or £1040 (14 days) for 1st class, with discounts for children and railcard holders.
- Spirit of Scotland Travelpass: 4 days in 8 or 8 days in 15 - £134 and £179 respectively, with concessions for children and railcard holders.
- PlusBus. is an add-on ticket, which can be purchased with National Rail train tickets in Great Britain. It allows unlimited travel on participating bus operators' services, and in some cases trams, in the whole urban area of rail-served towns and cities (notably except London). You can either buy the PlusBus ticket at the same time you buy your train ticket, or you may show your valid train ticket at your destination's ticket office if you decide to buy PlusBus on arrival. You can buy PlusBus from any Ticket Office, by phone or at ticket machines operated by Abellio Greater Anglia, East Midlands Trains, South Western Railway and Southern. Several operators now allow you to buy PlusBus from their website. Between £1.60 and £3.50, depending on destination.
- Weekend First upgrades allow the holder of a standard class ticket to upgrade to first class on Saturday and Sunday on certain long distance trains. The supplement is payable on the train to the conductor, subject to availability. Upgrades usually start at £5, but passengers should note that on many long distance trains there is no complimentary at-seat service in first class at the weekend.
Using the train
The National Rail website has an information page for every railway station in Britain, with details of access, facilities, ticket office opening hours and recommended connection times. The 'live' Departures & Arrivals screen for every station can also be viewed online, with up-to-the-minute train running information.
At the station
If you are unfamiliar with your journey, arrive at the station with time to spare. Stations in Britain are often architecturally significant, so if you are early, take the time to look around. Most stations have electronic departure screens listing trains in order of departure, platform, any delay, stations called at and the train operating company. At small or rural stations without electronic displays, signs will indicate which platform to wait on for trains to your destination. Platforms may not be announced until a few minutes before the train is due to depart, and can sometimes change if the train is delayed. Listen for audio announcements. Many stations now use automated subway-style ticket barriers - you insert your ticket which opens the barrier, and your ticket is returned. Platform staff are always in attendance with these barriers and can also advise where to stand if you are travelling with a bicycle.
British trains do not have publicly announced numbers; they are identified at each station by their departure time (using the 24-hour clock) and destination (e.g. "The 14:15 to Manchester Piccadilly"). Only a few carry names, such as "The Flying Scotsman" between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh, "The Northern Lights" between London Kings Cross and Aberdeen and "The Highland Chieftain" between London Kings Cross and Inverness.
While at the station, be aware of what's going on around you. Try not to get in the way, make sure you stand well back from the platform edge (there is usually a yellow line to stand behind), and do not use flash photography, as this can distract the drivers.
Boarding the train
If you have a seat reservation, watch the outside of the train as it arrives for your coach number (some major stations will have signs on the platform telling you where to wait). Coach A may be at the front or back of the train (depending on direction it's travelling in), and some letters may not be included. Most trains have power-operated doors, however you must press a button to open it, and they close automatically when the train leaves. Be aware that there may be a significant gap between the train and the platform edge. If the weather is cold and you are the last person to board, it is polite to press the 'close door' button to prevent cold weather coming in. On older trains with manual doors (particularly sleeper carriages and InterCity 125 trains), you open the door from the outside by pulling the handle downwards and pulling the door open. Close the door behind you and make sure it shuts properly (the handle will return to a horizontal position). When getting off, slide down the window and open the door with the external handle (having no internal handle was a safety feature aimed to prevent doors being opened with the train moving, although nowadays the doors are always locked when the train is moving).
Finding your seat
Seat reservations are marked either with paper tags on the headrest or an electronic display above the window, as well as on your reservation ticket. Usually not all seats are reserved unless the train is very busy - if a seat has no tag, it is unreserved and any ticket-holder can sit there. However, remember that unless you also have a seat reservation, your ticket does not guarantee you a seat. The reservation tag or display at each seat will specify the stations between which the seat is reserved (e.g. "DUNDEE - YORK"). If you do not have a reservation and all the seats appear to be reserved, look for one where the reservation starts at a station the train has not reached yet (and be prepared to move seats when it reaches there), or where the reservation ends at a station already called at.
Keep your ticket and any reservation, pass and/or railcard with you when you move about the train (e.g. to go to the toilet or buffet car), as you may be asked to show it by the train guard or ticket inspector. It is also likely that you will need it to exit the platform at your destination station, because subway-style ticket barriers are in use at many stations. If you cannot find your ticket at one of these, you will be in big trouble and liable to a hefty penalty plus the cost of a new full ticket. So don't throw away your ticket!
Station stops are normally announced over the public address system or on scrolling electronic displays in the carriage.
Travelling with luggage
Different trains vary in how much luggage space they provide. Nearly all trains (including all inter-city ones) have overhead racks suitable for small items like a small rucksack, briefcase, laptop bag, or other small luggage. Inter-city and regional trains have luggage racks suitable for larger suitcases. However, these luggage racks fill up quickly and on long-distance services there is usually not enough space for everyone, so board the train as early as you can to get a space. If you cannot get a space in the racks, and re-arranging the items there doesn't help, you may have to squeeze your luggage into any space you can find. This may be in the vestibule space and the ends of each carriage. Train staff do not tolerate luggage blocking aisles and doorways (this is dangerous in an emergency) and in extreme cases if it is an obstruction it may simply be dumped on the platform at the next stop. Theft of unattended luggage can be an issue so keep a close eye on yours.
On some trains, especially inter-city services, there may be a special luggage area which can be helpful if you have a large bag. For example, CrossCountry's Voyager trains have a luggage area in Coach D (see section below on different types of trains used). On Virgin Trains East Coast's inter-city services to and from London King's Cross, it is possible to place your bag in a luggage area if you are going to the end of the line for that train (e.g. to Leeds, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Inverness out of London; or to London from anywhere). Ask the train guard or platform staff. On their InterCity 225 trains luggage can be stored in the luggage van/driving car at the opposite end of the train from the power car/locomotive. In InterCity 125 services, it can be stored in the guard's area at the end of Coach B, next to the power car (there is no Coach A on Virgin Trains East Coast services).
There are approximately 2,560 railway stations throughout the UK, excluding urban rapid transit systems like the London Underground, Glasgow Subway, Tyne and Wear Metro and the Docklands Light Railway. All stations belong to the state-owned Network Rail, who also manage day-to-day operation of major stations (e.g. Edinburgh Waverley). Others are leased to the train operating company running most of the services there, who are responsible for the operation, upkeep and staffing of the station. Stations vary in their facilities (see information on the National Rail website) but you are likely to have difficulty finding a rubbish bin/trash can at major stations due to the risk of terrorism.
Most stations are located in the centre of their respective town or city, or within walking distance. However, a station ending in Parkway (e.g. Bristol Parkway, East Midlands Parkway) means it is located far from the city/town centre, often in a distant suburb or even in the middle of nowhere. Usually there is a large car park so commuters can drive to it and then take the train to the city centre. Do not get off at a Parkway station if your destination is the city centre - for example, you would get off at Bristol Temple Meads and not Bristol Parkway. An exception is if you are connecting to a bus service to an onward destination. For example, shuttle buses run from Luton Airport Parkway to Luton Airport.
Many stations, such as the famed St Pancras in London, that date back to the Victorian era are architecturally very impressive, and may be worth the trip to have a look even if you are not travelling by train.
Major stations of London
When making a journey that involves a connection between London stations, a through ticket will normally allow connecting travel on London Underground services. In the 19th century it was made illegal to build railway termini too close to the centre of London as it was thought this would put historic buildings at risk. As a result, most were built in a ring which at that time was just outside the centre, but following London's expansion in the 20th century, is very much within it. Bold type indicates a terminus-only station; most London stations are termini as only a few lines cross the capital.
Major regional stations
Outside London, National Rail list the following as major connecting stations, where passengers most often need to change trains on multi-leg journeys.
Trains and rolling stock
"Faster than fairies, faster than witches! Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches!
And charging along like troops in a battle! All through the meadows the horses and cattle!"
-- From a Railway Carriage: Robert Louis Stevenson
Most trains are modern, comfortable and accessible to people with disabilities, although especially on commuter trains and older material, tall people will find legroom a problem. Following major investment in the past ten years, all are fairly new or have been comprehensively refurbished within that time. You won't see many traditional locomotives pulling passenger trains (unless you travel on one of the sleeper trains), as most services are now operated by multiple-units, or else the locomotive(s) is permanently integrated into a specially-designed train such as InterCity 125 or InterCity 225. Where there are locomotives, be aware that unlike Canadian railways where large turning triangles are used, the locomotive will detach and run around the train at the end of the line, and the carriages will go backwards.
With about one-third of track electrified, diesel trains are common (including on inter-city services) but the same top speeds are usually achieved regardless of power source. British trains have a class number but most refer to them by the name (e.g. "I was on one of those Pendolinos today"). This section gives an orientation to the trains you're most likely to need to use and what you can expect. There are more classes which are less common, particularly of electric multiple-unit trains on local and regional services.
Inter-city trains in the UK usually travel at up to 125 mph (201 km/h) (the maximum speed for all lines except HS1) and tend to have the most facilities, including wireless internet access, and often a buffet or even on-board shop. Some inter-city services (e.g. between cities in Scotland) use Turbostar trains which are described in the regional section below.
Also often known as "HST" (short for "High Speed Train"), InterCity 125s are found frequently all over Great Britain on many train companies' long-distance and inter-city services, from northern Scotland to London and the far south-west of England, including Virgin Trains East Coast services that go north of Edinburgh and most inter-city Great Western services, among others. One of British Rail's few major successes, they introduced 125 mph (201 km/h) diesel service in the late 1970s and set speed records for a diesel train. Each InterCity 125 set is made up of seven or eight carriages and two power cars (one at each end). Apart from three written off due to accidents, all remain in service today due to their excellent design. While you need to open the doors using a handle (there is no handle inside so to get off you slide down the window and reach out), all have been comprehensively renovated in the last few years and are basically all-new inside. They have more luggage storage than most, with a large rack and toilet at each end of the set. All have a quiet coach and most also have plug-points for recharging laptops/mobile phones and a useful buffet car serving hot and cold food and beverages.
If you travel on Virgin Trains East Coast's inter-city services between London Kings Cross and York, Leeds, Newcastle upon Tyne or Edinburgh, you will likely be on one of these electric trains introduced in 1990. They were designed for 140 mph (230 km/h) but they are limited to the line's speed limit of 125 mph (201 km/h), because for safety reasons all trains in the UK travelling above 125 mph (201 km/h) must have in-cab signaling and it has not been installed on most of the network so far. All InterCity 225s have recently been comprehensively refurbished and have power-operated doors, a buffet car with hot and cold food and drinks, plug-points and comfortable seats (many of which have large tables good for families or groups). Coach B is the Quiet Coach. There are big luggage racks similar to InterCity 125s, but they still fill up quickly so board as early as you can.
The Class 390 Pendolino is an electric inter-city tilting train operated by Virgin Trains on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston, north-west England and Glasgow. Introduced in the early 2000s and using Italian tilt technology (hence the name), they travel at 125 mph (201 km/h); but like the InterCity 225, were designed for 125 mph (201 km/h), though they lack cab signaling, hence the limit), and tilt up to 8 degrees around corners. They have a small on-board shop selling magazines/newspapers, hot and cold snacks and beverages. Coach A is the Quiet Coach in standard class, Coach H in first class. Pendolinos were built as 9-carriage trains, but many have now been extended to 11 carriages. In 2007, faulty track caused a Pendolino travelling at high speed to derail at Grayrigg in Cumbria. Only one person was killed, with the lack of a higher death toll attributed to the unit's crashworthiness. However, the heavily-reinforced body means not all seats have a window.
Voyager and Super Voyager
The Class 220 Voyager and Class 221 Super Voyager are inter-city diesel trains, introduced around 2001; Super Voyager differs mainly as it tilts when going around bends to allow faster speeds. Operated by CrossCountry and Virgin Trains, they usually have four or five carriages and travel at 125 mph (201 km/h). Each carriage has an engine under the floor so are not as quiet as some others. The overhead luggage racks are quite slim and there is not as much luggage rack space as some other trains. Virgin's Voyagers have a useful shop/buffet like on the Pendolino but CrossCountry units only have an irregular trolley service even though some cover very long distances (e.g. Aberdeen - Penzance). The Class 222 Meridian on East Midlands Trains services is very similar as it was built by the same manufacturer and also travels at up to 125 mph (201 km/h) but it can be much longer, up to 7 carriages, is less cramped and it does have a shop/buffet.
Intercity Express Train and Azuma
The 800-series (class 800, 801, 802) are inter-city trains currently being built and deployed on several main lines of the network. The Class 800 was introduced in catastrophic style on Great Western Railway (GWR) services on 16 October 2017, when the inaugural service crammed with commuters and members of the press arrived in London Paddington almost an hour late due to multiple technical problems. They were promptly pulled from service for repairs and re-entered GWR service on 26 October 2017. They will be introduced on Virgin Train East Coast services in 2018.
They have been named the Intercity Express Train (though unlike the German train of the same name, it is never abbreviated as ICE, only sometimes as IET) by Great Western and Azuma (which means east in Japanese) by Virgin. The class 800 units are bi-mode - they run on overhead electric lines where they are available and switch on the move to underfloor diesel engines where they are not. The class 801 units are pure electric trains. The trains have five or nine carriages, and travel at 125 mph (201 km/h) in electric mode and 100 mph (160 km/h) in diesel mode.
Regional, local and commuter services
Turbostar / Electrostar
Bombardier's diesel Turbostar and electric Electrostar multiple units are the most numerous trains built in the UK since railway privatisation in the 1990s. Turbostars can travel at up to 100 mph (160 km/h - you'll hear the engine under the floor of each carriage in Turbostars), and are used all over Great Britain by many train companies, with the electric Electrostar version mostly seen in the South-East of England. Class 170, 171 and 172 Turbostar trains operate local, regional and some inter-city services and usually have digital information displays and automated announcements. There is usually a trolley service but no buffet or plug-points. They have two to four coaches and are sometimes coupled together to make a longer train. Electrostars are similar, introduced in the past ten years to replace hoardes of elderly units in the south and south-east of England. Class 357, 375, 376, 377, 378 and 379 Electrostar trains operate regional and commuter services there and like Turbostar can reach 100 mph (160 km/h) but with faster acceleration (being electric). As with them, there is usually a trolley service but luggage space is not as much as an inter-city train.
The Class 158 and 159 Express Sprinter was introduced around 1990 by British Rail and are designed for medium- and long-distance regional services. They can reach 90 mph (140 km/h) with a diesel engine under each carriage, and are used particularly by ScotRail and numerous other companies in the north, south-west and west of England. They were quite prestigious when introduced and the ride is quite smooth. They have overhead and end-of-carriage luggage racks but not as much as an inter-city train. Unlike the Turbostar, the doors are at the end of each carriage so cold weather doesn't come in when stopped at a station.
Sprinter and SuperSprinter
These classes form a family of diesel multiple-units introduced in the 1980s (the Express Sprinter is the final development of this family). Class 150 Sprinter trains are used for local services or rural lines, with Classes 153 to 156 SuperSprinter being more sophisticated, comfortable and suitable for longer routes (e.g. the scenic West Highland Line) and all reach 75 mph (120 km/h). They do not usually have air conditioning, but this is not a problem for much of the year in Britain anyway and they are designed for shorter-distance services.
These electric multiple-unit trains (classes 356, 465 and 466) were introduced in the early 1990s. Class 365 Networker operates services up to 100 mph in the east of England (for First Capital Connect), with comfortable surroundings, air conditioning, etc. New upholstery has been installed recently. The others are used on local and commuter lines south of London and can reach 75 mph (120 km/h) using the third-rail, with higher-density seating and resilient floors rather than carpets. You may also find the diesel versions, Class 165 and 166 Network Turbo, on services running west of London.
Until recently, all rolling stock was built in the UK, but recently Siemens (of Germany) have been building large numbers of new trains which are then shipped across. Legions of various classes of Siemens Desiro are now used throughout the country on electrified lines (mostly in the Midlands around Birmingham and the south of England such as services to Hampshire), reaching up to 100 mph (160 km/h), and a slightly different-looking diesel variant is used on TransPennine Express services. They all tend to have very fast acceleration (you really will need to hold on tight if you're standing), plus air conditioning, carpets and electronic information systems. In late 2012 London Midland started to run their Desiros at 110 mph (177 km/h) on their services between London and Stoke and beyond. First TransPennine Express also operate a fleet of 10 Class 350s on routes from Manchester to Edinburgh and Glasgow. They will be used on 9 diagrams from May 2014, however as there aren't enough units to cover all services some weekend services may continue to be operated by Class 185s.
The Class 142, 143 and 144 Pacer were designed in the 1980s to provide an economical alternative to locomotive-hauled trains on lightly-used and rural lines at up to 75 mph (120 km/h), rather than closing entire lines. You'll see them often on local services, particularly in the north of England, and they may remind you of a bus. This is because much of the bodyshell uses bus components to save money and development time. Most Pacers have recently been refurbished and are much more comfortable inside than before, although more basic than others as they are designed for short-distance services. Because of the poor ride quality, pacers are almost universally despised in the UK. Due to accessibility problems with their design, they will be withdrawn on 1 January 2020.
Heritage and steam railways
Following the large-scale line closures and withdrawal of steam locomotives in the 1960s, enthusiasts began to band together to re-open lines as tourist attractions, using surplus or historic steam locomotives and vintage rolling stock. You can visit literally dozens of these, all over Great Britain, and they are popular for a day out. Some run full-size trains, others (such as the Ffestiniog Railway in Gwynedd, Wales) use a narrow gauge, while others (such as the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway in Kent) are complete miniature systems with tiny steam locomotives. While most operate steam trains, some also use heritage diesel locomotives or diesel railcars. Of the many such heritage lines, prominent ones include:
- The Bluebell Railway runs for nine miles through East and West Sussex, from the National Rail station at East Grinstead. It has over 30 steam locomotives and has operated a public service by steam for over 50 years. It has appeared frequently as a movie location.
- The Severn Valley Railway runs for 16 mi (26 km) through Worcestershire and Shropshire in the west of England, starting adjacent to the National Rail station at Kidderminster. Originally part of the Great Western Railway, a variety of steam trains appear alongside a handful of classic diesel units.
- The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is a miniature railway in Cumbria, starting from Ravenglass station on the National Rail network. The track gauge is just 15 inches and locomotives are miniaturised versions of the full-size originals. it runs for seven miles through scenic hill country.
- The Keith and Dufftown Railway (also known as "The Whisky Line") run for 11 mi (18 km) through Moray and Speyside in Scotland using classic Scottish steam trains and diesel railcars. There are numerous whisky distilleries in the area which can be visited. The line begins in Keith which has a National Rail station.
- The Ffestiniog Railway is a narrow-gauge railway in the Snowdonia National Park in north Wales. It is a popular attraction in the area and originally carried slate from the mines nearby to harbour for shipping, and also carried passengers (which are now the only thing carried). Unusual double-ended steam locomotives are used along with other unusual rolling stock. The line's southern terminus at Porthmadog is shared with the Welsh Highland Railway, while the northern terminus at Blaenau Ffestiniog is shared with mainline services. There are also connections with mainline services at Minffordd.
- The North Norfolk Railway or Poppy Line is a preserved railway from the 1960s. The museum operates steam and diesel services on decommissioned trains, which were originally used as passenger trains in the county (Norfolk). Today, the trains operate on single- and dual-track lines between Holt and Sheringham (via Weybourne), making for beautiful views over flat, East Anglian countryside and the North Sea.
- The Wells Walsingham Light Railway is the longest narrow-guage railway in the world. Now a visitor attraction, the line used to be part of a nationwide network which was closed during austerity measures in the twentieth century. Stations at Wells Next The Sea and Little Walsingham.
- The West Somerset Railway runs from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead, within the county of Somerset. It is the longest heritage railway in the country.
Bristol is famed for its rail heritage. There are many tributes to Isambard Kingdom Brunel who established the Great Western Railway, including a railway museum at the Harbourside.
London St. Pancras is the terminus for Eurostar high-speed trains to Lille, Brussels, Paris and seasonal French destinations such as Avignon (Summer Service) and the Alps (Winter Service). Connections to many major European cities can be made in Lille, Brussels, Paris, and through tickets are available from Eurostar , RailEurope  and staffed ticket offices to European destinations. It is expected that German national rail operator Deutsche Bahn will begin operating new direct services to Germany within a few years.
Eurotunnel, Le Shuttle
Instead of the Eurostar passenger-only service, it is possible to travel between Britain and France in your own vehicle. The connection is between Folkestone and Calais. Prices are relatively cheap compared to some flights and ferry bookings, and the journey is significantly shorter. For ticket prices and bookings, you can visit the [Eurotunnel Website]. To access the Channel Tunnel Terminal from the UK, you can use the M20 motorway (junction 11A from London) or the A20 between Maidstone and Folkestone.
From any Greater Anglia station, it is possible to book a rail and ferry ticket to any station in The Netherlands. The Rail & Sail scheme means that it is possible to book a ticket for £49 from London Liverpool Street to selected Dutch stations (correct as 22/03/2016). Of course, you will need your passport, and the route involves a ferry connection between Harwich and Hoek van Holland operated by Stena Line. A typical route between London Liverpool Street to Hoek van Holland would require a through journey between Liverpool Street and Harwich International Station and a Stena Line ferry to Hoek van Holland, where Dutch rail connections can be found.
Airports with railway stations
These airports have railway stations, usually (but not always) on a through route. It's worth checking with the airport or National Rail Enquiries to make travel plans:
- Aberdeen Dyce - (advertised only as 'Dyce') - A separate bus journey (and ticket) is needed to get to to/from the airport terminal.
- Edinburgh - A tram line links Edinburgh airport to the city, which calls at 4 train stations on its way, in the following order:
- Edinburgh Gateway - for trains to Fife and North East Scotland as well as some trains heading to England.
- Edinburgh Park - for trains to Stirling and Perth, as well as trains to Glasgow via Livingston.
- Haymarket - major station serving the central region as well as trains to most Scottish cities and the wider UK
- Waverley (At Andrews Square tram stop) - Major train station for connections to most of Scotland and most major English cities as well as the sleeper trains to London.
- Birmingham International
- Cardiff Airport - the station is called "Rhoose Cardiff International Airport" with an hourly rail connection to Barry and Cardiff Central, some of which continue to Cardiff Queen Street, Pontypridd, Aberdare or Merthyr Tydfil. I nthe other direction, there is an hourly link to Bridgend. All services are operated by Arrive Trains Wales on a local network. The airport is not in walking distance, though the 509 shuttle bus regularly links the station to the airport for a competitive price. There are plans to improve connections to the airport with a new South East Wales Metro in the near future.
- East Midlands Parkway (also close to Derby, Loughborough & Nottingham
- London City (on the Docklands Light Railway, part of London's urban transport system)
- London Luton
- Manchester Airport station is a terminus station off the West Coast Main Line; it is served by Northern Rail, First Trans Pennine Express and Arriva Trains Wales. There are regular services to Manchester Piccadilly. Manchester Metrolink trams also serve the station.
- Newcastle upon Tyne (is connected to the Tyne and Wear Metro light rail, where you can change at Newcastle Central station)
- Prestwick - Remarkably well served by the main Glasgow to Ayr line. Make sure to buy you train ticket to Prestwick from a ticket desk as showing a valid airline ticket will get you 50% off your train ticket from anywhere in Scotland. This isn't available when buying online or from a machine so ensure you go to a person.
- Southampton - the station is called "Southampton Airport Parkway"
- Teeside Airport - this is one of the least used rail stations and airports on the UK network and a 15-20 minute walk from the airport. Only one train per week in each direction stops at the station. However there are plans to rebuild the station far closer to the airport.
These services are operated by trains branded as "Express" services. Beware that they are sometimes much more expensive than local services, and cheaper services on other operators may be available:
- London Gatwick - Gatwick Express: regular, non-stopping service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport. Trains run every 15 minutes with a journey time of approximately 30 minutes. This is a guideline and you should always leave extra time for your journey. Other Services: The station is served by Southern, who run services to destinations like Brighton and Southampton, as well as London terminals. Thameslink, who operate through services between Brighton, London City Centre (e.g. Finsbury Park & London Bridge), London St Pancrass and Bedford directly. At St Pancrass, onward connections can be made to the North of England, Scotland, Luton, Cambridge, Ely and Kings Lynn. Great Western Railway operate a service to Reading via Guildford. At Reading, onward connections to the South West, South Wales, Bristol, Oxford, Swindon, Birmingham and Manchester (limited) can be found.
- London Stansted - Stansted Express services are regular 15 minute services currently run by Abellio. The service runs from London Liverpool Street, usually calling at Tottenham Hale and Stansted Airport. At Liverpool Street and Tottenham Hale, connections can be made to London Underground services. Other Services: Stansted Airport is served by other Abellio Greater Anglia services to London Liverpool Street and Bishops Stortford, where a connection can be made to Stratford. Greater Anglia also have a somewhat regular service between Cambridge and Stansted, calling at udley End and [[Whittlesford Parkway. Cross Country operate very regular services between Birmingham New Street/Cambridge and Stansted Airport. Services from Birmingham call at Leicester, Melton Mowbray, Stamford and Peterborough, amongst other stops. Between Cambridge and Stansted, the train calls at Audley End but not Whittlesford Parkway. At many of these stations, onward connections can be made to North Wales, the North, Scotland, Liverpool and Manchester.
- London Heathrow - Heathrow Express: An expensive, non-stopping service between London Paddington and the airport, operated by the airport itself. From Paddington, onward connections can be made to Berkshire, West London, the London Underground, Reading, Oxford, Bristol, the South West and South Wales.
- London Heathrow - Heathrow Connect: A cheaper alternative to the Express, operated jointly by the airport and First group. This service begins at Paddington (for onward connections), calling at Ealing Broadway, West Ealing, Hanwell, Southall and Hayes & Harlington. Note that these services go directly to Terminals 1,2,3 & 5 only. There is a free shuttle between the Terminal 1,2 & 3 station and Terminal 4.
- London Heathrow - London Underground Piccadilly line services are a very cheap but much slower connection between central & north London and the airport. Arriving at all terminals, the line begins at Cockfosters in North London while stopping at a number of stations including King's Cross St. Pancras (where onward connections can be made to the North and East), Leicester Square and South Kensington. It is part of the integrated TfL network, and bookings cannot be made. There are no toilets, catering or WiFi on most London Underground services.
Most airports without integrated rail services offer a bus connection to the nearest station. Bristol Airport, for example, is served by a 20 minute bus ("A1"). Tickets are available as part of the National Rail Network.
Seaports with railway stations
Through tickets are available from any UK railway station to any station in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. In the west of Scotland, rail and ferry timetables are often integrated, and through tickets are available. For details of routes and fares, contact National Rail.
- Ardrossan (Harbour Station - there are 3 stations in Ardrossan) for ferries to the Isle of Arran
- Aberdeen for ferries to Orkney and Shetland
- Ayr for coaches to Cairnryan connecting with ferries to Northern Ireland
- Dover for ferries to France
- Fishguard for ferries to the Republic of Ireland
- Gourock for ferries to Dunoon and Kilcreggan
- Harwich for ferries to the Netherlands
- Heysham for ferries to the Isle of Man
- Holyhead for ferries to the Republic of Ireland
- Largs for ferries to Cumbrae
- Lymington for ferries to the Isle of Wight
- Mallaig for ferries to the Small Isles and Skye
- Newhaven for ferries to Dieppe
- Oban for ferries to the Inner and Outer Hebrides
- Poole for ferries to Guernsey and Jersey
- Portsmouth Harbour for ferries to the Isle of Wight, France and Spain
- Southampton for ferries to the Isle of Wight
- Wemyss Bay for ferries to Rothesay
The railway network has a low crime rate, but you do have to use common sense. The most common incident is theft of unsupervised luggage. If travelling with bags, keep them within sight, especially during station stops if your bags are in racks near the doors of the carriage. The UK (except Northern Ireland) operates a railway police called the British Transport Police (BTP), and you may see signs for them at major stations. They are responsible for the policing of trains, stations and railway property. In an emergency all emergency services including the BTP can be contacted by dialing 999 or 112 from any telephone or mobile phone (these work even if you have no calling credit or the keypad is locked). If you wish to contact the British Transport Police themselves and it is not an immediate emergency, dial 0845 440 5040. This is also the number to contact if you have concerns about something which although not immediately dangerous, represents a possible safety or crime issue (such as unauthorised persons trackside, or damaged lineside fencing.)
Due to a history of terrorist incidents in the UK using placed explosive devices, any unattended luggage may be treated as potentially being such a device by the authorities, leading to closure of entire stations, (particularly in London, with even major termini being occasionally affected.) whilst specially trained official investigate and render any suspected device "safe". Both Posters and announcements will often ask passengers to keep a sharp eye for and report any unattended bags straightaway.
Safety of rail travel in Britain is high with a low rate of accidents. After privatisation in the 1990s, the accident rate increased for some years. Inquiries found this was due to cost-cutting and profiteering by the private owners of the infrastructure and their subcontractors and this was one factor leading to the re-nationalisation of infrastructure in the 2000s. Since then, safety has improved massively and there have been very few major accidents in recent years. All trains display safety information posters on board, telling you what to do in the event of an emergency. The simplest advice is that unless your personal safety is threatened, you are always safer on the train than if you try to leave it.
In the event of an emergency
Should there be an emergency, such as fire or accident aboard the train:
- Get the attention of a member of staff, any staff member will do.
- If you cannot get the attention of staff and you are certain that you, anyone else or the train is in danger because of the motion of the train - pull the emergency stop handle, this will be either red or green and will be visibly identified. Be aware that pulling the emergency stop handle between stations will make it more difficult for emergency crews or police to reach the train.
- If you are in immediate danger try to move to the next carriage, internal doors can be pushed apart if necessary. Do not pick up personal items. It is usually safer to remain on the train.
- If you must leave the train, only then should you attempt to leave the train via the external doors. Methods for unlocking and opening in an emergency differ between types of train however, the emergency open device will be located at the door with instructions.
- If this is not possible, leave through an emergency window which will usually be identified as such. There may be a hammer located next to it. If there is no indicated window, use the most convenient one facing away from any other tracks if possible.
- Strike the hammer against the corner of the window (if you strike the middle it'll just bounce off) until both panes crack, then push them out with a piece of luggage.
- You should lower yourself carefully from the train and move away from it as quickly as possible.
- Look and listen for approaching trains, and possibly the electric 3rd rail. Do not step on any rails; you could be stepping on the 3rd rail, depending on how the track is electrified. Get off the track as quickly as possible.
If an evacuation of a train is ordered by train crew, instructions will be given. Most carriages have specific windows that can be broken or pushed open for emergency escape.
A conductor or guard is present on most trains. If they have not made themselves visible during the journey, they can usually be found in the cab at the rear of the train. Communication panels are normally located throughout the train. Emergency brakes are also available, but a heavy penalty can be levied against someone who unnecessarily stops the train. Be aware, many communication panels are also emergency brakes. Unless someone's safety is threatened by the movement of the train, contact the guard or driver and wait for assistance or the next station stop.