Rail travel in the United Kingdom
This article is a travel topic
With around 34,000km (21,000 miles) of lines, the National Rail passenger network of the United Kingdom is one of the densest and most used railway networks in the world.
The official (and most complete) national map can be found here: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/3828.aspx in pdf format. Please note that most North American websites which sell BritRail passes have (strangely) very poor maps which show a fraction of the rail services available.
Train travel is very popular in Britain - most services are now very busy, even on apparently rural lines; passenger numbers have been rising steadily, with passenger usage now as great as it was sixty years ago. In the last financial year, ending in April 2014, 1.59 billion passenger journeys were made in Great Britain compared with the 35 million of the United States which has a population five times the greater.
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 a visit to Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon, to modern inter-city services to bustling modern commercial centres, small unpsoiled towns and villages, and the breathtakingly scenic lines of Scotland, the train can be an enthralling and affordable way to see all that the UK has to offer.
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 a highly controversial and damaging privatisation in the mid 1990s which resulted in the running of the system being split up into dozens of different organsations, 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 at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/.
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.
This guide does not cover rail travel in Northern Ireland, which operates its own state-owned system called Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) which is separate and even uses a different track gauge (the Irish gauge). NIR is owned and controlled by the government of the Northern Irish Executive in Belfast. It is well-integrated with local and provincial bus services operated by Translink  and trains in the Republic of Ireland operated by Iarnród Éireann . For more details on rail travel in Northern Ireland, see Rail travel in Ireland.
Please note also that some major towns (such as Bury and Oldham in Manchester/Lancashire and many other places) have no national rail service because the rail lines have been converted to light-rail and are no longer part of the national rail system; they cannot be found in the national timetables (schedules). Such towns are served by frequent electric services running on the old rail lines, often taking to the streets in the centre of these towns. Without exception, these light rail/tram (streetcar) services (such as in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and elsewhere) serve national rail stations, to connect with the national rail network, although through rail tickets may not be available. So, please be aware that if you are visiting a specific town in the UK, you can sometimes travel most of the way by train and then easily transfer to the local light-rail services.
The ownership and structure is complex, but you won't notice when making a journey, although it may be discussed in the media (complaints about the service feature often 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.
General service levels and routes to be run are specified by the government, but the "detail" and actual level of service are chosen commercially by (and operated by) the 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.
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 in 1965, 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 May 2012, 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 FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva and Virgin), except for East Coast which is state-owned but operated commercially.
The world's first public engine powered 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 Great Western. 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, large numbers of unprofitable lines were closed in the "Beeching Axe" as the age of the car arrived, line speeds increased, and the now-iconic double-arrow logo 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 Inter-City, 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.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.
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).
Most of the services on these routes are run by modern diesel multiple units or HSTs (High Speed Trains), however, regular steam and heritage diesel hauled charters run across the network for which tickets can be purchased from the operator. Please note "regular" train tickets are not valid on these services and tickets normally have to be booked in advance. Occasionally tickets maybe available on the day but this should not be relied on. Try  for more information on steam tours or  for heritage diesel tours (includes some that are part steam hauled).
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. It must be noted however that whilst individual companies may offer very cheap tickets for their own services, a through ticket (using different companies' trains) may often be very expensive - for the same journey. The British often travel with several tickets (using different companies) to avoid the high "one ticket" fare.
In the United Kingdom (and elsewhere in Europe) a 200 mile, even a 100 mile, journey is considered "long distance." In the United Kingdom these long distance trains run at some of the highest frequencies in the world. For example, trains between Manchester and London run at least three times an hour. In the South East of England (South of London in particular) many routes (for example London to Brighton) run at frequencies close to those of subways in major cities elsewhere in the world. In other areas even many of the smallest towns have a frequency of long distance rail service which surprises many visitors from North America. Anything less than an hourly service during the day is regarded as low frequency.
The days of "checked baggage" (that is, suitcases and such like) which is still common in North America, are long gone in the United Kingdom. Neither has baggage (and parcels) been sent apart from the passenger since the 1970s.
Most inter-city services travel at 200km/h (125mph), 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 160km/h (100mph) on main lines and less on more minor routes.
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 Victoria". 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 Victoria. A "fast" service is non-stop, while "semi-fast" means calling at only certain stations.
For over a hundred years travel on Sundays, even at the height of the railways' popularity in the 1930s, many lines and most stations were closed on Sundays. Very few services ran, with some large towns having no railway services at all. This situation improved somewhat in the 1990s and 2000s - due in part to the legalisation of Sunday trading (which means shops can open on Sundays - typically 10.30am to 4.00/4.30pm). However the level of service (even if the railway companies admit that on some lines Sunday is their busiest day) is paltry compared with weekdays.
Visitors should check with the National Rail Enquiries website for any Sunday alterations/changes.
Classes of Travel
Two classes operate: standard class and 1st class. Commuter trains and some local services offer standard class only. Unlike in the rest of Europe 1st class travel is not considered by ordinary (non-business) users as a "treat" worth taking, as it is usually incredibly expensive. Certain companies, however, offer a special deal where at certain (off-peak) times First class travel is available for a small supplement.
In both 1st and standard class, most trains also provide:
Smoking and Alcohol
Smoking is illegal on board trains in Great Britain (and in fact in any enclosed public place as part of the British smoking ban laws) and trains are fitted with smoke alarms, including in toilets. If you are seen smoking, train staff will arrange for the railway police - the British Transport Police - to be waiting at the next station and you will be arrested and taken away. Note that smoking is also illegal on station platforms in England and Wales, 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.
Alcohol in open containers (i.e. opened cans or bottles, not stowed out of sight) is not permitted on any station, but it is onboard trains. Be careful, as although this rule is only enforced at major stations, you will have the drink confiscated and you are liable to a hefty fine. However, in Scotland on trains operated by ScotRail from 20th July 2012, it is illegal to be in possession of alcohol or consume alcohol after 9pm or in the morning (before 10am). This ruling does not apply to the Caledonian Sleeper Service. It is also illegal to travel on a train while drunk. This is part of a Scottish Government crackdown on alcohol-fueled anti-social behaviour . Passengers seen with alcohol during these times or who appear to be drunk at any time are liable to be arrested by British Transport Police officers at the next station. In the United Kingdom alcohol may be consumed in public and purchased by anyone of 18 years or over (not 21 as in the USA).
The conclusion from the above is that it is perfectly acceptable (and legal)on most trains to take beer, wines and spirits to consume on the train. Buy a bottle of wine (screw top of course) some real glasses (available for as little as a GB pound or so for four at most national supermarkets) and imagine you are on the Orient Express. Why not buy some up-market snacks and even a set of real cotton serviettes/napkins. As long as you do not cause bother or board the (few) trains that prohibit alcohol (usually those during the football = soccer, season)you will encounter no problems at all.
Catering (Eating) On British Trains
For many years, until the 1990s, under Government control, the food (above all the sandwiches) served on the then British Rail was regarded as a national joke, and subject to ridicule on the stage and television. The British Rail Sandwich is still a term in general use for a dull, dry unimaginative confection, consisting of white sliced bread a square of processed cheese and invariably watery tomato.
As of 2014, things may have changed in quality; but if you can obtain food at all, it will not be particularly cheap. Most trains companies have dispensed with formal restaurant cars - a few remain for first class customers. At best, even on long distance trains, the most the standard (2nd class, coach) customer can expect is a trolley service serving decent quality (if expensive) sandwiches/cakes and suspect tea/coffee in a cardboard cup.
Some trains still offer a buffet car (often called a "shop") where it is claimed "hot snacks" can still be obtained. One alarming product from most of these buffets is a burger (and bun) where the whole ensemble (bun and all) is placed in a microwave to produce a unique steamed burger.
On some rural, local services (particularly in Wales, Scotland and the south-west of England), some smaller stations are request ("flag stop") stations (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 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 the conductor 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, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool). Most towns and all 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 200km/h (125mph), but is 225km/h (140mph) for High Speed 1, 175km/h (110mph) for the Midland Main Line and 160km/h (100mph) 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.)
Until the late 1980s sleeper trains were operated between London and a host of destinations (such as Manchester and Liverpool). There were even sleeper trains within Scotland. Due to speed improvements,however, there are now just three scheduled sleeper trains in Britain. These operate every night (except Saturday) in each direction. Travelling more slowly than their equivalent day time 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
ScotRail  operate two Caledonian Sleeper routes, with each train dividing/joining en route to serve multiple destinations in Scotland. This service (from 1st April 2015) is to be re-launched under new owners but the new owners's website is up and running. Tickets are selling fast!
The new company is now accepting bookings a year in advance; and even the First Class fares are incredibly reasonable (they include full hearty restaurant breakfast etc.). There are some bizarre pricings, with sometimes the First Class (all inclusive luxury fare) being cheaper than the ordinary Second Class, but the website at least gives you the choice! This website and booking early are highly recommended. Enter different dates to save money. Wikitravel has no incentive to promote this new company's wares; it is simply that it is refreshing to see a UK rail company offer services based on quality: you get what you pay for, which is (sadly) highly unusual.
Reservations on ScotRail 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. They are only available from ScotRail's website  and sell out fast (book well in advance for these).
Caledonian Sleepers offer three kinds of accommodation:
London to Penzance
First Great Western  operate the The Night Riviera, which travels along a single route from London Paddington to Plymouth, Devon and Penzance, Cornwall, calling at numerous intermediate stations. Reservations on First Great Western sleepers are mandatory, and supplements are payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. The Night Riviera offers three kinds of accommodation:
Planning your trip
The National Rail timetable was until 2013 still published in printed paper form (and is still available free on line in pdf format: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/3828.aspx) along with the most accurate and detailed maps. In printed format this timetable was some four inches in thickness amounting to many thousands of pages. A privately produced printed timetable, reproducing exactly the official .pdfs mentioned above is available from Middleton Press: https://www.middletonpress.co.uk/railtimes/ Readers are warned that the timetables are reduced in size to the point that they are virtually unreadable.
Put charitably, perhaps given the complexity of the UK's rail services, the official .pdf timetables files (above) are baffling even to those with a PhD in transport planning. They are produced solely as a duty and not to guide the traveller. Indeed, given the frequency of even long distance rail journeys, one wonders whether a timetable is needed at all.
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. There is also a useful Smartphone app available. 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:
Various independent train booking websites also exist, but often charge unavoidable additional fees (e.g. for booking, using a debit card, using a credit card, receiving tickets by post or collecting them at the station).
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. NOTE: Some tickets are only valid for travel with a particular train operator, if this is the case it will expicitly state this on the ticket. 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). 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.
It is also possible to buy a ticket from the conductor on many lines if there is no ticket office or machine at the boarding station, but check before you travel as some places operate penalty fares.
If you buy on a website such as thetrainline.com or East Coast's website or one of the other companies listed in the Passenger Rail Companies section above, you can have tickets sent to you by mail (if you live in the UK) or you can pick them up at any station you specify that has an automated ticket machine.
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.
As described below. the best deals are more easily found on the internet from "official"/rail company sites. (Advanced tickets are available from ticket offices; but there is no guarantee that the ticket clerk will get you the best deal or have the knowledge to do so). Visitors from overseas, booking via the Internet, may worry that they must have the actual tickets sent by post (there are virtually no companies who will accept 'print yourself' tickets). There is no need to worry When purchasing your tickets online, simply check the box which says you will collect your tickets from a (self-service) station ticket machine (it will suggest one for you). Note down the unique reference number from your online confirmation. Then, simply go to the station ticket machine (any time from two hours after you have successfully purchased your tickets online) and press the screen button collect prepaid tickets (or something similar). It will then ask you to insert the card with which you purchased the tickets online - you won't be charged twice. Then enter the unique reference number and the machine will print your ticket. If everything goes terribly wrong or the ticket machine is broken, then the train staff should allow you to get your tickets at your destination (or changing point). It is best to get your tickets by this means well before you travel just in case the ticket machine, on the day, energetically disassembles with two minutes to spare before your train departs.
The United Kingdom is notorious for its having, by some considerable margin, the most expensive standard "walk on" rail tickets in the entire world.
For example the SINGLE (one-way ticket) standard class (ordinary) ticket from Manchester to London (as at January 2015) which is just 184 miles, costs 164.50 pounds (or 329 pounds return). For this amount the British resident could have an all inclusive (hotel,meals and flight included) week in Spain. Further, a British resident could (for example) fly to Bucuresti in Romania (from Liverpool Airport)which is thousands of miles, for little more than 40 pounds, often less. However there are solutions to avoid these mad fares:
Tickets are sold 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; but booking just three days in advance can still produce huge discounts. You can choose between flexibility (generally incredibly expensive) and value (less or no flexibility), similar to an airline. The UK traveller paying well over £150 for a ordinary standard ("coach," 2nd class) single (one way) ticket between London and Manchester gets no better service or facilities on the train than the later off-peak traveller paying just £34 - UK pricing structure is based simply on demand and not on quality.
It cannot be stressed enough that travellers should be aware that they must choose the time of their journey very carefully; even for 'spur of the moment' relatively short trips. Wait until after 9.00am/9.30am and your ticket price (if a "day return" is purchased) will reduce considerably - even on local journeys. The difference can be as 'dramatic' as £20.00 return (peak) to £4 (off-peak). Just wait until 10am to be sure.
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 (16:30-18:30). Services are much more expensive outside these off-peak times. There can be exceptions for when Off-Peak tickets aren't valid, which vary by train company - if so these will usually be explained by posters at the station or the train company's website. If you are in any doubt about the validity of an Off-Peak ticket, ask a member of staff at the station or a ticket office before getting on a train, as ticket inspectors on board the train can be unforgiving. In increasing order of cost, tickets are classed as:
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. These are released for sale in limited numbers approximately 12 weeks in advance, and can only be used on the train specified on the reservation. If you travel on any other train or the wrong train, you will be charged an expensive full-price ticket or a penalty fare - which you'll either have to pay on the spot or within 21 days. 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 for truly eye-popping fares.
When purchasing a less restricted off-peak or anytime ticket, note that return fares are normally only a small amount more (and, strangely, often less!) than a single (one-way ticket). You must ask for the cheapest ticket, asking if the return is cheaper - it is up to you: the ticket seller will not help you. He is 'charged' with obtaining the highest price for his company (some are on commission); he will certainly not help you obtain the best deal, either because of intent or ignorance.
Discounts are available for:
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 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.
There are two 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 (international) and sleeper trains.
As noted above, it is hardly good marketing for most American companies/websites offering the BritRail pass to present a UK Rail map with just a few lines. See above to discover the thousands of journey opportunities available with the BritRail pass which is good value when one is appraised of the number of services it covers (that is; all of them).
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. 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:
Using the train
The National Rail  website along with overall detailed maps, has an information page for every railway station in Britain (however minor), with details of access , facilities, ticket office opening hours and recommended connection times. Also Wikipedia has detailed information regarding every British station. 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 (eg. "The 14:15 to Manchester Piccadilly"). Only a few carry names, such as "The Flying Scotsman" between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh and "The Northern Lights" between London Kings Cross and Aberdeen.
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. 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 is a safety feature aimed to prevent doors being opened with the train 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. Sometimes you can be lucky, and the person who made the original reservation either doesn't turn up or finds another seat on the train, but don't count on it!
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.
There are approximately 2,600 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 the major stations (which comprises almost all of the central London terminals and those in major cities - such as Birmingham New Street or 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 - although it must be noted that Bristol Parkway is unusual as it does in fact have a rail connection to the city centre station in Bristol. 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. Another common idosyncracy is that some towns have two separate stations on completely unconnected routes - a trait of the network's early development when feuding rival companies competed to build duplicate routes, and something the Beeching reforms of the 1960s often didn't (or couldn't) resolve - the best example of this being London's massive St. Pancras and King's Cross stations which were built side-by-side by two competing Victorian railway companies literally trying to out-do each other.
Travellers should be aware than many retail outlets at (larger) stations certainly do not offer bargain deals - which is putting it mildly - a sandwich costing £2 (or less) in a local supermarket can cost £4 or more at a station. For essentials (and treats) the traveller is therefore well advised to "stock up" before arriving at the station. There is no restriction regarding eating ones own food on a train; so sandwiches and drinks are best purchased beforehand outside of the railway station, perhaps at a local supermarket.
Finally, as noted elsewhere in this guide, stations can be magnificent; but there are horrors which are similar in ambiance (and smell) to a disused third-world urinal. An official list is prepared of the worst stations and (in theory) a program(me) of improvements is underway. For example the literally cavernous Birmingham New Street station, outside London the most important station in Britain, was always regarded, after the original structure was demolished (US: torn down) in the 1960s, as perhaps the location in Britain most likely to induce suicide as any other. The destruction of the original New Street station is frequently compared with that of Penn Station in New York City - in that both were essentially below-grade stations topped off by a grand and architecturally celebrated ticket hall. Just as Penn Station was topped off by the massive Madison Square Garden arena, Birmingham New Street was crowned by the depressing and brutal Pallasades shopping mall. The place is/was not dangerous; rather the sheer brutality of the architecture and lack of humanity (matching Birmingham itself) was so depressing. Multi-billion pounds' work is about half-way finished to alleviate the horror which is/was Birmingham New Street.
Major stations of London
London, being the hub of the entire network is unique in that it has 11 so-called "major" terminus stations - there is no single "London" station. This is because in the 19th century it was 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 19th and 20th century, is very much within it. Because of this, many journeys in Southern England require going into London, transferring between two of these major stations using the London Underground and then going back out again. When making a journey that involves a connection between London stations, a through ticket will normally allow connecting travel on the Underground - almost all of the major stations (Fenchurch Street being the notable example) are on at least one of the Underground lines.
Bold type indicates a terminus station; most London stations are termini as only a few lines cross the capital.
There is only one main line rail service which actually goes across the centre of London - it is known as the Thameslink route and runs underground between St Pancras and London Bridge on a North-South axis, forming a much longer route linking Brighton to Bedford, and crucially connects Luton and Gatwick airports. The long awaited East-West rail link across London (imaginatively known as Crossrail), is finally under construction after many decades of planning and is due to open in 2017, and is designed to ease congestion on the Underground. Crossrail will finally allow main line trains to cross from The City and the East End, and onto the Great Western route, calling at Heathrow Airport.
Major regional stations
Towns/cities marked * have at least one other major rail station (not listed above). Sometimes, when making a connection, transfer is required between the two separate stations. Almost always this will be included in your ticket price (with transfer by bus or tram = streetcar). In Wigan (for example) the two stations are in fact just 100 yards/metres apart; so check beforehand whether a silly taxi journey is really needed!
Most trains are modern, comfortable and accessible to people with disabilities. 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 (engines) pulling passenger trains (unless you travel on one of the sleeper trains), as most services are now operated by what are called multiple-units (an industry/rail industry term not used by normal people), or else the locomotive(s) is/are permanently integrated into a specially-designed train such as InterCity 125 or InterCity 225. 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 (used by nobody except rail enthusiasts and perhaps rail workers/managers); and some people (again, only rail enthusiasts) 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 likely in travel it. There are more types of train which are less common, particularly of electric trains on local and regional services.
The vast majority of the "normal" travelling public do not know (or care) what type of train in which they are travelling, although over time they do get a feeling for which trains to avoid by using a different company. The timetables do not specify what type of train will be used; passengers do not (indeed cannot) generally decide their travel plans on the type of trains detailed below save for changing companies. The information below, therefore, is included for those who have at least a mild interest in such things, and for the normal traveller to know which facilities to expect.
One of the most important things to note is that British trains (and carriages) are tiny compared with those of North America and most of Europe. The width between the track may be the same in the UK and the USA but what is called the loading gauge is vastly different. A British train can run on the tracks of the USA; but an American train would, if run in the UK, simply not fit into tunnels, under bridges and would, on double track, knock over other trains coming the other way. US and European trains dwarf those of the UK. The legroom on British trains is far superior to airlines or buses but North American/European travellers will find the interior space of British trains very much smaller than even those of a subway/metro in their own countries. The Pendolinos mentioned below are more cramped still as they must tilt to keep speed up around bends. To stop trains knocking together these trains are tapered towards the roof; the feeling is one that you might imagine travelling in a cigar tube.
On almost all UK trains, bright, often un-shielded neon lighting and a use of beige or white plastic as a decoration feature do not make for relaxing night travel. There are no reclining seats on any trains, save for the Caledonian Sleeper (above).
Inter-city trains in the UK usually travel at 125mph (compared with the 35 to 60 mph of the USA) 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", InterCity 125 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 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 125mph (200km/h) diesel service in the late 1970s and set speed records for a diesel train.
All (except those involved in rare catastrophic incidents) are still in service today, primarily due to the excellent design. Many of these trains are nearing 40 years' old, but are, according to government reports, to be retained past their fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays (indeed beyond) due to their reliability and relative comfort.
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 8 or 9 carriages. 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.
InterCity 225Leeds or Edinburgh, you will likely be on one of these electric trains introduced in 1990. They were designed for 140mph (225km/h) but the signalling was never completed so are limited to the line's speed limit of 125mph. All InterCity 225 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 125, but they still fill up quickly so board as early as you can.
These trains offer much better legroom than an airline or bus; but are by any objective standards cramped compared with standards elsewhere in the world.
Voyager and Super Voyager
Regional, local and commuter services
These are the electric version of the Turbostar, and are similar inside. They were introduced in the past ten years to replace hoardes of elderly trains in the south and south-east of England. Class 357, 375, 376 and 377 Electrostar trains operate regional and commuter services there and like Turbostar can reach 100mph (160km/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.
Sprinter and SuperSprinter
These classes form a family of trains 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 75mph (120km/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 100mph 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 75mph (120km/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 trains were 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 100mph (160km/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.
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 75mph (120km/h), rather than closing entire unprofitable 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.
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. The most up-to-date list is on the Wikipedia article . While most operate steam trains, some also use heritage diesel locomotives or diesel railcars. Of the many such heritage lines, prominent ones include:
It must be noted that heritage railways' tickets are very expensive (if regarded as simply a travel option). Heritage railways do not (without exception) provide true public transport "solutions." They are exclusively tourist attractions, based on the company's/enthusiasts' conception of heritage.
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. Note: it can often be much cheaper to buy (from London) an advanced ticket to Lille, Paris or Brussels, then to travel onwards on a ticket purchased abroad (even on the day). Through tickets purchased in the UK to European destinations are nearly always more expensive. If you are travelling to the East of Europe, two or three tickets can be much better value than a single through ticket purchased (officially) in the UK.
This respected (and award winning) non-commercial site is a must for those travelling to Europe and explains all the tricks for saving sometimes hundreds of pounds. The site does not sell tickets itself; but will tell how YOU can and it has official advertising (not rip-off travel agencies):
It must be noted that domestic rail travel in Europe is without exception much cheaper than in the UK; onboard facilities are often better and certainly cheaper. Here is a quote (accompanied by an enticing photograph taken by the author) from the site above:
Dinner in the restaurant car of the Budapest to Bucharest sleeper train Ister. It costs just £4.50 including the beer... .
Such a meal (if ever available) on a British train would cost upwards of 20 GB Pounds.
Note also that, whilst domestic rail travel within European countries is popular, international travel between countries within Europe by train is a niche market, save for Eurostar and other popular routes (for example between Amsterdam and Paris).
The long-distance situation is, therefore, similar to that of the USA where the East Coast rail routes remain popular and yet few Americans would dream of going by train from (say) New York to Chicago, save for a special 'adventure.' As would most British (indeed European) travellers, US travellers would fly. The budget airlines offer (for example) incredibly cheap international tickets from the UK and internationally within Europe; and their services cover the distance, of course,in a fraction of the time of the train. The website above, however, does an excellent job to persuade you otherwise and sample the delights of European international rail travel, which indeed is a remarkable experience, giving the North American visitor a nostalgic flavour of their own Railroads at the height of popularity, now long gone.
Airports with rail stations
Most airports without integrated rail services offer a bus connection to the nearest station.
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 SailRail  or National Rail .
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 0800 40 50 40.
Due to the UK's history of terrorist incidents, unattended luggage is treated by the authorities as a potential explosive device and may be destroyed by controlled explosion. You may hear announcements asking people not to leave bags unattended. Unattended bags can and do lead to closure of entire stations (particularly in London) while a bomb squad investigates and carries out a controlled explosion. Posters 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.For the seventh consecutive year, in 2013/14 there were no passenger or staff casualties in train accidents. People are however knocked over on level (grade) crossings and many hundreds commit suicide by means of the railway system. The secret therefore, is to be careful when crossing rail tracks; and not to go near railways when in a troubled state of mind.
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 to the train...
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 hiding 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 fined 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.
UK English railway (railroad) language differs in many respects from that of North America.
Train stations/depots are properly Railway Stations, grade crossings are level crossings, switches are points, schedules are timetables, trains are driven by drivers (not engineers), round trip tickets are returns. and, confusingly, ties are sleepers. Two weeks is a fortnight, although in that case no hilarity will ensue if two weeks is used in error. Fall is always autumn however, and that difference is important regarding important timetable (schedule) changes. I want to go to Edinburgh in the fall, will make the ticket clerk scratch his head.
Stations in Wales either have simply the Welsh language version of the name (often unfathomable in pronunciation for the English speaker, such as Llanwrtyd) or bilingual signs in Welsh and English (often totally different: thus the major city of Swansea is also shown as Abertawe. Some (Highland) Scottish (never Scotch) stations have bilingual station signs in Gaelic. These two versions again can be completely different: for example Dingwall is also Inbhir Pheofharain. Southall station (West of London) is also ਸਾਊਥਹਾਲ" in Gurmukhī, a script commonly used for Punjabi spoken by a large percentage of the population.
US readers are also warned that the US phrase torn down (the British English is demolished) is regarded as hilariously dramatic, suggesting (to the British) an all-out-attack on a building, perhaps by terrorists. Finally, it must be noted that the word downtown is never used in the UK. Town centre or city centre (never center) is used instead. Asking for directions/tickets to downtown Manchester will mean nothing to most British people.