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 Great Britain is one of the densest and most used railway networks in the world, with frequent daily passenger services comprehensively serving all major towns and many hundreds of villages. Train travel is Britain's most popular method of public transportation, with passenger usage approaching record highs despite annual rises in fares. In the last financial year ending in April 2014, 1.59 billion passenger journeys were made across Great Britain.
Travelling by train is one of the fastest, most comfortable, convenient and enjoyable ways to explore Britain. From High Speed 1, which connects London to Kent and under the English Channel to mainland Europe, to preserved railways operating historic steam trains through idyllic countryside, to bustling modern commercial centres and small unspoiled villages, to the breathtakingly scenic lines of Scotland, the train can be an enthralling and affordable way to see all that the UK has to offer.
As for services across the English Channel to France and Belgium, the cross-channel rail operator Eurostar has become the dominant carrier in cross-channel intercity passenger travel on the routes that it operates, carrying more passengers than all airlines combined.
However, the complex system of privatised train operators serving an effectively state-owned network of stations and lines has resulted in a complex fare and ticket system that can be confusing to the visitor. The structure of the industry is still very much in a state of change as a result of a controversial privatisation programme in the mid 1990s, as train franchises routinely change hands between operators and routes reorganised to fit the needs of the travelling public. Despite this, the network provides seamless journeys even if travelling on trains serviced by multiple operators – tickets can be purchased from any station in Great Britain to any other, irrespective of train company.
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 from National Rail and even uses a different track 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.
The National Rail website provides timetables and a journey planner, which can be found at at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk.
All infrastructure (e.g. track, bridges, stations etc.) is owned by the state controlled company Network Rail, a "not for dividend" company limited by guarantee and owned by the government, 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. There are also operators controlled by local government bodies (the London Overground is one example) and a small number of open access (non-franchised) operators which run additional services across the country. Although the ownership and structure is complex you often won't notice it when making a journey, due to the integrated nature of the British rail system.
General service schedules and routes run by the train franchises are specified by the government, but the "detail" and actual level of service are 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.
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. 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 December 2015 the National Rail network consists of the following passenger operating companies, all of which are private commercial organisations (mostly subsidiaries of global transport companies like FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva and Virgin).
Open access operators
Open access operators are train companies that do not operate under a franchise, but instead purchases individual slots on train lines. They provide additional services for routes that are in high demand that no franchise adequately cover. For example, First Hull Trains provides six daily services from London to Hull and back while its competitor Virgin Trains East Coast provides only one.
The world's first public railway opened between Stockton and Darlington in north-east England in 1825. Passengers were originally carried in coaches pulled by horses until 1833, when they were replaced by Locomotion No. 1, the first ever steam locomotive to operate a passenger rail service. The financial success of the early pioneering railways resulted in a large number of entrepreneurs eager to capitalise in the fledgling industry, in a time known as "Railway Mania". From 1836 to 1847, about 8,000 miles of track were laid which eventually grew into a national network serving most towns and villages in Britain.
Many majestic stations such as London St. Pancras, Kings Cross, Paddington and Liverpool Street were erected, showcasing the success of the companies who built them. Iconic bridges and viaducts of the Victorian era such as the Forth Bridge have come to symbolise the regions they run through.
In 1923 the government decreed that the railways should be grouped into four large companies, which together were known as the '"Big Four". These were the Southern Railway (SR), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and the Great Western Railway (GWR). What followed is considered to be the golden age of speed records, with iconic locomotives such as the Flying Scotsman and Mallard becaming symbols of speed and modernity. Railway travel posters from the 1930s to the 1950s pioneered a style of art which enticed travellers to visit resorts by train and showcased the British rail system as an elegant yet everyday form of travel. Even today many modern train company names hark back to this era.
Following the Second World War, in which most of the infrastructure was worn down by war duties or destroyed by bombing raids, all of the Big Four companies were in dire financial straits and were unable to cope with the backlog of maintenance and repairs that had built up during the war. As a result, the government nationalised all railways in 1948. The resulting state-owned British Rail ran trains for nearly fifty years during a time of change. In an attempt to stem passenger losses resulting from increased car usage, steam locomotives were replaced by diesel and electric trains, while some lines were electrified and upgraded to allow for higher speeds.
The darkest era in British railway history came during the 1960s, in a time known as the "Beeching Axe". In an attempt to eliminate daily losses of £300,000, British Rail closed a large number of unprofitable lines and scrapped many passenger services. Spearheaded by a report published by civil servant Dr. Richard Beeching, nearly 4,000 miles of track and over 2,000 stations were abandoned with much of the land sold for redevelopment.
British Rail rebounded in the 1970s and 1980s as it fought back against the new motorways, developing a new unified brand for its long distance express services known as InterCity. Together with electrification of the two main line routes from London to Scotland and the introduction of InterCity 125 high speed locomotives that could travel up to 125mph, British Rail saw a boom in patronage that in turn safeguarded the loss making regional routes and saved the remaining branch lines from closure.
British Rail's iconic double-arrow logo and typeface, which were introduced from the 1960s, defined the look and feel of the railway in the modern era and are recognised as design classics of the period. The logo is still used to identify a station today.
However, decline and neglect were still very evident throughout the system as it suffered from a lack of government investment. 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. In 1995 the network was fragmented, with different companies running track and rolling stock. Dozens of small companies began operating train services but with heavy government intervention, subsidy and control of the system.
The infrastructure (e.g. track, signals and stations) were re-nationalised in 2001, after Railtrack suffered financial meltdown resulting from spiraling costs incurred by delayed upgrade programmes, and culminated by the fateful Hatfield incident in October 2000. 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.
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 usually hauled by steam locomotives operate chartered services across gorgeous countryside (see the Heritage and steam railways section for more information on preserved railways).
Most of the services on these routes are run by modern diesel trains, however regular steam and heritage diesel hauled charters run across the network for which tickets can be purchased from the operator. Please note that "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 UKsteam Info for more information on steam tours or Railtour Info for heritage diesel tours including some that are partially steam hauled.
In the United Kingdom a 200 mile, or 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 and the south of London in particular, many routes such as the London to Brighton service run at frequencies close to those of subways in major cities elsewhere in the world. In other areas, even many of the smallest towns are serviced with trains running at least hourly throughout the day even on Sundays, comparing favourably to long distance services from outside Europe which operate as infrequently as 1-3 times a week. Anything less than an hourly service during the day is regarded as low frequency.
The days of "checked baggage" (segregated storage for suitcases and other bulky items), which is still common in North America, are long gone in the United Kingdom.
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 are still a mainstay of some routes today. Away from the inter-city lines, speeds are up to 160km/h (100mph) on main lines and less on more minor routes.
Unlike some countries, British high speed services do not cost more than others, with the exception of trains running on the High Speed 1 route from London St. Pancras to stations in Kent. Here you pay higher fares than slower services that don't use high-speed trainsets and there are no cheaper Advance or Off-Peak tickets.
On local and commuter services, 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 that it is an express train. So the train in the above announcement would go past most of the stations between Bromley South and London Victoria without stopping. A semi-fast service will call at more stations along its route than a fast train, while a slow (local) service stops at all the stations that it passes.
On some rural services, particularly those in Wales, Scotland and the south-west of England, have smaller stations that are request stops (flag stops). When approaching 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. Request stops are normally indicated on the schedule and are announced on the train's public address system.
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).
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 terminus.
Until the late 1980s sleeper trains were operated between London and a host of destinations such as Manchester and Liverpool, and there were even sleeper trains within Scotland. Due to speed improvements 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 Caledonian Sleeper sometimes restricts 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
Caledonian Sleeper operates two routes, with each train dividing or joining en route to serve multiple destinations in Scotland. This service was formally operated by ScotRail, which from 1st April 2015 was re-launched under new owners.
Bookings can be made up to one year in advance, and even first class fares are incredibly reasonable. There are some bizarre pricings, with sometimes the first class fares being cheaper than the second class fares. Early bookings are highly recommended, and if your travel dates are flexible then entering different dates is a good way to save money.
Reservations 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 the Caledonian Sleeper website and sell out fast, so you should book well in advance for these.
The two routes operated by Caledonian Sleeper are:
Caledonian Sleepers offer three kinds of accommodation:
London to Penzance
Great Western Railway operates 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 Night Riviera sleepers are mandatory, and supplements are payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. The Night Riviera offers these kinds of accommodation:
As part of the ticket price, standard class travellers will receive bottled water, towels, personally-controlled cabin lighting and in-cabin refreshments, while all passengers have access to a complimentary breakfast, drinks and snacks, toilets, a wake up call if required and access to showers at London Paddington station.
Planning your trip
The best source of information when planning your journey by train can be found on the official National Rail website. This site has a very useful journey planner, real time departure and arrival information, lists of station facilities and plans, ticket information, accessibility details and a useful Cheapest Fare Finder.
A complete national map in PDF format can be found here. There is also a useful phone app available, and most of these services are also available by telephone from the National Rail Enquiries phone service on +44 (0)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.
The National Rail website also has route maps and an information page for every railway station in Britain together with accessibility details, facilities, ticket office opening hours, recommended connection times and real time departure and arrival information. Various independent train booking websites also exist, but often charge unavoidable additional fees such as booking fees, debit/credit card charges and fees for receiving tickets by post or collecting them at the station. thetrainline.com is the oldest, best known and most reliable of these websites, and advertises frequently in the media in the UK. Be warned that it charges additional credit/debit card handling fees and a fee to collect your tickets from a station or to have them posted to you. However, its useful Ticket Alert can help you plan advance travel by e-mailing you when cheaper Advance tickets become available for a particular route.
Connections between stations
When making a connection between two trains you may be required to transfer between two separate stations, sometimes via bus, tram or the London Underground. You will be warned of this when you book your tickets, and the connection will usually be included in the price and specified on the ticket itself.
It is recommended to check beforehand whether a connecting journey between two stations is really necessary before you book your travel. For example, in Wigan the two stations are just 100 metres apart so booking a taxi from one station to the other would be a waste of money and time compared to a short two minute walk.
Please note that some major towns, such as Bury and Oldham in Greater Manchester, have no national rail service because the rail lines have been converted to light rail, and therefore they cannot be found in the national timetables as they are no longer part of the national rail system. All light rail services (such as in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and elsewhere) interchange with rail stations on part of their routes to connect with the national rail network, although through rail tickets may not be available. Therefore, if you are visiting a specific town in Britain then you can sometimes travel most of the way by train and then easily transfer to the local light rail services.
When travelling within London, there are also out-of station interchanges which allow passengers to connect to other stations lacking a direct connection without being charged multiple fares, even between different systems such as the Underground, the Overground, the DLR and Tramlink. In many cases an Oyster card or a contactless payment method is required; when travelling to/from the National Rail system it is usually possible to interchange using a paper train ticket.
Services are less frequent on Sundays. For over a hundred years, services on Sundays were few. 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 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 frequency of service is reduced compared with weekdays and Saturdays, and that engineering work is more likely to take place on weekends and public holidays than on weekdays. During line closures, rail companies will usually offer a replacement bus service which is provided for rail passengers for no extra charge.
Visitors should check with the National Rail Enquiries website for information on any Sunday alterations or changes.
The popularity of train travel in the UK has been soaring in recent years. If you plan to explore Britain by rail then it is worth noting that many parts of the network suffer from overcrowding, and that this is not restricted to commuter services as even rural services can be affected. Standing on a train for over 100 miles is not uncommon, as a ticket does not not guarantee a seat unless you also have a reservation (see below). Some long distance trains particularly in the rush hour can be so crowded that passengers are not allowed to board due to safety issues, and it is not unusual to encounter trains of ten carriages with upwards of 2,000 passengers crammed inside.
Planning journeys outside the rush hours even for long distance services (06:00-09:30 & 16:00-19:00) can make tickets cheaper and journeys significantly more comfortable.
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, operating 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 even for the same journey. The British often travel with several tickets using different companies to avoid the high "one ticket" fare.
Please note that some tickets are only valid for travel with a particular train operator, when this is the case it will explicitly state this on the ticket. Tickets should be purchased at the station ticket office or at a ticket machines, although smaller stations may have no ticket office and very minor ones will not have a machine. Alternatively, more and more travellers are buying from one of the train company's websites, all of which have a journey planner and sell tickets for all services and 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.
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.
The best deals are more easily found on the internet directly from 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 as 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 a station for you). Note down the unique reference number from your online confirmation. Then, simply go to the station ticket machine at any time from two hours after you have successfully purchased your tickets online and press the screen button "collect prepaid tickets", or a similar option. 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.
It is best to get your tickets by this means well before you travel, just in case if everything goes terribly wrong or the ticket machine is out of order. In these cases the train staff should allow you to get your tickets at your destination or transfer point.
Classes of travel
In the United Kingdom, there are two different types of ticket classes in operation:
Unlike in the rest of Europe, first class travel is not considered by most non-business users as a treat worth taking as it is usually incredibly expensive and offers little value for money compared to standard class. Certain companies, however, offer special deals where at certain (off-peak) times first class travel is available for a small supplement.
Many commuter trains and some local services offer standard class only. On commuter and local trains where first class travel is available, they only provide larger seating in a separate compartment and no refreshments or newspapers are provided.
In both classes, most trains also provide:
Peak and off-peak travelling
Peak times (rush hour) usually begin from the first weekday morning services until 9.30am, and off-peak times cover weekdays after 9.30am and all day weekends and public holidays, although some companies around London also have a weekday afternoon peak (15:00-18:45). Services are much more expensive during peak times so travellers must choose the time of their journey very carefully, even for short spur of the moment trips. Wait until after 9.30am and your ticket price (if a "day return" is purchased) will be considerably lower. The difference can be as dramatic as £20.00 return (peak) to £4 (off-peak).
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.
There are also super off-peak tickets available which are even cheaper than standard off-peak tickets but carry stricter restrictions over when you can travel, even when travelling on weekends. The validity times vary depending on the train operator so it is a good idea to check before you book.
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 ticket.
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 then you can still buy an affordable short-distance trip on the day of travel, but if you try to buy longer-distance tickets on the day (e.g. London-Scotland) then the ticket price will almost certainly be considerably higher than an Advance ticket.
When purchasing a less restricted off-peak or anytime ticket, note that return fares are usually only a small amount more than, or occasionally even cheaper than a single ticket. You must ask for the cheapest ticket and check if the return is cheaper. The ticket sellers will not help you as their job is to try to sell the highest priced tickets for their employers, do not rely on them to help you obtain the best deal.
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 upon 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.
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 vary from 7 days to 12 months. National Rail has a Season Ticket calculator, which can be found on the National Rail Enquiries website.
Visitor rail passes
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.
Ranger and 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
At the station
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 so 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 as they are identified 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 and The Northern Lights between London Kings Cross and Aberdeen.
Many trains close their doors at approximately 30-60 seconds prior to the scheduled departure time so you should arrive at the station with enough time to spare, especially if you are unfamiliar with the journey. Stations in Britain are often architecturally significant, so if you are early, take the time to look around.
If you have bought an advance ticket only valid on one specific train or series of trains then it is essential that you stick to this, otherwise you may be fined just as if you had no ticket at all.
Boarding the train
If you have a seat reservation then 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 the direction of travel, 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 close the door 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 once it has closed. When departing the train, 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 then look for one where the reservation ends at a station already called at, or where the reservation starts at a station the train has not yet reached (and be prepared to move seats when it reaches there).
Keep your ticket and any reservation, pass and/or railcard with you wherever you are on the train, as you may be asked to show it to 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 approach an exit barrier and you cannot find your ticket then you will be liable to a hefty penalty fine plus the cost of the train fare. So don't throw away your ticket!
Travelling with luggage
Different trains vary in how much luggage space they provide. Most trains 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 can fill up quickly and on long-distance services there is usually not enough space for everyone so you should board the train as early as you can to get a space. If there is no space in the racks and rearranging the items there doesn't help then 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.
You should never leave your luggage unattended at a station, particularly larger ones serving major cities. Doing so could risk a major security alert and may even result in your bags being destroyed by the British Transport Police's bomb disposal team. If you have lost your luggage at a station then speak to a member of staff, at major stations your bag may have been handed in to the left luggage office which can be returned for a fee. Any luggage that has become lost onboard a train is held by the train company running the service, so you should contact them for assistance.
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 British Transport Police to wait for you at the next station, where you will be taken into custody. 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 on board 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 before 10am in the morning. 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.
Food is served on most regional and nearly all inter-city trains. At a basic level it may take the form of a trolley service with light snacks, hot and cold drinks and perhaps some alcoholic drinks. Inter-city trains (except for CrossCountry services) often have a buffet counter, which may be termed the "buffet car", "shop" or "café bar" depending on the train operator. These serve all of the above, but may also offer hot food. First class on inter-city trains often features waiter service as well as hot food.
Quality has been improving in recent years but you will probably not get a full meal as the choice is limited, and the cost is higher than off-train services. If you wish to save money you should buy food before you board the train (not at the station as food at the cafés there can be quite pricey), and bring it with you onto the train.
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 are owned by the state-owned Network Rail, who also manage major stations such as most of the central London terminals and those in major cities like Birmingham New Street or Edinburgh Waverley. Others are leased to train operating companies, who are responsible for the operation and staffing of the station. Stations vary in their facilities but you are likely to have difficulty finding waste bins 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 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. However, parkway stations often provide a connecting bus service to an onward destination such as those which run from Luton Airport Parkway to Luton Airport. Another common idiosyncrasy is that some towns have two separate stations on completely unconnected routes – a remnant of the network's early days of development when feuding rival companies built duplicate routes to compete with each other.
Travellers should be aware than many retail outlets at larger stations may charge higher prices than shops outside stations. There is no restriction regarding eating one's own food on a train, and you can save money by buying sandwiches and drinks beforehand outside of the railway station.
Major stations of London
London, being the hub of the entire network is unique in that it has 12 major termini – there is no single "London" station. This is because in the 19th century it was illegal to build stations 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 from the south of England to the north and vice versa 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 exception) are on at least one of the Underground lines.
There is currently 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 to the capital. A second, east-west rail link across London known as Crossrail is under construction and is due to be fully completed by 2019, and will allow main line trains to cross from the City and the East End onto the Great Western route, calling at Heathrow Airport.
The following is a list of the major stations of London, those in italics indicate a terminus station.
Major regional stations
Outside London, National Rail lists the following as major connecting stations where passengers most often need to change trains on multi-leg journeys.
Towns/cities marked * have at least one other major rail station that is not listed above.
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 are unlikely to see many traditional locomotives pulling passenger trains as most services are now operated by multiple-units, or else the locomotive is part of a specially-designed train such as the 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 train carriages are smaller compared with those of North America and most of Europe. 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. There are no reclining seats on any trains, except for sleeper services.
British train types all have a class number but most people refer to them by the name (e.g. "I was on one of those Pendolinos today"). Inter-city trains in the UK usually travel at between 100-125mph and tend to have the most facilities, including wireless internet access and often a buffet or on-board shop. There are many different types of train in operation, but this section will give you a brief orientation to the trains you're likely to travel in, and what to expect.
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 on standard gauge track while others run on narrow gauge systems. The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway in Kent is an example of a miniature rail system operated by 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 most up-to-date list is on the Wikipedia article.
It must be noted that heritage railway tickets are very expensive and it is almost always not practical to use these lines as a true transport solution. Furthermore all heritage railways are only open for part of the year, usually during the summer months and certain other times including school holidays and the Christmas season. They are exclusively tourist attractions, based on the company's/enthusiasts' conception of heritage.
London St. Pancras is the terminus for high-speed trains to Lille, Brussels, Paris and seasonal French destinations such as Avignon (summer service) and the Alps (winter service). Connections from these stations to many major European cities can be made, and through tickets are available from the train operator Eurostar, booking portal RailEurope and staffed ticket offices to European destinations.
Note that 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, whilst convenient, are nearly always more expensive. If you are travelling to the East of Europe then purchasing two or three tickets for each operator from the point of origin can be much better value than a single through ticket purchased in the UK.
In the future, Eurostar will also be operating direct services from London to Amsterdam which are scheduled to start by the end of 2016.
Airports with rail stations
The below table gives a list of major airports in Britain, each with its nearest station and connections information where applicable. 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 then keep them within sight, especially during station stops if your bags are in racks near the doors of the carriage. British Transport Police (BTP) officers are responsible for the policing of stations and trains, and you may see signs for them at major stations. In an emergency the BTP as well as fire and ambulance services can be contacted by dialing 999 or 112 from any telephone or mobile phone, even if you have no calling credit. 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. This can lead to closure of the entire station (particularly in London) and the bag may be destroyed in a controlled explosion. If you see any suspicious luggage left unattended then report it to the nearest staff member or police officer, if this is not possible then you can use one of the Help Points situated on the platforms that will connect you to a member of staff.
In the event of an emergency
A conductor or guard is present on most trains. If they have not made themselves visible during the journey then they can usually be found in the cab at the rear of the train. Communication panels are normally located throughout the length of the train that will allow it to be stopped in an emergency. Most trains also have safety and evacuation notices posted on one or more of its walls and it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with these instructions.
Should there be an emergency, such as fire or accident to the train...