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Rail travel in the United Kingdom

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Rail travel in the United Kingdom

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    This article is a travel topic

A high-speed diesel train crosses the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed with a CrossCountry service from England to Scotland.


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.

Unlike in the USA, rail travel is certainly not a niche market method of transport. Trains are used for short, medium and long journeys, for daily commuting, shopping and 'special' trips.

Given the population density of the United Kingdom and the resultant inefficiency of its highway infrastructure, the United Kingdom has a relatively undeveloped express bus network; the train is by far the preferred (and sometimes only) transport mode of choice for those without a car (automobile) and very popular with those having their own transport.

The price of car (automobile) fuel (as of 2015, at 7.15 US Dollars for a US Gallon), car insurance, and road tax is very high in the UK; and the roads are congested. Car Hire is not cheap either, especially the prices charged by international car hire companies.

Flying can be useful if you want to reach the more remote parts of Scotland, the Scottish Islands and places like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; but for most long distance journeys the British public (save for some businessmen) would not even contemplate using the (expensive and relatively irregular) plane services.

Unlike North America, the rail network is comprehensive: almost all towns of importance, and many hundreds of villages, and all cities, are served by frequent daily passenger services. And note that frequent means anything from three to ten trains (or more) HOURLY, not daily. One example will suffice to illustrate the difference between North America (USA) and Britain in terms of rail usage to drive home the point that rail travel in the UK is not a niche market: Cincinnati (Ohio) has a population of 1,624,827 (urban area); and has just three Amtrak trains a week (in each direction). Manchester (in the North of England) has a population of 514,417, and yet has three trains an hour to London (and of course back) London is Manchester's equivalent of Chicago for Cinncinatians. London apart, Manchester has also many dozens of other long distance trains to many destinations each hour.

As for rail travel between France and the United Kingdom Eurostar (the cross channel rail operator) has become the dominant carrier in cross-channel intercity passenger travel (on the routes that it operates) carrying more passengers than all airlines combined.

The official (and most complete) national map can be found here: 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.

Every UK station (however small) has a Wikipedia entry with history, summaries of services and other useful information (including links to "official" station guides and plans). Simply search (for example) Xtown Railway Station in Wikipedia Search. In addition, most Wikipedia village,town and city articles have a transport section which invariably has a link to a Wikipedia railway station(s) entry; or, if the locality has no railway station, there will be (almost without exception) information regarding the location of the nearest station(s) under the Wikipedia Transport heading.

The UK gave birth to the railway, the first passenger-carrying public railway was opened by the Oystermouth Railway in 1807, using horse-drawn carriages on an existing tramline. This means the network is the oldest in the world. Most was constructed in the 19th century in massive civil engineering projects, many of which are now iconic (such as the Forth Bridge) and noted for their elegance as well as being major feats of engineering. Although some parts are relatively Victorian and can be inefficient, there has been significant investment in recent years. The network is expanding rather than contracting.

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. Brtish television is replete (almost nightly) with TV programmes either celebrating, denigrating, or analysing the railway network of today. Rail transport issues are reported almost daily in local newspapers - rail travel is a burning issue.

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.

The double-arrow symbol signifies a railway station or the rail network throughout Britain. It appears on all stations, road signs and maps.

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

The award-winning National Railway Museum [1] 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 [2] and trains in the Republic of Ireland operated by Iarnród Éireann [3]. 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[edit]

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 [4] 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.

  • Arriva Trains Wales / Trenau Arriva Cymru [5]
  • c2c [6]
  • Chiltern Railways [7]
  • CrossCountry [8]
  • East Coast [9]
  • East Midlands Trains [10]
  • Eurostar [11]
  • First Great Western [12]
  • First Hull Trains [13]
  • First Transpennine Express [14]
  • Gatwick Express [15]
  • Grand Central [16]
  • Heathrow Connect [17]
  • Heathrow Express [18]

Historical Background[edit]

From the 1930s, streamlined locomotives of the 'A4' class such as Mallard symbolised a golden age of rail travel. Mallard is now at the National Railway Museum, York

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.

1940s and 50s railway posters used art to entice travellers to visit resorts by train.

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.
British Rail's iconic logo and typeface from the 1960s defined the look-and-feel of the railway in the modern era. The logo still identifies a station today.
The infrastructure (e.g. track, signals and stations) were re-nationalised in the early 2000s after a financial meltdown triggered by the fateful Hatfield incident in October 2000, and since then the system has bedded-in and developed into an effective transport system, albeit with some ongoing issues, to give a mixed public/private-sector railway. Profits accrue to the private sector but subsidies are paid and exact services to be run are specified by the government. In fact, the national and devolved governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff have much greater control over the railways now than in the days of British Rail. As of 2012, passenger numbers are booming despite annual rises in fares, and many passengers buy tickets on the internet and access timetables using smartphone apps.

Most Scenic Routes[edit]

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).

View from train travelling on the West Highland Line.
Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle Line, North Yorkshire.
Train departs Dawlish on the Riviera Line, travelling along sea wall.
  • The West Highland Line [32] from Glasgow to the west-coast harbour towns of Mallaig and Oban is probably the most spectacular in the UK and regularly voted among the top railway journeys in the world. The nightly sleeper from London Euston to Fort William also runs on the route and in the summer there is a daily steam train called "The Jacobite". Spectacular vistas include Loch Lomond and the Gareloch, the dramatic Rannoch Moor, the Glenfinnan Viaduct (as featured in the Harry Potter movies and Scottish banknotes) and spectacular views of Skye and the Small Isles from Mallaig, among many others on the 3-5.5 hour ride.
  • The Settle-Carlisle Line [33] runs 73 miles (120km) from Settle in North Yorkshire (or you can join the train earlier at the major city of Leeds) to the city of Carlisle, near the Scottish border. The most scenic railway in England, it runs through the dramatic Pennine Hills and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Of the many viaducts, the dramatic Ribblehead Viaduct with its 24 stone arches is most notable, and there is good walking from many of the stations on the route.
  • Exeter-Penzance (also known as the Riviera Line) [34]: Designed by the famous engineer Brunel as part of his Great Western Railway, this line runs from Exeter, Devon to Penzance, Cornwall and includes long stretches where the railway runs directly on the sea wall, such as at Dawlish. It also runs through lush valleys, the dramatic Dartmoor, crosses viaducts by Brunel and enters Cornwall by the impressive Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar (pronounced TAY-mar). Images of waves breaking by the railway line at Dawlish are iconic of Devon.
  • The Far North Line [35] from the rapidly-growing city of Inverness to Britain's most northerly town, Thurso, runs through impressive Highland scenery as well as alone the Moray Firth, the Dornoch Firth and the impressive coast of Sutherland. Another scenic route leaves Inverness for Kyle of Lochalsh, with its links to the spectacular isle of Skye.
  • Stonehaven-Aberdeen: The line north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen crosses the iconic Forth Bridge. At its northern end, between the pretty harbour town of Stonehaven and the city of Aberdeen it runs for 20 minutes or so along a dramatic, craggy coast with spectacular cliffs soaring down into the north sea. Rugged inlets and churning waves breaking on the rocks add to the scene. The route is especially impressive at sunrise (as may be seen if taking the sleeper from London to Aberdeen)

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 [36] for more information on steam tours or [37] for heritage diesel tours (includes some that are part steam hauled).


Statue of poet Sir John Betjeman looking up at architecture of London St. Pancras station. You should too! British stations are often impressive works of Victorian architecture

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.

Sunday Travel[edit]

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[edit]

Standard-class interior of refurbished InterCity 125 (also known as HST) operated by CrossCountry.
1st-class interior of Class 221 Super Voyager operated by Virgin Trains.

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.

  • Standard class (formerly called 2nd class and referred to as Coach class in the United States) accommodation has two seats either side of the aisle with a mix of 'facing table' or more private 'airline-style' seats.
  • First class accommodation has two seats and one seat either side of the aisle, with a larger seat, more legroom, and on inter-city routes, an at-seat service of drinks, refreshments and a newspaper (not all at seat services are available at the weekend).

In both 1st and standard class, most trains also provide:

  • Free seat reservations (not commuter or local services), indicated by a paper tag or electronic display above each seat
  • A walk-up buffet, or a trolley service of drinks and refreshments moving through the train
  • Air conditioning (not commuter or local services)
  • At least one carriage with a fully disabled-accessible toilet and baby changing facilities
  • On inter-city services, a wireless internet service (a charge may apply)
  • Most inter-city trains provide a "Quiet Coach" where use of mobile phones, iPods, conversations, and any other noise is not permitted. These can be found on trains operated by East Coast, East Midlands Trains, CrossCountry, Virgin Trains, First Great Western and Greater Anglia's inter-city services.

Smoking and Alcohol[edit]

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 [38]. 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[edit]

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.

The Services[edit]

Rural Services[edit]

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[edit]

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 [39]] to see if a place you're interested in is served (see section on Planning your Trip below).

Inter-City Lines[edit]

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.)

Main concourse at London Kings Cross station, terminus of the East Coast Main Line to Scotland and the north of England, as well as local and regional services to Cambridgeshire and destinations north of London.

Sleeper trains[edit]

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[edit]

ScotRail [40] 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.

  • The Lowland Sleeper departs from/arrives in London Euston as one train, but divides at Carstairs in the early hours, with portions travelling to:
  • The Highland Sleeper departs from/arrives in London Euston as one train, but divides at Edinburgh (passengers are not permitted to alight here, you should travel on the Lowland Sleeper instead) with portions travelling to (and calling at numerous stations on the way):

Reservations on 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 [41] and sell out fast (book well in advance for these).

Caledonian Sleepers offer three kinds of accommodation:

  • Reclining seated accommodation (comparable to day time first class but with no at-seat service). Passengers to and from Fort William have to change carriages in Edinburgh. However, this may be uncomfortable on a long trip; bear in mind the Highland Sleeper takes 12 hours and the lights are left on all night (a blindfold may be provided).
  • Standard Class (a cabin with two berths, upper and lower, and washbasin; solo travellers usually have to share with another traveller of the same sex)
  • First Class (an identical cabin but only one berth and more generous breakfast, toiletry pack and access to departure and arrival lounges at larger stations)

London to Penzance[edit]

First Great Western [42] 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:

  • Reclining seated accommodation (comparable to day time first class).
  • Standard Class: either a cabin with two berths or (for a slightly greater supplement) a cabin with just one. Solo standard class berths also feature a wall mounted entertainment system preloaded with films and television programmes.

Planning your trip[edit]

The National Rail timetable was until 2013 still published in printed paper form (and is still available free on line in pdf format: 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: 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.

Britain's longest train journey
The longest single train journey in Britain is the 08:20 from Aberdeen to Penzance, operated by CrossCountry [43]. It takes nearly 13 and a half hours (arriving at 21:43) making thirty-three intermediate stops and covering 1162km (722 miles). It is operated by either a four or five coach Class 220 Voyager diesel train, and is prone to overcrowding at busy points on the journey.

The best source of information is the National Rail website at 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:

  • East Coast [44] is the only current state-owned train operating company (it operates high-speed inter-city services from London to Scotland via the East Coast Main Line). It has an attractive and easy-to-use ticketing system and like all train company websites, it gives information and sells tickets for all services in Great Britain operated by any company. This one is particularly useful because of the way in which the site allows you to compare the cost of two one-way tickets versus a return ticket. A lowest fare finder also quickly shows you the cheapest combination of trains. It makes no extra charge for credit/debit card payments nor ticket collection from a station ticket machine.
The Forth Bridge takes the line north from Edinburgh across the firth of Forth, to Fife and Aberdeen.

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).

  • [45] is the oldest, best known and most reliable of these train ticketing 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 [46] can help you plan advance travel by e-mailing you when cheaper Advance tickets become available for a particular route.

Buying Tickets[edit]

A typical National Rail (UK) train ticket, in this case the outward ('OUT') portion of a two part Standard ('STD') off-peak return ('OFF-PEAK R') from Queens Park in Glasgow to Norbiton, with a 16-25 Railcard ('Y-P') discount.

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 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.

Ticket types[edit]

A typical National Rail (UK) reservation coupon, in this case the paid standard class supplement required for a berth in the Glasgow to London sleeper (there is no charge for a seat reservation on a day time train). The reserved bed is in coach N, berth 23L ('L' for lower of two berths). Printed on the same format of card as a ticket, no reservation is valid without an accompanying ticket.

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 - are the cheapest tickets. You must buy in advance (latest is 18:00 the day before, but most will have sold out by then), travel on a specific train only which will usually be off-peak, and they are available in limited numbers. Making a change of travel plan may involve an administration fee.
  • Off-Peak - Buy any time, must travel at 'off-peak' times, ticket is more expensive than Advance ticket. Change in travel plans possible.
  • Anytime - Buy any time, travel any time, most expensive ticket. Change in travel plans easily made, plus you can just travel any time you like.
  • (Cheap) Day Return - ("Round Trip") For shorter journeys. Travel after 9am (or 9.30am for some areas/companies) and return the same day usually with no restrictions, or at any time on Saturdays and Sundays. A Day Return ticket is the ticket of choice for day trips, shopping etc. especially at the weekend. These are generally only purchased on the day; they can be purchased on the train only if there is no open ticket office at your starting station. Be warned: the ticket seller (or train personnel with their ticket machine) will rarely ask whether you want a Day Return. A single will be issued unless you specifically ask for a Day Return. Bizarrely a single ticket can sometimes be more expensive than a Day Return!

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 [47]. 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:

  • Children - up to the age of 15
  • Small Groups – of between 3 and 9 people
  • Large Groups – 10 or more people
  • Railcards – discount cards for certain groups
  • Regional Railcards – offering discounts within a specific region


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 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.

  • 16-25 Railcard offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for anyone aged 16 to 25 and full time students of any age. Currently costs £30 per year.
  • Family & Friends Railcard offers a discount of of 1/3 on adult fares and 60% on child fares. Up to four adults and four children can travel on one Family & Friends Railcard. At least one named cardholder and one child must be travelling together for the whole journey. Currently costs £30 per year.
  • Two Together Railcard offers a discount of of 1/3 on most adult fares for two named people travelling together. Currently costs £30 per year.
  • Senior Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for anyone aged 60 or over. Currently costs £30 per year.
  • Network Railcard An unusual relic of the pre-privatisation British Rail era: it is a geographically specific railcard that relates to the now obsolete 'Network SouthEast', the British Rail brand for the region of trains that radiate from London and the south east of England. It offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for the cardholder and up to three other adults(restrictions apply Monday to Friday) and up to four children, aged 5 to 15 can save 60% on the child fare. Costs £20 a year.
  • Disabled Persons Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 to eligible disabled or mobility restricted passengers. Currently costs £20 for one year or £54 for three years.
  • HM Forces Railcard A similar 1/3 discount available to serving members of the British armed forces and their families. It can only be obtained from military facilities and cannot be purchased at a station.

Season tickets[edit]

Britain's most overcrowded train
The popularity of train travel in the UK has been soaring in recent years. If you plan to explore Britain by rail, it is worth noting that many parts of the network suffer from overcrowding. This is not restricted to commuter services. Standing, without a seat, for over 100 miles is not uncommon (a ticket does not not guarantee a seat). For example: long distance trains from London to Manchester (from London Euston) and to Yorkshire (from London King's Cross) can be so crowded that passengers are not allowed to board due to safety issues. Even apparently rural services can be subjected to severe overcrowding (for example: Norwich to Lowestoft)

In response to a request for information under the 'Freedom of Information' Act in 2008, the government's Department for Transport released data [48] that listed the most overcrowded trains in the country. The figures consited of: actual passenger numbers, official capacity and percentage over capacity. It must be noted that capacity does not just mean the seats, but includes an agreed "comfortable-standing" level. Thus a figure of 176% means that the train has all its seats full and its allowed standing quota plus on top of that 76% more passengers than that total. For example: a carriage designated to seat 76 passengers and to have twenty standing quota, will (for example) at 176% occupancy have some 169 people crammed into each carriage.

  1. 07:15 Cambridge - London King's Cross: 870 (494, 176%)
  2. 08:02 Woking - London Waterloo: 865 (492, 176%)
  3. 07:45 Cambridge - London King's Cross: 812 (494, 164%)
  4. 17:45 London King's Cross - King's Lynn: 808 (494, 164%)
  5. 08:22 Oxford - London Paddington: 482 (304, 159%)

These figures are averages and there are frequent examples reported in the press of carriages which carry up to 350% of "offical" capacity. 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.

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. The National Rail website has a Season Ticket calculator [49].

Rail passes[edit]

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.

  • InterRail and Eurail are passes for EU and non-EU residents respectively. See [50] for more information.
  • Britrail [51] [52] is primarily targeted at visitors from the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and must be purchased online or in your home nation before you depart for the UK.

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[edit]

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 [53]. These tickets include Rovers for almost every region of the UK, but notable tickets include:

  • All Line Rover - These national Rovers allow 7 or 14 days travel on almost all scheduled rail services throughout England, Scotland and Wales. As of May 2012, they cost £450 (7 days)or £680 (14 days) for standard class, and £680 (7 days) or £1040 (14 days) for 1st class, with discounts for children and railcard holders.
  • Freedom of Scotland Travelpass: 4 days in 8 or 8 days in 15 - £129 and £173 respectively, with concessions for children and railcard holders.

Ticket add-ons[edit]

  • Cross-London transfers where a journey involves crossing London - for example a journey between Brighton and Edinburgh would require you to change between Victoria and King's Cross stations in London to connect with the onward train - the ticket will usually allow you to use the London Underground to make the transfer. A plus (+) or dagger symbol next to the route (e.g. "+ Any Permitted") indicates if this is permissible. However you can only enter and leave the underground network once.
  • PlusBus' allows you to add a day's unlimited bus and tram travel in your destination city. PlusBus costs between £1.60 and £3.50, depending on your destination, but you must buy the PlusBus ticket with your train ticket before you board the train. Several operators now allow you to buy PlusBus from their site. You can also book by phone or by going to a major station.
  • Weekend First upgrades allow the holder of a standard class ticket to upgrade to first class on Saturday and Sunday on certain long distance trains. The supplement is payable on the train to the conductor, subject to availability. Upgrades usually start at £10, but passengers should note that on many long distance trains there is no complimentary at-seat service in first class at the weekend.

Using the train[edit]

The National Rail [54] 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[edit]

Departure boards at London Kings Cross 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[edit]

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[edit]

Standard-class interior of Class 221 Super Voyager operated by CrossCountry. On this train, seat reservations appear on the display above each pair of seats. Others may use paper tags inserted into each headrest.

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[edit]

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.


London St. Pancras International, the UK terminus of the Eurostar high speed train, and domestic terminus for inter-city trains north to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield and high-speed trains south to Kent.

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[edit]

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.

  • Blackfriars
  • Cannon Street
  • Clapham Junction
  • Charing Cross
  • Euston
  • East Croydon
  • Fenchurch Street
  • King's Cross
  • Liverpool Street
  • London Bridge
  • Marylebone
  • Moorgate
  • Paddington
  • St Pancras International (underground 'Thameslink' platforms not termini)
  • Stratford
  • Victoria
  • Waterloo
  • Waterloo East

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[edit]

Outside London, National Rail [55] list 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 (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 services[edit]

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.

InterCity 125[edit]

InterCity 125 (HST).

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 225[edit]

Three InterCity 225 trains at London Kings Cross
If you travel on East Coast's inter-city services between London Kings Cross and Leeds 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.


Class 390 Pendolino speeds through Tamworth
The Class 390 Pendolino is an electric inter-city tilting train operated by Virgin Trains on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston, north-west England and Glasgow. Introduced in the early 2000s and using Italian tilt technology (hence the name), they travel at 125mph (200km/h; but like the InterCity 225, were designed for 140mph/225km/h), and tilt up to 8 degrees around corners. They have a small on-board shop selling magazines/newspapers, hot and cold snacks and beverages. Coach A is the Quiet Coach.

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[edit]

Class 220 Voyager at Newton Abbot, operated by CrossCountry
The Class 220 Voyager and Class 221 Super Voyager are inter-city diesel trains, introduced around 2001. Operated by CrossCountry and Virgin Trains, they usually have four or five carriages and travel at 125mph (200km/h). Each carriage has an engine under the floor so are not as quiet as some others. The overhead luggage racks are quite slim and there is not as much luggage rack space as some other trains. Virgin's Voyagers have a useful shop/buffet like on the Pendolino but CrossCountry units only have an irregular trolley service even though some cover very long distances (e.g. Aberdeen - Penzance). The Class 222 Meridian on East Midlands Trains services is very similar but does have a shop/buffet.

Regional, local and commuter services[edit]


Class 171 Turbostar operated by Southern
These are the most numerous trains built in the UK since railway privatisation in the 1990s. They can travel at up to 100mph (160km/h - you'll hear the engine under the floor of each carriage) and are used all over Great Britain by many train companies, with the electric Electrostar version mostly seen in the South-East of England. Class 170 to 172 Turbostar trains operate local, regional and some inter-city services and usually have digital information displays and automated announcements. There is usually a trolley service, but no buffet or plug-points. They have two to four coaches and are sometimes coupled together to make a longer train.
Class 377 Electrostar operated by Southern


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.

Express Sprinter

Class 158 Express Sprinter operated by ScotRail
The Class 158 and 159 Express Sprinter was introduced around 1990 by British Rail and are designed for medium- and long-distance regional services. They can reach 90mph (140km/h) with a diesel engine under each carriage, and are used particularly by ScotRail and numerous other companies in the north, south-west and west of England. They were quite prestigious when introduced and the ride is quite smooth. They have overhead and end-of-carriage luggage racks but not as much as an inter-city train. Unlike the Turbostar, the doors are at the end of each carriage so cold weather doesn't come in when stopped at a station.

Sprinter and SuperSprinter

Class 153 SuperSprinter operated by Northern Rail

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.


Class 365 Networker

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.


Class 450 Desiro at Alton, operated by South West Trains

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.


Class 142 Pacer at Oldham Werneth, operated by Northern Rail

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[edit]

Seeing Britain's railway heritage
If you are interested in the role railways have played in British society, railway heritage, or just historic trains, a visit to the award-winning, free (and family-friendly) National Railway Museum at York is a must. Sited next to the station, it is the most popular national museum outside London and the many exhibits include the fastest-ever steam locomotive, Mallard, Queen Victoria's royal train, and the original Flying Scotsman.

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 [56]. While most operate steam trains, some also use heritage diesel locomotives or diesel railcars. Of the many such heritage lines, prominent ones include:

  • The Bluebell Railway runs for nine miles through Sussex, from the National Rail station at East Grinstead. It has over 30 steam locomotives and has operated a public service by steam for over 50 years. It has appeared frequently as a movie location.
  • The Severn Valley Railway runs for 16 miles through Worcestershire and Shropshire in the west of England, starting at the National Rail station at Kidderminster. Originally part of the Great Western Railway, a variety of steam trains appear alongside a handful of classic diesel units.
  • The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is a miniature railway in Cumbria, starting from Ravenglass station on the National Rail network. The track gauge is just 15 inches and locomotives are miniaturised versions of the full-size originals. it runs for seven miles through scenic hill country.
  • The Keith and Dufftown Railway (also known as "The Whisky Line") runs for 11 miles through Moray and Speyside in Scotland using classic Scottish steam trains and diesel railcars. There are numerous whisky distilleries in the area which can be visited. The line begins in Keith which has a National Rail station.
  • The Ffestiniog Railway is a narrow-gauge railway in the Snowdonia National Park in north Wales. It is a popular attraction in the area and originally carried slate from the mines nearby to harbour for shipping, and also carried passengers (which are now the only thing carried). Unusual double-ended steam locomotives are used along with other unusual rolling stock.
  • The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a railway in the Yorkshire Moors that runs 18 miles between Pickering and Whitby, with common stops being Goathland (famous for playing "Aidensfield" in Heartbeat) and Grosmont, possibly the most famous locomotive to run on the railway is the LNER A4 Pacific Sir Nigel Gresley.

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.

International connections[edit]


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 [57], RailEurope [58] 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[edit]

  • Aberdeen - (1 mile from 'Dyce' station - taxi and limited bus links)
  • Birmingham - 'Birmingham International' station
  • Cardiff - (1 mile from 'Rhoose Cardiff International Airport' station - dedicated bus link)
  • East Midlands - (4 miles from dedicated 'East Midlands Parkway' station - but only taxi and limited bus links)
  • Edinburgh - (on Edinburgh Trams system. Interchanges with the railway at Haymarket and Edinburgh Park stations.)
  • Glasgow Prestwick
  • Liverpool John Lennon Airport - Liverpool South Parkway station (by bus or taxi),
  • London City (on the Docklands Light Railway, part of London's urban transport system)
  • London Gatwick
  • London Heathrow (has three rail links to London: the fast and expensive Heathrow Express, the slower and cheaper Heathrow Connect, and the slowest and cheapest Piccadilly Line of the London Underground)
  • London Luton - (1 mile from 'Luton Airport Parkway' - frequent dedicated bus link)
  • London Stansted
  • Manchester Manchester Airport Station (in the airport)to many national destinations and Manchester City Centre, and also by tram (streetcar) to Manchester national rail stations
  • Newcastle - (on the Tyne & Wear Metro system)
  • Southampton
  • Southend
  • Durham Tees Valley ('Teesside') - However this is one of the least used rail stations on the UK network as it is a good 15 - 20 minutes walk from the airport, however there are plans to rebuild the station far closer to the airport.

Most airports without integrated rail services offer a bus connection to the nearest station.

Seaports with railway stations[edit]

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 [59] or National Rail [60].

Stay safe[edit]

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[edit]

Should there be an emergency, such as fire or accident to the train...

  1. Get the attention of a member of staff, any staff member will do
  2. If you cannot get the attention of staff and you are certain that you, anyone else or the train is in danger because of the motion of the train - pull the emergency stop handle, this will be either red or green and will be visibly identified. Be aware that pulling the emergency stop handle between stations will make it more difficult for emergency crews or police to reach the train. Pulling what is traditionally called the communication cord (to stop the train)is clearly for emergencies only: at 1000 GB pounds 'a pull'(and a criminal conviction) it is certainly not a way of rectifying a failure to have disembarked at your station.
  3. If you are in immediate danger try to move to the next carriage, internal doors can be pushed apart if necessary. Take nothing with you
  4. If it is not possible to move to another carriage, only then should you attempt to leave the train via the external doors. Methods for unlocking and opening in an emergency differ between types of train however, the emergency open device will be located at the door with instructions.
  5. If this is not possible, leave through an emergency window which will usually be identified as such. There may be a hammer located next to it. If there is no indicated window, use the most convenient one facing away from any other tracks if possible.
  6. Strike the hammer against the corner of the window (if you strike the middle it'll just bounce off) until both panes crack, then push them out with a piece of luggage.
  7. You should lower yourself carefully from the train and move away from it as quickly as possible.
  8. Watch for other trains, and possibly the electric 3rd rail. Do not step, urinate on, or touch any rail. Serious injury and almost certain death will result.

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.

Rail Speak[edit]

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.

It must be remembered also that many British place names bear no relationship to international/American English pronunciation. The major city of Leicester for example is pronounced Lesst-a, 'Birmingham' pronounced 'Birminghum' (never 'HAM') and 'Reading' pronounced 'Redding'. Even worse, Wymondham in Norfolk is pronounced Windem. (with the wind as in the blowy weather, not as in to wind string), whilst in Scotland a good example is that the town of 'Milngavie' is pronounced "Millguy". Trying to buy a ticket to Why-mond-ham, Lie-ses-ter or "Mill-en-gavee" will provoke mystification from the railway ticket clerk. Towns with an ending in -brough are generally pronounced with the ending -br...: so Middlesborough is not pronounced Midelss-bow-roh but instead Midelzbr'(er) without the r. In fact R is rarely pronounced in England, certainly at the end of words. (see Leicester = Lessta above). Note that Edinburgh is certainly pronounced Edinbr' and not Edin-boroh. (Just imagine someone asking a New York ticket clerk for a ticket to Dez-Mwoinz (without his knowing you wanted to go to Iowa) and you will see the importance of 'homework' before your trip. Wikipedia helps with pronunciation on all its location entries.

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.

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