Rail travel in the United Kingdom
This article is a travel topic
With around 34,000km (21,000 miles) of lines, the National Rail passenger network of the United Kingdom is one of the densest and most popular railway services in the world. The UK gave birth to the railway, with the first passenger services (between Stockton and Darlington in north-east England) and first steam locomotives developed there from the 1820s. 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. Train travel is very popular in Britain - you'll find many services busy, and passenger numbers have been rising steadily. It is one of the fastest, most comfortable, convenient and enjoyable ways to explore Britain and by far the best way to travel inter-city. From High Speed 1, which connects London to Kent and mainland Europe, to preserved railways operating historic steam trains through idyllic countryside, to modern inter-city services and the breathtakingly scenic lines of Scotland, the train can be an enthralling and affordable way to see all that the UK has to offer.
All infrastructure (e.g. track, bridges, stations etc.) is owned by the state while trains are operated by private companies (usually multinational transport companies) which bid for particular franchises. The system is tightly controlled by the national and devolved governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff which heavily subsidise it. Despite the presence of many franchisees, the network provides seamless journeys even if travelling on various company's trains - tickets can be purchased from any station in Great Britain to any other, irrespective of train company. The National Rail website provides timetables and a journey planner at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/.
The award-winning National Railway Museum  at York tells the story of Britain's railways and how they changed society from the 19th century to today, with many historic and record-setting locomotives, rolling stock and other exhibits. Admission is free.
This guide does not cover rail travel in Northern Ireland, which operates its own state-owned system called Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) which is separate and even uses a different track gauge (the Irish gauge). NIR is owned and controlled by the government of the Northern Irish Executive in Belfast. It is well-integrated with local and provincial bus services operated by Translink  and trains in the Republic of Ireland operated by Iarnród Éireann . For more details on rail travel in Northern Ireland, see Rail travel in Ireland.
Trains to be run are specified by the government and operated by commercial train companies, known as Train operating companies (TOCs). These lease or own rolling stock to run the passenger services demanded in their franchise contracts. Companies compete to win franchises for a certain number of years. Their continued permission to operate, or ability to win extensions or future franchises, depends on factors including value-for-money, performance and customer satisfaction. Government officials and transport ministers play a heavy role in the process.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) represents all the passenger train companies, and markets them collectively as National Rail. National Rail has inherited the iconic white-on-red "double-arrow" logo (see illustration) first used by British Rail, the former state-owned railway operator which was privatised in the 1990s (although the infrastructure was re-nationalised in the early 2000s). The iconic logo is used extensively to signify a railway station and on road signs, maps, tickets and other places.
Passenger Rail Companies
Some train operating companies cover a particular geographical region, while others operate inter-city lines which pass through various regions. As of May 2012, the National Rail  network of passenger operating companies consists of the following companies. All are private commercial organisations (mostly subsidiaries of global transport companies like FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva and Virgin), except for East Coast which is state-owned but operated commercially.
The world's first public railway opened between Stockton and Darlington in north-east England in 1825, marking the start of a railway-building boom. Most railways in Britain were built by private companies in search of profit; dozens of small companies ran local lines, merged and took over each other, as others entered the market. By the mid-19th century, these had grown into a national railway network. In the 1920s, the government decreed they all merge into the four large companies that are best known today: the Southern Railway, London and North-Eastern Railway (LNER), London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and Great Western. What followed was a "golden age" of speed records, iconic locomotives such as Flying Scotsman and images of the train as an elegant yet everyday form of travel (you'll see modern train company names harking back to this golden age). Following World War 2, in which most of the infrastructure was worn down on war duties, damaged or destroyed by bombing raids, the government nationalised all railways in 1948. The resulting state-owned British Rail ran trains for nearly fifty years, during a time of change when steam was replaced by diesel and electric, large numbers of unprofitable lines were closed in the "Beeching Axe" as the age of the car arrived, line speeds increased, and the now-iconic double-arrow logo came to symbolise the railway network and the presence of a station.
British Rail's (and now National Rail's) double-arrow logo and associated typeface of the 1960s are recognised as design classics of the period (unlike almost anything else British Rail did) but are only one of many achievements of design and engineering accomplished by railway companies in Britain. In the 19th century, majestic stations such as London St. Pancras, Kings Cross, Paddington and Liverpool Street were erected by railway companies. These "rail cathedrals" symbolised the success of the companies who built them and the places their lines ran through (e.g. the Midland bricks of which St. Pancras is constructed). Iconic bridges and viaducts of the Victorian era such as the Forth Bridge have come to symbolise the regions they run through. In the 1920s and 30s, streamlined locomotives such as Mallard became symbols of modernity which now symbolise the zenith of UK rail travel, while railway travel posters between the 1930s and 1950s pioneered a style of art which showcased Britain at its most attractive.
Following a badly-conceived privatisation in the 1990s, the network fragmented with different companies running track, rolling stock, and dozens of small companies operating trains but with heavy government intervention, subsidy and control of the system.
Most Scenic Routes
Many lines cut through spectacular British countryside and run along dramatic coasts, particularly in Scotland, Wales and the north and south-west of England. In many places, elegant Victorian viaducts and bridges add to (rather than detract from) the beauty of the natural landscape. Of the many such scenic routes, here are a few that are part of the National Rail network and provide a transport service to the communities along the route, as well as attracting tourists. Preserved and heritage railways operate others (usually by steam train) in gorgeous countryside (see section below on preserved railways).
An achievement of British Rail which is still in place today is that you can purchase a through-ticket from any station in Great Britain to any other station, including whatever changes of train, train companies or even London Underground connections are needed.
Most inter-city services travel at 200km/h (125mph), even on non-electrified lines. Britain was the first country to introduce high-speed diesel services in the 1970s (using InterCity 125 trains that are still a mainstay of some routes today). 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.
Classes of Travel
Two classes operate: standard class and 1st class. Commuter trains and some local services offer standard class only.
In both 1st and standard class, most trains also provide:
Smoking and Alcohol
Smoking is illegal on board trains in Great Britain (and in fact in any enclosed public place as part of the British smoking ban laws) and trains are fitted with smoke alarms, including in toilets. If you are seen smoking, train staff will arrange for the 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, 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.
On some rural, local services (particularly in the north-west and south-west of England), some smaller stations are request stops (this will normally be indicated on the schedule as well as announced on the public-address system). If boarding at a request stop, the train will slow down and sound its horn - if you wish to board the train then raise your arm so that the driver can see you. If you wish to alight at a request stop, you should notify the conductor as to which station you wish to get off at and he will signal the driver to stop.
Regional, Local and Commuter Lines
A vast network of lines provide services between towns and cities of regional importance (e.g. Liverpool - Manchester), local services (e.g. Settle - Carlisle) and commuter services around many major cities (the network is particulary dense around London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool). Almost all towns and cities of interest or importance can be reached by rail, or by rail and a connecting bus link (e.g. a bus service connects Leuchars Station with St Andrews). It's worth trying the journey planner on the National Rail website ] to see if a place you're interested in is served (see section on Planning your Trip below).
The inter-city network developed out of six historic mainlines. Line speed is up to 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 three scheduled sleeper trains in Britain that operate every night (except Saturday) in each direction. Travelling more slowly than their equivalent day time trains, they offer a comfortable means of overnight travel. All feature a lounge car that is open to passengers booked in berths (although on busy nights ScotRail sometimes restrict access to the lounge car to first-class passengers only). A buffet service of food and drinks is available in the lounge car, offering affordable snacks and beverages in retro surroundings reminiscent of 1970s British Rail.
London to Scotland
ScotRail  operate two Caledonian Sleeper routes, with each train dividing/joining en route to serve multiple destinations in Scotland.
Reservations on ScotRail sleepers are compulsory, and supplements may be payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. Reclining seats don't require a supplement, nor do special advance-purchase tickets known as Bargain Berths, priced at £19, £29, £39 or £49 depending on destination and availability. They are only available from ScotRail's website  and sell out fast (book well in advance for these).
Caledonian Sleepers three kinds of accommodation:
London to Penzance
First Great Western  operate the The Night Riviera, which travels along a single route from London Paddington to Plymouth, Devon and Penzance, Cornwall, calling at numerous intermediate stations. Reservations on First Great Western sleepers are mandatory, and supplements are payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. The Night Riviera offers three kinds of accommodation:
Planning your trip
The best source of information is the National Rail website at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/. It has a very useful journey planner, gives live updates for all stations, has station information and plans, ticket information, as well as a useful Cheapest Fare Finder. Most of these services are also available by telephone from the National Rail Enquiries phone service on +44 845 748 4950. The National Rail website gives prices but does not sell tickets (however it will link to a choice of several websites which do). Among the train operators' websites, a useful one for planning travel and buying tickets is:
Various independent train booking websites also exist, but often charge unavoidable additional fees (e.g. for booking, using a debit card, using a credit card, receiving tickets by post or collecting them at the station).
A feature of the network is that you can purchase a through-ticket from any one station to any other in Great Britain, regardless of which or how many train companies you will need to travel on. 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. If you buy on a website, 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. If you are collecting tickets from a machine, you need the bank card used to purchase them plus the confirmation number. If you have forgotten the number, it is usually included with the confirmation e-mail. Some websites (such as those below) also allow you to print the ticket at home on your printer.
A ticket does not guarantee a seat unless you also have a seat reservation. Depending on ticket type and train company, this may come automatically with the ticket or you may be asked if you wish to reserve a seat - ask if you are unsure. Some trains (mostly local and commuter services) do not permit seat reservations. If you have no seat reservation, you may have to stand if the train is busy.
Tickets come in three types. You can usually book up to three months in advance and the further in advance you book, the less expensive tickets are. You can choose between flexibility (generally move expensive) and value (less or no flexibility), similar to an airline. Off-peak times are usually any time after 9.30am and all weekends and public holidays, although some companies around London also have a weekday afternoon peak. Services are much more expensive outside these off-peak times. In increasing order of cost, tickets are classed as:
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. If you cannot pay it straight away you will be thrown off at the next station. To check how far ahead 'Advance' tickets are available, visit National Rail's "Booking Horizons" page .
When purchasing a less restricted off-peak or anytime ticket, note that return fares are normally only a small amount more than a single (one-way ticket).
Discounts are available for:
The most widely used system of discounts on National Rail are Railcards. These provide a discount of 1/3 off nearly any off-peak ticket (although a minimum fare is charged for short journeys below a certain ticket price). Railcards can be purchased from any station ticket office (after completing a form and providing of proof of eligibility and a photograph) or online from http://www.railcard.co.uk/. Although these are primarily intended for British citizens, the discounts offered makes them useful for visitors to Britain who plan to travel a lot by train.
There are two principal types of rail pass available to visitors to the UK which permit inclusive rail travel throughout the UK. Supplements are normally payable for Eurostar (international) and sleeper trains.
Ranger & Rover tickets
A relic of the nationalised British Rail era, Ranger and Rover tickets are tickets that permit unlimited travel with relatively few restrictions over a defined geographical area for a period of anything from one to fourteen days. There are numerous regions available, with a full list of tickets (with their terms and conditions) on National Rail's page . These tickets include Rovers for almost every region of the UK, but notable tickets include:
Using the train
The National Rail  website has an information page for every railway station in Britain, with details of access, facilities, ticket office opening hours and recommended connection times. The 'live' Departures & Arrivals screen for every station can also be viewed online, with up-to-the-minute train running information.
At the station
If you are unfamiliar with your journey, arrive at the station with time to spare. Stations in Britain are often architecturally significant, so if you are early, take the time to look around. Most stations have electronic departure screens listing trains in order of departure, platform, any delay, stations called at and the train operating company. At small or rural stations without electronic displays, signs will indicate which platform to wait on for trains to your destination. Platforms may not be announced until a few minutes before the train is due to depart, and can sometimes change if the train is delayed. Listen for audio announcements. Many stations now use automated subway-style ticket barriers - you insert your ticket which opens the barrier, and your ticket is returned. Platform staff are always in attendance with these barriers and can also advise where to stand if you are travelling with a bicycle.
British trains do not have publicly announced numbers; they are identified at each station by their departure time and destination (eg. "The 12:15 to Manchester Piccadilly"). Only a few carry names, such as "The Flying Scotsman" between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh and "The Northern Lights" between London Kings Cross and Aberdeen.
Boarding the train
If you have a seat reservation, watch the outside of the train as it arrives for your coach number (some major stations will have signs on the platform telling you where to wait). Coach A is not necessarily at the front of the train, and some letters may not be included. Most trains have power-operated doors, however you must press a button to open it, and they close automatically when the train leaves. If the weather is cold and you are the last person to board, it is polite to press the 'close door' button to prevent cold weather coming in. On older trains with manual doors (particularly sleeper carriages and InterCity 125 trains), you open the door from the outside by pulling the handle downwards and pulling the door open. Close the door behind you and make sure it shuts properly (the handle will return to a horizontal position). When getting off, slide down the window and open the door with the external handle (having no internal handle is a safety feature aimed to prevent doors being opened with the train moving).
Finding your Seat
Seat reservations are marked either with paper tags on the headrest or an electronic display above the window, as well as on your reservation ticket. Usually not all seats are reserved unless the train is very busy - if a seat has no tag, it is unreserved and any ticket-holder can sit there. However, remember that unless you also have a seat reservation, your ticket does not guarantee you a seat. The reservation tag or display at each seat will specify the stations between which the seat is reserved (e.g. "DUNDEE - YORK"). If you do not have a reservation and all the seats appear to be reserved, look for one where the reservation starts at a station the train has not reached yet (and be prepared to move seats when it reaches there), or where the reservation ends at a station already called at.
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. Station stops are normally announced over the public address system or on scrolling electronic displays in the carriage.
Travelling with Luggage
Different trains vary in how much luggage space they provide. Nearly all trains (including all inter-city ones) have overhead racks suitable for small items like a small rucksack, briefcase, laptop bag, or other small luggage. Inter-city and regional trains have luggage racks suitable for larger suitcases. However, these luggage racks fill up quickly and on long-distance services there is usually not enough space for everyone, so board the train as early as you can to get a space. If you cannot get a space in the racks, and re-arranging the items there doesn't help, you may have to squeeze your luggage into any space you can find. This may be in the vestibule space and the ends of each carriage. Train staff do not tolerate luggage blocking aisles and doorways (this is dangerous in an emergency) and in extreme cases if it is an obstruction it may simply be dumped on the platform at the next stop. Theft of unattended luggage can be an issue so keep a close eye on yours.
There are approximately 2,600 railway stations throughout the UK, excluding urban rapid transit systems like the London Underground, Glasgow Subway, Tyne and Wear Metro and the Docklands Light Railway. All stations belong to the state-owned Network Rail, who also manage day-to-day operation of major stations (e.g. Edinburgh Waverley). Others are leased to the train operating company running most of the services there, who are responsible for the operation, upkeep and staffing of the station. Stations vary in their facilities (see information on the National Rail website) but you are likely to have difficulty finding a rubbish bin/trash can at major stations due to the risk of terrorism.
Major stations of London
When making a journey that involves a connection between London stations, a through ticket will normally allow connecting travel on London Underground services. In the 19th century it was made illegal to build railway termini too close to the centre of London as it was thought this would put historic buildings at risk. As a result, most were built in a ring which at that time was just outside the centre, but following London's expansion in the 20th century, is very much within it. Bold type indicates a terminus station; most London stations are termini as only a few lines cross the capital.
Major regional stations
Trains and Rolling Stock
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 pulling passenger trains (unless you travel on one of the sleeper trains), as most services are now operated by multiple-units, or else the locomotive(s) is permanently integrated into a specially-designed train such as InterCity 125 or InterCity 225. With about one-third of track electrified, diesel trains are common (including on inter-city services) but the same top speeds are usually achieved regardless of power source. British trains have a class number but most refer to them by the name (e.g. "I was on one of those Pendolinos today"). This section gives an orientation to the trains you're most likely to need to use and what you can expect. There are more classes which are less common, particularly of electric multiple-unit trains on local and regional services.
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 are still in service today, primarily due to the excellent design. While you need to open the doors using a handle (there is no handle inside so to get off you slide down the window and reach out), all have been comprehensively renovated in the last few years and are basically all-new inside. They have more luggage storage than most, with a large rack and toilet at each end of the 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.
Voyager and Super Voyager
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 units 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 but with faster acceleration (being electric). As with them, there is usually a trolley service but luggage space is not as much as an inter-city train.
Sprinter and SuperSprinter
These classes form a family of diesel multiple-units introduced in the 1980s (the Express Sprinter is the final development of this family). Class 150 Sprinter trains are used for local services or rural lines, with Classes 153 to 156 SuperSprinter being more sophisticated, comfortable and suitable for longer routes (e.g. the scenic West Highland Line) and all reach 75mph. They do not usually have air conditioning, but this is not a problem for much of the year in Britain anyway and they are designed for shorter-distance services.
These electric multiple-unit trains (classes 356, 465 and 466) were introduced in the early 1990s. Class 365 Networker operates services up to 100mph in the east of England (for First Capital Connect), with comfortable surroundings, air conditioning, etc. New upholstery has been installed recently. The others are used on local and commuter lines south of London and can reach 75mph using the third-rail, with higher-density seating and resilient floors rather than carpets. You may also find the diesel versions, Class 165 and 166 Network Turbo, on services running west of London.
Until recently, all rolling stock was built in the UK, but recently Siemens (of Germany) have been building large numbers of new trains which are then shipped across. Legions of various classes of Siemens Desiro are now used throughout the country on electrified lines (mostly in the Midlands around Birmingham and the south of England such as services to Hampshire), reaching up to 100mph, and a slightly different-looking diesel variant is used on TransPennine Express services. They all tend to have very fast acceleration (you really will need to hold on tight if you're standing), plus air conditioning, carpets and electronic information systems.
The Class 142, 143 and 144 Pacer were designed in the 1980s to provide an economical alternative to locomotive-hauled trains on lightly-used and rural lines, rather than closing entire unprofitable lines. You'll see them often on local services, particularly in the north of England, and they may remind you of a bus. This is because much of the bodyshell uses bus components to save money and development time. Most Pacers have recently been refurbished and are much more comfortable inside than before, although more basic than others as they are designed for short-distance services.
Heritage and Steam Railways
Following the large-scale line closures and withdrawal of steam locomotives in the 1960s, enthusiasts began to band together to re-open lines as tourist attractions, using surplus or historic steam locomotives and vintage rolling stock. You can visit literally dozens of these, all over Great Britain, and they are popular for a day out. Some run full-size trains, others (such as the Ffestiniog Railway in Gwynedd, Wales) use a narrow gauge, while others (such as the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway in Kent) are complete miniature systems with tiny steam locomotives. The most up-to-date list is on the Wikipedia article . While most operate steam trains, some also use heritage diesel locomotives or diesel railcars. Of the many such heritage lines, prominent ones include:
London St. Pancras is the terminus for Eurostar high-speed trains to Lille, Brussels, Paris and seasonal French destinations such as Avignon (Summer Service) and the Alps (Winter Service). Connections to many major European cities can be made in Lille, Brussels, Paris, and through tickets are available from Eurostar , RailEurope  and staffed ticket offices to European destinations.
Airports with railway stations
Most airports without integrated rail services offer a bus connection to the nearest station.
Seaports with railway stations
Through tickets are available from any UK railway station to any station in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. In the west of Scotland, rail and ferry timetables are often integrated, and through tickets are available. For details of routes and fares, contact SailRail  or National Rail .
The railway network has a low crime rate, but you do have to use common sense. The most common incident is theft of unsupervised luggage. If travelling with bags, keep them within sight, especially during station stops if your bags are in racks near the doors of the carriage. The UK (except Northern Ireland) operates a railway police called the British Transport Police (BTP), and you may see signs for them at major stations. They are responsible for the policing of trains, stations and railway property. In an emergency all emergency services including the BTP can be contacted by dialing 999 or 112 from any telephone or mobile phone (these work even if you have no calling credit or the keypad is locked). If you wish to contact the British Transport Police themselves and it is not an immediate emergency, dial 0845 440 5040.
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. 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 (e.g. fire or accident to the train)
If an evacuation of a train is ordered by train crew, instructions will be given. Most carriages have specific windows that can be broken or pushed open for emergency escape.
A conductor or guard is present on most trains. If they have not made themselves visible during the journey, they can usually be found 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.