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The United Kingdom's railway network is the oldest in the world, having existed since 1830. Unfortunately, the network has suffered from lack of planning and near constant meddling by politicians for much of its 180-year existence, and as a result, the system is full of irritating quirks and idiosyncrasies - something which is apparent after the traveller has experienced the efficiency of rail travel across the rest of Europe.
Most railways in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) operate under a public-private ownership umbrella, where privately owned train companies operate services in particular regions or along certain routes, whilst the infrastructure itself is operated and maintained by a government controlled company called Network Rail. Railways in Northern Ireland are separately run from the railways in Great Britain.
In Northern Ireland, trains are operated by Northern Ireland Railways (a division of the state-owned Northern Ireland transport company "Translink").
For most long distance journeys, however, it is by far the least stressful way of getting around the major population centres on the island - arguably a better experience than using domestic air travel - and once you learn how to book tickets in advance - it is often the cheapest.
The UK's rail system point-to-point tickets, regional passes and season tickets are your main options when travelling by rail. Britrail and Inter-Rail passes are also valid on the UK rail network, but these must be purchased before arrival in the UK. Britrail and Inter-Rail passes also need to be validated (stamped) at a station Travel Centre before you can use them.
For all timetable information about trains in Great Britain, National Rail operates a unified telephone enquiry service, when in the UK, call 08457 48 49 50 or +44(0)20 7278 5240 from outside the UK or you can use www.nationalrail.co.uk for a comprehensive service of information on train times, fares and current service disruptions. Northern Ireland: for timetables and other information about Northern Ireland Railways, call 028 90 66 66 30 or +44 28 90 66 66 30 from outside the UK.
If you're wanting to get all your travel arrangements sorted before you arrive, the best websites for point-to-point tickets are National Rail, East Coast or TheTrainline.com (note: a surcharge may be added for booking by credit card on these sites, though debit cards (Cirrus/Maestro/VISA) usually incur no charge. The Trainline normally adds a booking fee of £1.50 per transaction so it makes sense to use other sites, such as First Great Western or SouthWest Trains. These sites are rebadged versions of trainline but without the booking fee.) If you visit these sites around 4-6 weeks before you're intending to travel, you can find extreme savings compared to on-the-day purchase (e.g. London-Manchester would cost £61.40 on the day, but can be purchased at £12.50 in advance online if you are flexible about date and time of travel). These lower fares are non-refundable and can, in principle, be changed for a fee of £10 although this requires negotiation with staff in offshore call centres and is not always straightforward.
Tickets purchased online can be picked up at most major stations from FastTicket machines using the credit or debit card you paid with and the booking reference (a 50p surcharge may apply for this service although it is normally free). You can also collect pre-booked tickets at any manned railway station upon production of the same said payment card and booking reference, although station staff much prefer you to try to use the machines first. It is essential to have the card you booked with since controls to stop credit card fraud are now very tight in the UK and the train companies won't give you your ticket unless you have the actual card in hard (not just the number). Additionally, tickets can be posted to any UK address, useful if you will be staying with family or friends (this can incur up to a £1 surcharge, but certain websites maintain this as a free service). Some of the train companies, such as East Coast, offer an online discount of 10% for journeys on their trains booked on their website.
All tickets booked in advance on medium and long distance services will come with a free seat reservation. Where reservation tags have been placed, this gives you the right to sit in that seat for the duration of your journey. On the newest trains, seat reservations are displayed electronically above the seat. If no seat reservation tags have been issued on the train, the seat reservation is not valid and you should sit wherever a seat is available.
National Rail is a Web portal for the entire network which has maps, timetable query pages, lists of special offers, regional and county passes and links to the websites of all the individual train operating companies (TOCs). Some special offers can only be booked online from the website of the relevant TOC.
There are three basic types of ticket - known as ADVANCE, OFF PEAK and ANYTIME. These are summarised below. Peak hours are usually regarded as 7:00-9:30(am) and 16:00-18:00 (4:00-6:00pm).
ADVANCE tickets are the cheapest tickets, and as the name suggests, must be booked in advance between 12 weeks to 1800 hours on the day before the date of departure and are only available as single, one way journeys. TOCs sometimes offer an additional discount if you book online,eg. First Great Western but this now rare. Two single one way tickets for the outgoing and return portions of the journey can be considerably cheaper than a conventional return ticket, and the other key advantage is that Advance fares are sometimes available even on Peak time services - albeit in much smaller numbers. However, Advance tickets carry the most restrictions - the tickets are not refundable at all , and changes to the train time carries a £10 administration fee on top of any fare difference - which can outweigh the original ticket cost. However, the most important thing to remember about Advance fares is that they are only valid on the date and specific train time printed on the ticket. If you travel on a different train your original ticket is void and you will be obliged to pay the full open Anytime single fare (which on a London-Scotland journey for instance runs to over £100!). Ticket inspectors are always asked to charge the full fare, not just the 'extra' cost above what you have paid. This applies even if trains are late and delayed. In this case, if you want/have to travel on a different train it is essential to clear this with the ticket office or services staff in advance and ask them to mark your ticket accordingly. Without this, the fare charged on the train will normally be extremely high. A guaranteed seat reservation is a feature of Advance tickets, although as mentioned above Advance tickets can be hard to find on peak-time services - Friday/Sunday services in and out of London are the worst culprits.
OFF PEAK tickets are available on the day of travel, as single and return, for travel outside peak hours and can be bought up to a year in advance, but accompanying seat reservations are again only available from 12 weeks before the service departs. These are usually about half the price of the equivalent Anytime fare, and if bought as a return - often require that the return journey is done within one month of the outbound. Most shorter distance tickets (eg. London - Oxford) have a cheaper off peak day variant where the return must be made the same day: this is ideal for day trips. Either kind can be bought either online or at any manned railway station. Refunds tend to be easier to get, but the restrictions on Off-Peak tickets vary between TOCs and can be monstrously confusing. Always check with platform staff (who may be none the wiser) or the ticket office (the best option) before getting on the train if you are unsure - some on-train staff can be notoriously unforgiving. Checking with one of the websites, eg. trainline, will show you which ticket type is valid on which train if you select the range of fares available for the train you are intending to use. You are entitled to a free seat reservation on most long distance services if you hold an Off Peak ticket - but they are not always issued automatically. Fortunately this can be done free from 12 weeks to 3 hours before the departure time at the origin station of the service.
ANYTIME tickets are the most flexible, but also the most expensive. They are available as either one-way or return, and allow travel by any train, and any operator and carry few restrictions on where you can change or what line you need to travel on. You will also be entitled to a full refund with a £10 penalty (or none at all immediately after buying the ticket) if you change your plans before the train departs. Like Off Peak tickets, these come in an "Anytime Day" version and the restrictions are the same. For journeys over 50 miles or so, the Anytime tickets are very, very expensive because they are aimed at business travellers and visitors will find that it is much, much better to plan on using Off-Peak tickets rather than Anytime. For typical journeys like Birmingham, Bath, York and Edinburgh, the off peak tickets often offer a 2/3rds reduction from the Anytime price!You can purchase Off-Peak and Anytime tickets, including London Underground Travelcards, in advance if you want to, but they will still be dated for a particular day of (outward) travel, and if you change your mind you will be charged an admin fee (£5 or £10 per ticket) to get a change of ticket or refund. However, buying tickets in advance can be handy if you intend to travel at peak time when ticket offices can have long queues.
As mentioned above, the rules on Off Peak tickets vary across operators, routes and regions and some are barely fathomable to even the British, never mind visitors from overseas! Most of them are not written down anywhere although the ticket websites such as the trainline do give accurate indications of which train each ticket type is valid on if you are planning ahead. To make matters worse the rules are policed in different ways depending on which TOC you are travelling with - punishable by being asked to leave the train at the next stop, through to a penalty fare or in the worst case - prosecution!! The key things to remember are:
All of the long-distance operators on the main lines offer First Class accommodation, and most of the longer distance commuter trains in and around London do as well. The quality of this varies from operator to operator - for example Virgin Trains' services on the West Coast route offer free meals/snacks (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and complimentary alcoholic drinks whilst others only offer free tea, coffee and biscuits or complimentary newspapers etc. The key advantage however is that travelling in First Class is often devoid of overcrowding and can be a more pleasant experience on a long journey made during peak times. First Class is exceptionally good value when booked on an Advance ticket, and in some cases can bizarrely end up being cheaper if the most expensive Advance tickets in Standard Class for a particular service have sold out.
Because the TOCs rely on weekday business travellers for filling First Class seats, on Saturdays and Sundays most will offer discounted upgrades to Standard Class ticket holders (irrespective of whether they hold an Advance, Off Peak or Anytime ticket, although again there are sometimes some restrictions on upgrading Advance tickets so please check before travelling) from around £5 to £30 depending on distance travelled. This can be a very attractive option, since weekend services are often disrupted by engineering works or make more stops. These upgrades can usually be purchased from the on-board train manager but it is only the long distance train companies that offer them (eg. East Coast, Virgin, First Great Western).
Anytime tickets on First Class are aimed at business travellers and are therefore very, very, very expensive - running into hundreds of pounds on long distance journeys and the premium price isn't usually worth the benefit. It's almost always cheaper to fly than use these tickets!
A wide selection of Rover and Ranger tickets are available in most regions of England, these allow unlimited travel within a specific geographical area for periods from one day to one week, ideal for tourists wanting to explore every nook and cranny of their destination. Manchester, West Yorkshire (Leeds and surrounding area) and the West Midlands areas offer these tickets for just £5 per person, or £8 for a family (up to 2 adults and 3 children). Popular versions of these passes are available for Scotland and Wales as well and they offer excellent value for money if you are planning on making at least one train trip a day. For more information, click here.
Season tickets are only available for short to medium-distance rail, or where the TOC offers a long-distance option, and can be valid for periods from one week to one year. Season tickets can only be purchased at a station ticket office and only within a certain time period prior to validity (usually between on the day and up to 3 days prior). These are useful if you intend to make more than three or four journeys on the same route within a seven day period. You will require a passport-sized photo for the accompanying identification card. Click here for pricing and more information.
If you live in Europe, but outside the UK, you might consider an Inter-Rail pass; you must have been a resident of another European country for at least six months and you must buy the pass outside the UK. The pass is not valid in the country of issue. There are various other kinds of railpass, such as 'Explore Wales Pass', ' Freedom of Scotland', which can be bought within the UK.
For tourists of other nationalities, the Britrail Pass is probably your best option, should you wish to explore the UK by train and attempt to keep a low carbon footprint whilst enjoying your stay in the United Kingdom.
The Britrail Pass website does not make enough of reserving seats, it really does deserve major mention and, what's more, for most journeys, it's free! If you plan to take a long trip on a popular route - especially the East or West Coast Main Lines, make a reservation.
It is very inconvenient to board a train to discover most of the seats are reserved. Reservations can be made at any station, but ideally they should be made at least 24 hours in advance. However, they can be made up to 2 hours before the train leaves the first station of its journey.
Rail fares in the UK can be very expensive at peak times, when not purchased in advance or prior to boarding the train, but you can make big savings by booking ahead . A range of these is available to people who live outside Europe and are definitely worth checking out if you are going to be making more than two or so trips. Refer to www.visitbritaindirect.com or www.britrail.com and www.britainontrack.com for details. They can be bought from a variety of sales agents, but must be purchased outside the UK.
These are available on a limited number of routes, mostly commuter and regional operators not intercity, and are usually for 3 or 4 people travelling. Friends' Fare must be purchased before 1800 the preceding day. Groupsave must be purchased before travelling. Flexipass, which is a bundle of 10 single tickets valid between named stations (not intermediate stations) for one month, is intended for occasional commuters, but as the bundle can be split between people buying a Flexipass can be an economical way of buying 5 peak return tickets.
Group fares, usually for more than 10 people, may be obtainable for advance booking from the Train Operator's telesales department.
If you're 55 years of age, or older, and you are travelling in Scotland out of peak holiday periods (that is, not at Christmas/New Year, Easter or July to September), First Scotrail offers a 'Club 55' return ticket that is valid between any two stations in Scotland at a flat fare of £19 (standard class) or £25 (first class). There are very few restrictions and for longer journeys, for example from Edinburgh to Inverness, the saving on the usual fare can be well over 50%. The dates during which each of these promotions operates are announced on the Scotrail website.
First Scotrail also offers advance booking discounts on sleeper services between Scotland (Aberdeen, Inverness, Fort William, Edinburgh, Glasgow) and London. They're known as 'Bargain Berths' and are priced at £19, £29 and £39 (single fare), with the cheapest being sold in very limited numbers.
From January 2010 onwards, the Oyster smartcard 'Pay as You Go' system now extends to most National Rail routes within the Greater London boundary. Fares are the same therefore, as if you were taking an equivalent Tube journey from the central area (i.e. Zone 1 or 2) to the outer Zones (4-6), and are therefore cheaper than buying paper tickets from the station of origin.
Note that many of the stations in outer London suburbs do not have automatic ticket gates - so it is vitally important to remember to "touch in" and "touch out" in order to take advantage of reduced Oyster fares, and to make sure your card is properly validated before travelling. If you do not touch out at the end of journey, you will be charged the maximum fare of typically £6 and Oyster will not refund this to you later. If your journey involves making a connection between National Rail and tube services within Greater London but without going via the central zone, there are special pink Oyster readers at the connecting station that you must remember to touch against in order to avoid being charged the higher 'via central zone' fare.
Note that if you intend to travel beyond the Greater London boundary (i.e. beyond Zone 6), Oyster fares become invalid (leaving you liable for a penalty fare/prosecution if you stay on the train and get caught) and here you should instead buy a conventional paper ticket at the point of origin. It is theoretically permissable to leave the train at the last possible station to "touch out" and then use a paper ticket to continue your journey from that point onward on the next train - although this usually not worth the hassle.
The hub of the system is London, from which the five primary high speed main lines radiate to the major population centres and regions - most of which reach also into Wales and Scotland in some way or another. By saying 'high-speed' this is of course by British standards, not European. Trains in the United Kingdom are limited to 125mph (200km/h) unlike many other European countries. The five routes are summarised below (working anticlockwise around Central London):
In addition to this, secondary main line routes also run from London:-
It is also possible to make through rail journeys by avoiding London using the CrossCountry Route (operated by CrossCountry Trains), runs between Plymouth - Birmingham - Durham - Newcastle - Edinburgh route and trains from the North West cross the Midlands to Oxford and the south coast. They also run services between Cardiff and Nottingham and also out to Cambridge. This can be faster, but not always and these trains are often very crowded because of their short length. Birmingham is the hub of the network with routes reaching out like an x.
The Trans-Pennine route from the north-west to the north-east of England is an important link for travellers and locals alike. It provides a frequent and reasonably comfortable service between all the major urban areas in the north although the trains used are only 3 cars long and at busy times struggle to cope. The line to Liverpool to Leeds and York as well as that between Manchester and Blackpool has been selected to be electrified in the near future. This will lead to a recasting of services and Scarborough as well as Middlesbrough are likely to loose their through services to Manchester. The Carlisle to Newcastle route follows the route of Hadrian's Wall, and is one of the more picturesque routes in England, taking in rolling meadows and the North Pennine range. Also highly recommended for scenery is the Manchester to Windermere/Barrow-in-Furness route.
Most longer-distance services have both standard and first class coaches. Entrance to dining cars is restricted to first class passengers on some lines but not all, and the number of dining cars is being cut back severely so make use of them whilst they survive! National Express gives priority to first class diners and their meals are usually good and no more expensive than a reasonable restaurant, although they often don't have all the menu choices and negotiation with the staff and your fellow diners is sometimes in order to arrive at an amicable allocation of what's in stock that day! There will often be some catering available to everybody, via a buffet car or a trolley.
Transpennine Express and Cross Country routes have an at-seat trolley service of snacks and drinks, complimentary for First Class ticket holders. Virgin Trains have catering facilities on almost all trains, although the choice (for Standard Class passengers) is a bit spartan for the price and it's much better to get something before you get on the train.
Train operating companies (TOCs) include East Coast, London Midland, Arriva CrossCountry, First Transpennine, East Midlands, c2c, one, Northern Rail, Southern, South West Trains and Virgin (until December).
Tourist rail lines exist, such as the North York Moors and Bury-Rawtenstall lines, where preserved steam and diesel trains are operated. These are relatively inexpensive and provide a good insight into what rail travel was like in the early 1960s prior to modernisation and the Beeching cuts. These lines are a great way to show how things were in days gone by and are very popular. Many put on special events such as galas where visiting locomotives guest star for a few days drawing big crowds. Fares on preserved lines are comparable to those on network rail for the similar distance with the average day rover for the biggest such as the Severn Valley Railway being around £17. Gala fares are higher. These lines are staffed almost entirely by volunteers who do it because of their love of trains.
All rail journeys to mainland Europe will involve transit through London, as the Eurostar services to Lille, Brussels and Paris-Nord operate from St. Pancras International. From Brussels and Paris, onward connections can be made to many major European cities, such as Madrid, Amsterdam, Barcelona or Milan. Eurostar operate their own online ticketing service and the option to book through from any UK station to your initial French/Belgian destination is recommended, as substantial savings are likely, compared to booking domestic and international sectors separately. Single tickets are notoriously expensive, so it is often best to book a return fare (which will often be half the price of a single) and just not use the other half, although sometimes reasonable single fares are available. Pricing of through fares to France is a bit random and you will find it's considerably cheaper to fly to places like Lyon, Marseilles and Basel although the travelling isn't as much fun.
Inter-city and main-line rail services in Scotland are mostly provided by ScotRail, but Virgin Trains East Coast services penetrate north to Aberdeen and Inverness and Arriva CrossCountry operate from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh to Penzance via Newcastle and York. Virgin Trains also operate frequent services mainly from Glasgow Central to Birmingham and London (Euston). There is an extensive network of local trains in the Glasgow area. SPT (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) runs the Glasgow Subway system which integrates with the regional rail service at Queen Street /Buchanan Street stations and Partick station. Lothian regional services are centred on Waverley Station in the centre of Edinburgh.
Apart from the relatively infrequent services to Aberdeen and Inverness, Virgin Trains East Coast services from London stop at Edinburgh Waverley, with some continuing to Glasgow Central. CrossCountry rail services terminate at Edinburgh Waverley, Glasgow Central or Aberdeen.
Glasgow Queen Street offers services to Oban, Fort William, Mallaig, Stirling, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness. Edinburgh Waverley provides services to Stirling, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and (on summer weekends only) Oban. From Inverness, you can transfer to trains for Wick & Thurso, in the extreme north, or for Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast, from where it's a short hop by bus (or even on foot, across the bridge) to the island of Skye. The Far North line to Wick and Thurso passes through some memorably wild moorland country. The Kyle of Lochalsh journey is one of the most scenically beautiful in the UK, the train threading its way through steep valleys and along the shores of sea-lochs. There is also a service at roughly 90-minute intervals between Inverness and Aberdeen.
The flagship ScotRail service is the 50 minute shuttle between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Varying between three and six carriages according to the time of day, trains travel between the two cities at 15 minute intervals. The carriages are the most modern diesel units available and are very comfortable, although they are very busy at commuter times and, from the perspective of the traveller, are lacking in luggage space. These trains are also used on most services to Inverness and Aberdeen. These so-called 'Turbostar' trains are mostly fitted with wifi, which is free to use (you simply need to log in) and works very well on most parts of the network, using the best available 3G phone signal. As of 2015, the line is being electrified and there may be considerable disruption to services in June and July 2015 (but alternative, slower trains will be available).
Transpennine Express operates services from Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley, direct to Manchester Airport, via the Lake District or Blackpool. This is a useful service for tourists wishing to venture out from Scotland for a day or two to take in the unique sights of the fells in Cumbria or the tacky-but-fun nature of a seaside resort. It is also useful for those who wish to use Manchester Airport for their arrival or departure, avoiding the madness and missed connections that can often occur at London's airports.
There are numerous steam train services around Scotland, maintained by steam train enthusiasts and well worth seeking out. The most famous of them all is the summer service from Fort William to Mallaig by way of Glen Shiel and Morar. Younger visitors may be interested to know that this line, with its viaduct at Glenfinnan, appears from time to time in the Harry Potter films with the regular steam engine renamed the Hogwarts Express. The Strathspey Railway, which operates between Aviemore, Boat of Garten and Broomhill in the Cairngorms National Park, also attracts enthusiasts and families.
If money really is no object, another way of seeing Scotland is by booking a trip of between one and seven nights on the Royal Scotsman, a luxury train with prices to match. A week aboard, exploring the West Highlands, won't leave you with much change from £5,000 per person.
Operated by Arriva Trains Wales, First Great Western and Virgin Trains, the Welsh railways are home to highly scenic routes across valleys, through mountains and along the coast. Travel from the north to the south coast will involve a brief passage through the border counties of England, as no connection exists between Aberystwyth and Swansea, or through the centre of Wales. Advance tickets from Cardiff to Caergybi (Holyhead) start from £15 single, which is good value for a 5hr train journey, providing an affordable connection to the frequent ferry services to Dublin and Dun Laoghaire. Direct trains to Manchester Piccadilly (Manceinion) and Birmingham New Street are also available from most stations in Wales. To visit the website, click here. In south Wales major service improvements are planned as the line to Swansea is due to be electrified as are the valley lines that offer local travel north of Cardiff.
If you would like to explore Wales buy train and bus, you can purchase an Explore Wales Pass from Arriva Trains Wales which give you 4 days train and 8 day bus travel around Wales. Passes start from £56 per person.
Snowdon has its own railway the 'Snowdon Mountain Railway' - this runs from late March to the end of October. The journey provides fantastic views between Llanberis and Clogwyn and Hafod Eryi. The summit is over 1000 metres.
Wales provides excellent rail and ferry links to Ireland. SailRail tickets, which can be purchase from any UK station or from the Arriva Trains Wales website, you can travel from an UK station to a wide range of destinations in Ireland. SailRail can offer you an attractive alternative to airline travel, with competitive and guaranteed one-way fares.
The Northern Ireland railways are separate and are operated by Translink, a state-owned company. To visit their website, click here. There are direct international trains to Dublin and the company are currently upgrading their trains, bringing huge improvements over the very basic service offered in the past. Services are vastly better than they were a few years back and it is worth taking in one or two of the lines to see the scenery.
If your train is severely delayed, you can claim compensation from the rail company. If your train is more than an hour late and it is the company's fault, you can get some or all of your money back. If you abort your journey because of a delay or cancellation, you can claim a refund on any unused tickets. If you reserve a seat and then have to stand because of overcrowding (or because there is a large, fearsome-looking person sitting in your seat and you value your life enough not to ask them to move!), you can claim a refund. Full details of how to complain and claim compensation are available from ticket office staff, on the TOC websites or by phoning (when in the UK) 08457 48 49 50.
The precise rules and details vary from TOC to TOC, however. Compensation is usually paid in the form of Rail Travel Vouchers, which you can't use when buying tickets online.
You can monitor the progress of trains using the Live Departure Boards service from the National Rail website, which mimics the departure boards on the station platforms.
A very useful service offered by all rail operators is help for Disabled and Limited Mobility Travellers. This can cover a very wide range; covering, for instance, elderly people who have difficulty walking quickly and cannot lift heavy bags onto a train or the baggage racks. Some stations are very extensive - for instance London Euston where 'assisted' passengers will be met with a buggy to take them and their luggage to the taxi rank - a walk of nearly half a mile. It is essential to book in advance, the various numbers can be found on the company's websites or by ringing the company.
Some companies share booking facilities which makes things a lot easier when changing trains. One huge advantage offered is when lines are closed for maintenance at weekends. Help on and off the bus replacements is essential and in, at least one case, a taxi ride home was offered rather than several changes. A further point for limited mobility and disabled passengers is that much of the potential for missing the last train is eliminated.
Once the company has booked you for assistance, they should not leave you stranded on a deserted station. Incidentally, it is advisable to tell the train manager (when showing your tickets, for instance) that assistance has been booked at the station where you get off. This puts the onus back on the company to make sure you are met. By the way, Eurostar provide excellent help to get you aboard but you will not be met in either Paris or London. Don't forget to take a supply of £1 or £2 coins - though the service is free, offering a tip is usually appreciated.
The National Rail website now has plans and photos of almost all stations with walking route information from one platform to another.
In the UK, smoking in all enclosed public places is prohibited by law. NB: this includes every train station, open-air platform and all trains. Although you might think an open platform is not an enclosed public place, Network Rail and the TOCs decided to ban smoking across the entire network in order to make enforcement of this new law simpler.