Rail travel in the UK: Wikis


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Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

This article is a travel topic.

A five carriage diesel-electric train crosses the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed with a northbound CrossCountry service from England to Scotland.
A five carriage diesel-electric train crosses the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed with a northbound CrossCountry service from England to Scotland.

With around 34,000km (21,000 miles) of lines, the passenger rail network of the United Kingdom is one of the densest and most popular railway passenger services in Europe. Despite a massive series of line closures in the 1960s and decades of subsequent under-investment, the train is still one of the most enjoyable, fastest, comfortable and convenient ways to explore almost every region of Britain. From High Speed 1, which connects London to mainland Europe to the breathtakingly scenic lines of the Highlands of Scotland, the train can be an affordable way to see all that the UK has to offer.

However, the complex system of privatised train operators serving an effectively state-owned network of stations and lines means that the choice of trains and fares can be confusing to the visitor.


The track, stations and infrastructure of Britain's railway network (with the exception of preserved railways) is owned by Network Rail, a British "not for dividend" company limited by guarantee and owned by the government.

Trains are operated by privately owned and commercially run train companies, known as Train operating companies (TOCs), who lease or own passenger trains to run passenger services as set down in their franchise agreements. Different companies compete to win franchises for a certain number of years. Their continued permission to operate, or their ability to win extensions or repeated franchises, depends on a combination of factors, including value-for-money, performance and customer satisfaction.

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 famous white-on-red "crossing arrows" logo of the former (nationalised) railway company British Rail, which ceased to exist in the nineteen-nineties. It is frequently used on signs to identify railway stations.


Passenger Rail Companies

As of January 2009, the National Rail [1] network of passenger operating companies consists of:

  • Arriva Trains Wales / Trenau Arriva Cymru [2]
  • c2c [3]
  • Chiltern Railways [4]
  • CrossCountry [5]
  • East Coast [6]
  • East Midlands Trains [7]
  • Eurostar [8]
  • First Capital Connect [9]
  • First Great Western [10]
  • First Transpennine Express [11]
  • Gatwick Express [12]
  • Grand Central [13]
  • Heathrow Connect [14]
  • Heathrow Express [15]
  • Hull Trains [16]
  • Island Line [17]
  • London Midland [18]
  • London Overground [19]
  • London Underground [20]
  • Merseyrail [21]
  • National Express East Anglia [22]
  • Northern Rail [23]
  • ScotRail [24]
  • South West Trains [25]
  • Southeastern [26]
  • Southern [27]
  • Stansted Express [28]
  • Virgin Trains [29]
  • Wrexham & Shropshire [30]

Northern Ireland

One exception of note to the above is in Northern Ireland. The slightly different administrative system and legacy of the Northern Irish transport system means that Northern Ireland Railways [31] are not part of the National Rail network, and continue to be state owned. They are largely integrated with local and provincial bus services operated by Translink [32] and trains in the Republic of Ireland operated by Iarnród Éireann. [33]

See Rail travel in Ireland for more information.

Britain's longest train journey

At the start of the winter 2008/2009 timetable, the longest single train journey in Britain is the Monday - Friday 08:20 Aberdeen to Penzance CrossCountry Trains [34] service. It takes thirteen and a half hours (arriving at 21:50) making thirty-three intermediate stops and covering 1162km (722 miles). An 'Anytime' (walk-up) fare for the end-to-end journey costs £185 in standard class or £369.50 in first class. It is operated by either a four or five coach Class 220/Class 221 "Voyager", and is prone to overcrowding.

Planning your trip

The best source of information for all aspects of rail travel in the UK is National Rail [35]. The site provides journey planning tools, live updates for all stations on the network, station information and ticket information, as well as a useful Cheapest Fare Finder tool for discovering the cheapest possible fare between two cities. They also operate the National Rail Enquiries phone service on +44 (0)8457 48 49 50.

The National Rail website does not sell tickets (however it will send you to your choice of several websites, preloaded with your ticket request ready to order from the other website). You buy tickets at staffed ticket offices and ticket machines at railway stations, or from one of several websites. All staffed train station ticket offices and all train operators' websites sell tickets for all National Rail services. Among the train operators' websites recommending for planning travel and buying tickets is:

  • National Express East Coast [36] is a train operating company with one of the more attractive and easy-to-use ticketing systems. It is particularly useful because of the way in which it 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 / delivery and also offers approximately 10% discount on Advance fares for trains operated by National Express East Coast.

Additionally a number of generic train booking websites exist, but these are not recommended because of their unavoidable additional fees (namely for booking, using a debit card, using a credit card, receiving tickets by post or collecting them at the station.

  • thetrainline.com [37] is one of the largest train ticketing websites, but its interface is not as easy to use as others and it charges both 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 Ticket Alert [38] can help you plan advance travel by emailing you when cheaper Advance tickets become available, route by route.
  • RailEasy [39] is another independent train booking website, but it also charges unavoidable additional fees.


The privatisation of the nationalised British Rail into the current system saw an explosion in the number of tickets, as individual Train Operating Companies introduced their own route-specific discounts or special fares. In 2008, National Rail introduced a simplified system of tickets names and types.

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 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.

National Rail offers three broad types of ticket, which allow to choose between flexibility and value. In increasing order of cost per mile, tickets are classed as:

  • Advance - Buy in advance, travel on specific trains - Cheapest Tickets
  • Off-Peak - Buy any time, travel 'off-peak' (outside certain busy times) - More Expensive Tickets
  • Anytime - Buy any time, travel any time - Most expensive tickets

Advance tickets are only sold as single (one-way) tickets. With the exception of 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 must be used on the train specified on the reservation. They are not valid on any other train, and usually incur an administration fee plus difference in fare if you want to cancel or change them. To check how far ahead 'Advance' tickets are available, visit the National Rail Booking Horizons page [40].

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).


Discounts on these tickets 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 valid for one year
  • Regional Railcards – offering discounts within a specific region


The most widely used system of discounts on National Rail are Railcards. These can be purchased from any staffed railway station (upon completion of a form and provision of proof of eligibility and a photograph) or online from railcard.co.uk [41] Although these are primarily intended for British citizens, the discounts offered makes them extremely useful for visitors to Britain who plan to travel a lot by train. Railcard discounts are not normally available before 09:30 or 10:00 on weekdays: a flat fare for railcard holders is normally charged, meaning it may be cheaper to travel on a regular ticket instead.

  • 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 £24 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 £24 per year.
  • Senior Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 on most tickets for anyone aged 60 or over. Currently costs £24 per year.
  • Network Railcard An unusual relic of the pre-privatisation British Rail era: it is a geographically specific discount that relates to the now obsolete 'Network SouthEast', the British Rail brand for the region of trains that radiate from London in the south east of England. 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 (£1 minimum fare applies). Costs £20 a year.
  • Disabled Persons Railcard Offers a discount of 1/3 to eligible disabled or mobility restricted passengers. Currently costs £18 for one year or £48 for three years.
  • HM Forces Railcard A similar 1/3 discount available to serving members of the British armed forces and their families.

Britain's most overcrowded train

If you plan to explore Britain by train, it's worth noting that the many parts of network - especially around larger cities - is under extreme pressure due to overcrowding. In response to a request for information under the 'Freedom of Information' Act in 2008, the government's Department for Transport released data [42] that listed the most overcrowded trains in the country. They were - with actual passenger numbers, official capacity and percentage over capacity. It must be noted that capacity does not just mean the seats but 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. A carriage designed to seat 76 passengers and have twelve standing quota will (at be 176% occupancy) be crammed with some 155 people :

  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%)

Planning journeys outside the rush hours (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 tickets machines for a journey between any two stations for periods of 7 days to 12 months. The National Rail website has a Season Ticket calculator. [43]

Rail passes

There are two principal types of rail pass available to visitors to the UK which permit inclusive rail travel throughout the UK. Supplements are normally payable for Eurostar and sleeper trains.

  • InterRail and Eurail are passes for EU and non-EU citizens respectively. See [44] for more information.
  • Britrail [45] 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

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. A full list of tickets is available with their terms and conditions from National Rail [46]. These tickets include Rovers for almost every region of the UK, but notable tickets include:

  • All Line Rover: 7 or 14 Days - These national Rovers allow one or two weeks travel on almost all scheduled rail services in the UK. As of January 2009, they cost £375 / £565 respectively for standard class, and £565 / £860 for first class, with concessions for children and railcard holders.
  • Freedom of Scotland Travelpass: 4 days in 8 or 8 days in 15 - £105 and £140 respectively, with concessions for children and railcard holders.
  • 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. The National Express [47] website is currently the only website selling PlusBus fares online.
  • 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 some long distance trains there is no complimentary at seat service in first class at the weekend.


In addition to the tickets and discounts detailed above, the transport operator Stagecoach sells heavily discounted Megatrain [48] tickets from as little as £1.50, alongside similarly priced 'Megabus' services. The 'Megatrain' is not a distinct service, but a limited number of seats on selected trains operated by Stagecoach owned or partially Stagecoach owned Train Operating Companies. Current routes include those operated by Virgin Trains [49] between Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland; South West Trains [50] between London Waterloo and the south west of England; and East Midlands Trains [51] between London St Pancras and the Midlands.

Compensation for delays

Most train operators have some form of compensation scheme for trains that are substantially delayed. If you arrive more than 30 minutes late, you can typically claim a 50% refund of the affected portion of your ticket. If you are delayed by more than 60 minutes, that rises to 100% of the affected portion. Note that if you have a return ticket, and only one of the outbound or return journey is delayed, you will only receive a 50% or 100% compensation of half the face value of the ticket.

To claim a refund, ask at the station for a compensation claim form for the train company with whom you experienced the delay. You must complete this accurately and submit your ticket, normally with 28 days of the delay. Compensation is paid in Rail Travel Vouchers (RTVs) which can be used for future travel.

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

The National Rail [52] 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.

If you are unfamiliar with your journey, arrive at the station with time to spare, and be aware that you may be asked to show your ticket or open a ticket barrier with it.

Larger stations will have electronic departure screens listing trains in order of departure, their platform, any delay, calling points and the operator. 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"). Platforms may not be announced until a few minutes before the train is due to depart, and can subsequently change if the train is delayed. Listen out for audio announcements. Platform staff can also advise where to stand if you are travelling with a bicycle.

At smaller stations without electronic displays, signs will indicate which platform to wait on for your destination station.

If you have a reservation, watch the outside of the train as it arrives for your coach number (some main line railways 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. If you are the last person to board or alight through a manually operated door (which can be opened by pushing down on the handle on the outside of the train) don't forget to close it behind you.

Seat reservations are marked either with paper tags on the headrest or an electronic display above the window.

Keep your ticket and any pass on you when you move about the train, 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.

Most trains have electrically-powered external doors, however they do not open automatically - you must press an illuminated button next to or on the door to open it, and they will close automatically when the train leaves. If the weather is cold outside and you are the last person to board, it is polite to press the 'close door' button to keep the inside of the car warm. On older trains with manual doors, you should open the door by pulling the handle downwards and pulling the door outwards. You should also close the door behind you and make sure it shuts properly (the handle will return to a horizontal position. When alighting, you should open the sliding window and open the door with the external handle.


There are approximately 2,600 railway stations throughout the UK, not including the London Underground.

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. Bold type indicates a terminus station; with the exception of the north-south 'Thameslink' link (Bedford, Luton, St. Pancras International, Blackfriars, London Bridge, Gatwick Airport, Brighton) no National Rail lines provide continuous travel across the capital.

  • Blackfriars
  • Cannon Street
  • Clapham Junction
  • Charing Cross
  • Euston
  • 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

Major regional stations

Outside London, National Rail [53] list the following as major connecting stations, where passengers changing trains on multi-leg journeys are most often routed.

Lines & Routes

This list is not comprehensive, mentioning only Britain's main line railways.

Principal Main Lines

The six historic 'mainlines' of Great Britain are:

Note that on a handful of rural local services (particularly in the North-west and South-west), some smaller stations are request stops (this will normally be indicated on the schedule as well as on the PA 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.

Smoking is not permitted on board trains and most newer trains are fitted with smoke alarms. Note that smoking is also banned on station platforms, although at smaller stations it is generally ignored if you smoke away 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.



Due to the fragmented management of the train companies that provide passenger services in Britain, there is no nationally recognised standard of, for example, InterCity or Regional services. However, passengers travelling on any of the six main lines listed above can expect their train to feature:

  • Standard class accommodation with two seats either side of the aisle with a variety of facing 'table' or more private 'airline' seats.
  • First class accommodation, with two seats and one seat either side of the aisle, with a larger seat, more legroom, and an at-seat service of drinks, refreshments and a newspaper (not all at seat services available at the weekend, or for the entirety of the journey).
  • Free seat reservations, indicated by a paper tag or electronic display above each seat
  • A walk-up buffet or shop, or a trolley service of drinks and refreshments moving through the train
  • Air conditioning throughout
  • At least one carriage with a fully disabled-accessible toilet and baby changing facilities
  • On some services, a complimentary or paid wireless internet service

On all other services, the differentiation between standard and first class is much less noticeable, normally with a slightly larger seat but no complimentary service. Regional and local trains are unlikely to carry first class at all.

A typical National Rail (UK) reservation ticket, 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.
A typical National Rail (UK) reservation ticket, 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.

When booking tickets in advance for travel on long distance trains, you will normally be offered a reservation for no extra charge (although as of spring 2009, National Express East Coast and National Express East Anglia charge £2.50 for a reservation). This will normally be issued in the form of a second ticket, which will indicate your coach and seat number. While you are not obliged to sit in this seat, you may ask someone who has taken it to move so that you may sit down. If travelling without a reservation, it is advisable to check the seat reservations before taking an empty seat, as you may be asked to move later. However, it's common for paper seat reservation tags to be left in place after use, so don't automatically assume that a tagged seat is unavailable.


The fragmented and long-winded process of ordering and commissioning new trains to the National Rail network has lead to some noticeable overcrowding on many parts of the network, especially during the daily rush hours or around holidays. If travelling with luggage, it is strongly advised to limit yourself to one large suitcase or backpack, as trains have been designed with more seats than there is luggage room. Keep a close eye on your luggage during your journey, and avoid blocking aisles and doorways.

Sleeper trains

There are five scheduled sleeper trains in Britain that operate six nights a week (Sunday - Friday). Travelling more slowly than their equivalent day time trains, they offer a particularly comfortable means of overnight travel. All sleeper trains feature a lounge car that is open to passengers booked in berths (although on busy night ScotRail reserve the right to restrict access to the lounge car to first class passengers only). An at-seat service of food and drinks is available in the lounge car, offering affordable snacks and beverages in surroundings reminiscent of nineteen-seventies British Rail travel.

London to Scotland

ScotRail[54] operate two Caledonian Sleeper routes, with each train dividing/joining en route to serve multiple destinations in Scotland.

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

Reservations on ScotRail sleepers are mandatory, and supplements are payable on top of the basic fare to reserve a berth. Although reclining seats don't require a supplement to the basic fare, special advance purchase tickets known as Bargain Berths are available on the Scottish sleepers, priced at £19, £29, £39 or £49 depending on availability. They are only available from ScotRail's website[55] and sell out fast. Book well in advance.

Caledonian Sleepers three kinds of accommodation:

  • Reclining seated accommodation (comparable to day time first class). Passengers to and from Fort William have to change carriages in Edinburgh.
  • Standard Class (a cabin with two berths; solo travellers usually have to share with another traveller of the same sex)
  • First Class (a identical cabin but without the second berth and more generous breakfast, toiletry pack and access to departure and arrival lounges at larger stations)

London to Penzance

First Great Western[56] operate the The Night Riviera, which travels along a single route London Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance

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). Passengers to and from Fort William have to change carriages in Edinburgh.
  • 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.

International Connections


London St. Pancras is the terminus for Eurostar high speed trains to Lille, Brussels, Paris and seasonal French destinations such as Avignon and the Alps. 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.

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 [59] or National Rail [60].

Stay safe

All train companies display safety information posters on board their trains, with informations about 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: 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 - pull the emergency stop handle, this will be either red or green and will be visibly identified. 3. If you are in immediate danger try and 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, then and 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. 6. 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. 7. Strike the hammer against the corner of the window until both panes crack, the push them out with a piece of luggage. 8. You should lower yourself carefully from the train and move away from it as quickly as possible. 9. Watch for other trains, and possibly the electric 3rd rail. Do not step on any rail

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.

Crime against passengers on trains in the UK is rare but increasing, with the most common being 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.

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.

The British Transport Police is responsible for the policing of trains, stations and railway property. In an emergency all emergency services can be contacted by dialing 999 or 112 from a telephone. If you wish to contact the British Transport Police themselves, dial 08454 40 50 40

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