United Kingdom train travel info
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A complete guide for traveling by train in the United Kingdom
With a network totaling almost 16,000 kilometers (or 10,000 miles) of track, rail travel in the United Kingdom is a competitive – and popular – alternative to road travel. The world’s oldest rail system, it has seen passenger numbers almost double in recent years, with close to 2 billion individual journeys taken each year out of a population of just 68 million people.
One of the reasons for rail travel’s popularity in the UK is its extensive network, which even after cuts in the 1930s and 1960s remains one of the largest of any nation. Stations are often located right in the heart of town and city centers, and trains don’t suffer the congestion of road travel. More importantly, trains are much better for the environment than aircrafts. The United Kingdom’s rail network is also the safest in Europe.
UK railways started out in the 1800s as a series of competing private businesses which were nationalized to form British Rail in 1948. Services were run directly by the British government until the mid-1990s, when routes were returned to private hands on a franchise model. It sees individual companies operate a specific series of routes on behalf of the UK government for a period of up to eight years.
Starting in 2023, franchises will become concessions, although passengers will see little difference in the day-to-day operation of services. Because of the franchise/concession system, names emblazoned on the side of train carriages change every few years. However, routes remain largely unchanged. For instance, between November 2007 and the present, services between London and Sheffield have been operated by Midland Mainline, East Midland Trains and finally East Midlands Railway, using the same railway stock and route.
Train services in Northern Ireland and many in Wales remain under public ownership. They are operated by NI Railways and Transport for Wales Rail. In 2022, Scotland’s rail services will return to public ownership as ScotRail Trains, leaving just English train services under franchise.
Train companies in United Kingdom
These are the main rail companies in the UK that are currently in operation:
Avanti West Coast operates the west coast mainline linking London Euston Station with Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The same line is used by the Caledonian Sleeper night train, which received new sleeper berths in 2019.
The Chiltern Railways network is focused around the Midlands. It connects London Marylebone Station with Birmingham via Warwick. Its other services connect to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford Upon Avon, Oxford and Aylesbury.
CrossCountry is responsible for the UK’s longest single rail journey, the 13-hour connection between Penzance in Cornwall and Aberdeen in Scotland. All its routes make stops at Birmingham New Street Station, from where it is possible to catch CrossCountry trains to Cardiff, Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh. Unlike most other UK train lines, CrossCountry does not serve any London stations.
Greater Anglia has trains running on similar routes from London Liverpool Street like Great Northern. However, its trains are generally slower than Great Northern services.
Great Western Railway (GWR) is the most important link between London and the southwest of England. Major destinations from London Paddington Station include Bath, Bristol, St Ives, Cardiff and Oxford. It also runs the Night Riviera sleeper service between London and Penzance.
Other train companies include Grand Central connecting London King’s Cross non-stop to Doncaster, as well as running services to York and Bradford. Hull Trains connects the same London terminus with Kingston upon Hull, while Northern Rail is responsible for many services in the northern half of England. Despite this, the Lake District National Park remains relatively limited when it comes to rail services.
Popular train destinations in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom’s historic landmarks have made it a bucket list destination for travelers since the birth of tourism.
London is at the top of most people’s lists and acts as a hub for UK rail travel with no less than 14 major train stations (as well as hundreds of local stops). Almost all leading train operators in the United Kingdom (except CrossCountry) have services to London, where the country’s most important museums combine with landmarks known the world over, including Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
York’s impressive railway station was opened in 1877 and remains busy with services by LNER and Grand Central among other operators. It is just a short walk from the city’s greatest wonder, the York Minster cathedral. One of the largest gothic churches in Europe, its treasures include the Rose Window and the astrological clock. Other unmissable sights include the medieval streets around the Shambles, as well as the National Railway Museum.
Edinburgh lies at the northern end of the east coast mainline and is therefore also served by LNER trains from London. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is the location of the British monarch’s official Scottish residence, The Palace of Holyrood House. It is linked to Edinburgh Castle by the Royal Mile, featuring some of the country’s best shopping.
Manchester lies in the northwest of England, and as such sees regular train service operated by Avanti West Coast and CrossCountry arrive and depart from its two main stations, Piccadilly and Victoria. It is a city known for its vibrant nightlife, impressive architecture and first-rate cultural institutions.
Glasgow is Scotland’s most populous city, and it is often said that ‘people make Glasgow.’ But that doesn’t mean there are no attractions. Arrive on an Avanti West Coast train from London, Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool and you can walk among the 3,500 monuments of the Victorian era necropolis, explore the collections of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, or use the city as a gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, just an hour north.
The most scenic train routes in the United Kingdom
Trains in the United Kingdom can be more than just an efficient way of getting between the country’s long list of destinations. Many are stunning journeys of their own and pass through some of the UK’s best landscapes.
West Highland Line
Featured in the Harry Potter movies as the Hogwarts Express, the West Highland Line pushes through the stunning highland landscapes of Scotland on route between Fort William and Mallaig. Although a one-way journey lasts just one and a half hours, its vintage carriages pass through incredible scenery, often to the pull of a steam engine. Taking in the country’s westernmost railway station, views of Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the United Kingdom – and the Glenfinnan Viaduct, there’s no other rail journey quite like it.
Although using standard commuter carriages, there’s nothing ordinary about the Settle to Carlisle railway in the north of England. Over one third of its route takes passengers through the Yorkshire Dales National Park where gently rolling hills meet mountains, tumbling waterfalls, wild moorland and isolated farmsteads. Lasting approximately two hours, with easy connections to Lancaster and Leeds, the trip also passes over the 400-meter-long and 31-meter-high Ribblehead Viaduct.
Hope Valley Line
Although its terminus stations of Manchester and Sheffield may not be considered picturesque by some, the Hope Valley Line not only crosses the Pennines – often called the backbone of Britain – but also passes through some of the most charming vistas and villages of the Peak District National Park. It is named after the Hope Valley, where villages, including Hathersage, Hope and Edale, provide almost endless opportunities for quaint strolls. The journey takes around two hours to complete one way.
How to book train travel in the United Kingdom
Book train tickets online
Tickets can also be easily purchased online, with most going on sale approximately three months before the date of departure. As with physical ticket machines, carrier websites can be used to purchase any ticket in the country even if it is operated by a competitor.
The easiest way to book a train ticket online is by searching for your preferred route and travel date on Wanderu.com or the Wanderu app. You will see all available options in one place, and with the help of the available filters and sorting options, you’ll be able to find the train that best suits your budget and schedule.
Buy train tickets at the station
The ticketing system in the UK is complex. Plans are being put in place to make it more easily understandable, as it can be difficult to find the cheapest tickets, especially when using automated ticket machines at stations. The good news is that those can be used in multiple languages.
Although machines are operated by a specific carrier, it’s possible to use them to purchase any train ticket in the country. If you’re unsure or confused, it’s best to use the manned ticket counters at major stations. Staff will usually do their best to give you the top value ticket they can. Smaller stations may only have automated ticket machines.
If you arrive at the station without a ticket you have the option of an ‘off-peak’ or an ‘anytime’ ticket. The only significant difference is that off-peak tickets can only be used after 9:30 AM. Traveling off-peak (and outside of popular times such as Friday evenings) will help reduce costs.
Can you buy a train ticket onboard the train?
Tickets can no longer be purchased onboard trains from ticket inspectors, although it’s usually possible to upgrade to first class onboard. You will need to be in possession of a valid ticket before boarding, with most large city stations having automated ticket barriers in operation. They accept the orange and cream credit-card sized paper tickets, and are being retrofitted to also read QR codes for e-tickets whether in printed or digital forms.
Can you reserve a specific seat on the train?
Unlike other nations in Europe, a seat reservation is not necessary for traveling on rail services in the UK, although useful. Therefore, you will usually not receive one with your ticket.
Window, aisle and table seats can be reserved at no extra cost after purchasing your ticket. To do that, simply go to any National Rail ticket office and present the tickets you have already booked. The staff will assist you and reserve your preferred seat for you.
Tips for finding deals on train tickets in the UK
British trains have a reputation in the country for being expensive, although they compare well with the price of trains in France and Germany. In fact, off-peak fares purchased in advance are some of the cheapest in Europe.
Book your trip as early as possible
Generally speaking, the earlier a ticket is purchased, the cheaper it will be. Unless it’s essential to be somewhere very early, you can also save a substantial amount by traveling off-peak.
Opt for a round-trip ticket
It is usually better value to purchase a round-trip ticket rather than two single tickets. ‘Advance’ tickets can be purchased up to 24 hours before departure. However, as the cheapest ticket rate, they are limited in number and usually sell out well before then. Tickets will be limited to a particular route and a particular train, and you will not be able to use them for a different route or service. If you change your mind about when to travel, you will need to purchase a new ticket. Advance tickets can usually be refunded or exchanged at stations for a fee of around £10.
Divide your journey into smaller legs
Splitting your ticket into smaller portions is a perfectly legal way to reduce costs on specific journeys. You can break up longer journeys into a series of shorter ones without having to change trains or otherwise alter your journey. For example, if you are traveling between London and Edinburgh on the east coast mainline, instead of a through ticket, you may opt to book tickets for London to York, York to Newcastle and Newcastle to Edinburgh. You will complete each leg on the same train but there’s a good chance it will be at a reduced cost.
Check out loyalty programs
Individual rail companies have a range of loyalty programs, such as LNER’s Perks or Avanti’s Traveller. However, unless you are going to make use of their services on a regular basis, it’s not worth signing up for these programs.
Railcards & passes in the UK
You can apply for one of several railcards that offer a third off the price of train tickets for younger and elderly travelers and groups or families traveling together without being a UK national or residing in the UK. Keep in mind, though, that there are various eligibility requirements such as minimum fare spends.
Railcards can be purchased online or on arrival in the country from manned ticket kiosks at stations. You’ll need passport-style photographs to complete the purchase. They can be combined with ‘rail rover’ passes which give you unlimited travel for 7 or 14 days either across the entire network (costing around £500 for one week) or parts of the network, such as routes served by GWR.
Physical or digital cards must be presented when buying tickets and when tickets are inspected onboard or you’ll face a surcharge.
If your train is more than 15 minutes late, you can make use of the DelayRepay scheme, to which most carriers have signed up. You apply via a carrier’s website, and usually need nothing more than booking details or a scanned image of your tickets. However, it’s up to you to know your train was late – no one will tell you. If successful, between 25-50% of the cost of the ticket will be refunded, with the option to have it returned directly into a bank account. If a service is cancelled completely, you can expect a 100% refund, as well as being able to catch the next available train.
Types of train services available in the UK
Are there first class seats available on UK trains?
Almost all intercity train services in the UK have a dedicated first-class section or carriage. You will need a first-class ticket to utilize the space or risk a hefty fine. In first class, seats are usually more spacious, and complimentary refreshments such as a hot drink or cake are often included in the price.
Are there high-speed trains in the UK?
The country’s only high-speed rail service is the one connecting London St Pancras International with the Channel Tunnel. In addition to the 200-mile-per-hour (or 320 km/h) Eurostar train to continental Europe, the 67 miles (108 km) of high-speed track is used by Southeastern services to the channel towns of Dover, Ramsgate and Margate. These services are limited to a top speed of 140 mph (225 km/h).
A second high-speed line, usually referred to as HS2, is currently being constructed between London and Birmingham to reduce journey times to 50 minutes. Phase 2 of the project will see it continue to Manchester, with a target date for starting services of anywhere between 2029 and 2033.
Are there overnight trains in the UK?
There are only two true night trains – the Caledonian Sleeper between London and Scotland, and the Night Riviera between London and Penzance in Cornwall. They offer seats as well as private cabins with either twin bunks or double beds. Some come with en-suite showers and restrooms, as well as breakfast and small goody bags on arrival.
Can you take a train to the airport in the UK?
The majority of the country’s biggest airports are well connected by rail. London’s Gatwick, Heathrow, City, Luton and Stansted airports can all be reached by train.
Gatwick Airport has a dedicated express service, known as Gatwick Express, connecting it to London Victoria Station in an hour, while the Heathrow Express departs from London Paddington. The Stansted Express links Stansted Airport to London Liverpool Street.
Commuter services also stop at these airports. Travel times will be longer on these trains, but tickets are usually cheaper.
Outside of the capital, the main airports in Manchester and Birmingham are also connected by rail. Edinburgh and Glasgow make use of a dedicated tram service and bus route respectively.
Getting to the train station in the UK
Train doors are usually closed 60 seconds before departure. However, it’s recommended you arrive at the rail station at least ten minutes before your departure time in order to acquaint yourself with the correct platform information in the main concourse and make your way to the train.
If you need to purchase tickets, it would be better to arrive at least 30 minutes early since lines can be long at peak times and during the holiday season. Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you book your tickets online ahead of time. That way, you get to skip the line and go directly to the train.
Larger stations will have seating in the main concourse or a dedicated waiting room. This may be located on the platforms themselves, providing shelter from the weather. Stations generally also have public restrooms, which may be free to use or require payment. Hub stations generally have left luggage storage facilities, and all but the smallest of stations will have somewhere to buy food, drinks or a magazine.
Railway stations act as key links in the UK’s public transportation infrastructure. Bus routes will often include rail stations, although taking large items of luggage onto buses can be problematic at busy times.
Taxis can usually be found outside of stations or requested over the phone. Ubers are also easy to come by, but tend to cost about the same as taxis. Prices start at £3-4 and rise by £1-3 per mile. You will find the most expensive rates in London and the southeast of England.
Smoking and vaping are not permitted at any British stations or on any trains.
Getting on the train in the UK
Many station platforms are zoned so you know the approximate arrival location of your specific carriage. You should allow exiting passengers off the train before trying to board. Most trains have luggage racks for large suitcases at the end or middle of carriages. Smaller items can be placed on racks above seats or under the seat in front of you.
Disabled passengers should make themselves known to staff at the station so that ramps can be prepared for their entry.
The only proof you need to travel on domestic routes, including those crossing from England into Scotland, Wales or vice versa, is a valid ticket or rail pass. When booked online, tickets can be printed or presented on a mobile device. You can also order physical tickets online and they will be sent to your UK address for a postage fee or collected fee. You can also retrieve them from ticket machines at stations using your booking reference/number.
Tickets should be presented to ticket inspectors when they pass through your carriage. Keep your ticket for the entire journey as your arrival station will probably have automated ticket barriers. If that’s the case, you will need to present or scan your ticket again to be able to exit the station. That’s done to prevent people from paying for a shorter route and taking a longer one instead once they are on the train.
If traveling by Eurostar or Eurotunnel, you will need a valid passport, as well as any visa required for travel to your destination country.
On-board experience on UK trains
Carriages generally have a 2 x 2 seat formation divided by a central aisle. Some face the direction of travel while others face the opposite direction. These rows are broken up by groups of four seats around a table. Useful when traveling as a group, table seats are popular and hard to come by, so make sure you get on the train early if you want to snag one (or four).
When boarding the train, you should look above the seats for a paper or electronic screen detailing whether any of the seats are reserved. It is not uncommon to find people sitting in your reserved seat. You can politely ask them to leave, or if the train is not busy, find an alternative place to sit.
Food & beverages
Long-distance trains will usually have a basic café located in one of the carriages where you can buy drinks (including alcoholic beverages), sandwiches, cakes and chocolate bars, among other things. Some lines also offer a trolley service with a member of staff passing through carriages with a selection of items.
Keep in mind that onboard prices are higher than those at stations and at high street stores. Most passengers choose to purchase items for the journey before arriving at the station.
Restrooms, including once accessible to disabled passengers, are available on board. Many services will have a small screen above the doors to the carriage showing whether the restrooms are occupied or not, similar to those on aircrafts.
Most services from the UK’s main rail operators now provide free Wi-Fi for passengers, although connections can be patchy when passing through tunnels or along river valleys. Speeds can be slow at times.
Trains sometimes have a quiet carriage where making or receiving phone calls is not permitted. They are mostly used by business travelers looking to work on the train.
Traveling by train with pets in the United Kingdom
Pet owners rejoice – in the UK, you can bring your dog, cat or other small animal onboard the train with you. Even better, your pet will travel for free on almost all British trains. Of course, there are some limitations. For example, there’s a maximum allowance of two pets per passenger, and your pet should not take up a seat. Otherwise, they will need their own ticket.
If you are traveling with a dog, it must be kept on a leash at all times. Alternatively, it must remain in an enclosed pet carrier for the duration of the trip. The latter applies to all other types of animals as well.
Keep in mind that certain rail services, such as the Caledonian Sleeper, require a fee for each pet that you bring with you. The Eurostar, on the other hand, does not allow pets at all, so make sure you plan that cross-border trip accordingly if you intend on bringing your furry friend with you. Of course, service animals are absolutely welcome and travel for free on all lines.
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