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Britain is small and well served by an excellent rail network.

Train travel is often quicker and more convenient than by car or plane, and always more comfortable.

Use the information in this article to plan your travels around Britain by train.

 
 
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How to Travel around Britain by Train

A relaxing, comfortable, safe and convenient way to travel.
 

Fast comfortable trains take you through beautiful scenery as you travel around Britain by rail.

Most of Britain is less than four hours from London by comfortable scenic train.

 

 

Almost all of England, and some of Wales and Scotland too, is within four hours of London by train.  These journeys are typically faster by train than by plane, and often can be cheaper, too.  If you plan to travel around Britain, a combination of trains and rental cars is usually the best way to do this

See our two related articles on How to choose the best Britrail Pass and Britrail Pass options and issues for information on the best way to buy your British rail travel.

Here's what you need to know to get the best use out of Britain's extensive rail network.

Britain's Rail Network

Britain's rail network is primarily organized as a series of spokes radiating out from a central hub - London, with a few smaller hubs and peripheral routes.  Travel between London and many other places can usually be done very conveniently and often with no change of train.

If you are wishing to travel between two places that aren't located on the same spoke radiating out from London, it may be necessary to take an indirect route with some backtracking and at least one change of train.

Here is a helpful color PDF map of the British rail network (320kB) showing most rail lines and the major rail stations, and here is a more detailed network map.  The numbers on the map refer to routes in the official Rail Timetable.  One more resource - this page has links to various regional and detailed rail maps.

There are almost 20,000 trains operating every day in Britain.

Trains usually operate on one of three schedules - a weekday schedule (the same for all five weekdays), a Saturday schedule (with fewer trains) and a Sunday schedule (with even fewer trains again).

Many Rail Stations in London

On the maps above you'll notice that London is shown as a single location.  This is potentially misleading.  London does not have a single major rail station, but in fact has more than half a dozen.  This dates back to the era when there were a number of different private railroad companies in Britain, each of which had their own London terminus.

Each station nowadays generally serves one particular region of the country - for example, if you're traveling to the Southwest of England, your journey will probably start at Paddington or Waterloo.

Note that it is also possible that a return journey from somewhere else might take you to different stations in London depending on which train you are on - for example, trains from Glasgow might travel down the west coast mainline and to Euston, or down the east coast mainline and to King's Cross.

Here is a helpful pdf map which shows major London rail stations, (150kB) which are (in generally clockwise order) :

  • Paddington

  • Marylebone

  • Euston

  • St Pancras

  • King's Cross

  • Liverpool St

  • Fenchurch St

  • Charing Cross

  • Waterloo

  • Victoria

Smaller stations also exist, eg Moorgate, London Bridge and Cannon St.

It is usually the case that there is no rail service to connect these stations to each other.  If you are on a train that arrives in to London - eg, to Victoria, and you need to connect to a train leaving King's Cross, you'll have to somehow travel across London from one side to the other - ie by taxi, bus or Underground.  This can be inconvenient if you have several suitcases with you, and in such cases, it becomes almost essential to use a taxi.

Some other cities may also have more than one train station - perhaps on the same line, but in different parts of the city, or perhaps on completely different lines.  It is always important to check if there are multiple stations in each location and, if so, which station your train will arrive to and depart from.

Quick History  - why there are multiple Train Operating Companies

Originally, train service in Britain was provided by many different companies.  Some of these companies offered limited regional service, and others offered service over large parts of the country.  The competing companies would sometimes offer services between the same two cities, but using their own unique stations, rail track, locomotives and carriages.

This was rationalized in 1923 when most of the smaller rail companies were amalgamated into four major companies.

Further amalgamation occurred in 1948, when the British (Labor) government nationalized the railways, forming a government owned organization that integrated and operated the entire rail network.  This organization was variously known as British Railways, British Rail, or Britrail.

Cutbacks and rationalizations occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, with a lot of secondary service being eliminated.  In 1955, there were about 21,000 miles of track and 6,000 stations.  In 1975, this had reduced to 12,000 miles of track and 2,000 stations - numbers that remain about the same today.

In 1993, the British (Conservative) government re-privatized British Rail, splitting it rather cumbersomely into a company that owned the track, and other companies responsible for owning rolling stock and providing freight or passenger services.

This new structure, largely still in place to day, can be seen in the various different companies that offer passenger train service.  Some of these companies have revived the famous names of earlier train companies such as GWR and GNER (while having no other connection to them) and others are recognizable from other contexts such as Virgin Trains.

Checking in for your Train Journey

If you have a ticket, you can simply walk into the train station, onto the platform, and onto your train.

Occasionally there might be a barrier onto each platform, and to pass the barrier you'll need your ticket, either to show to a platform attendant or to be read by a machine.  If this is the case, it is a brief two second process that will scarcely delay your progress to the train.  There is no need to show ID or anything else.

The fast intercity trains will sometimes close (and lock) their doors two minutes prior to departure, so you need to be onboard in time to allow for that.

You can board the train through any carriage, but if you have seat assignments (see the section below) it is generally easiest to walk along the platform to where your coach is and board at that point, rather than to try and walk through the coaches.

Coaches are usually identified by letter, and run in alphabetical order.  Sometimes the coach at the front of the train will be letter 'A' and sometimes it is the coach at the rear end of the train that will be letter 'A'.

If you're boarding the train at the station where the train starts its journey from, you'll usually find that the train will not arrive at a platform until about 20 minutes prior to its scheduled departure time.  You'll find large reader boards in the station that list upcoming trains; and initially these will not show platform numbers.  When the train arrives, the platform number is posted and you should then proceed to the train.

Note that if your journey takes you to the final destination of the train, then of course, the reader board will show this as the train's destination.  But if you're traveling to a mid-way point, the reader board may not show this as prominently, and it helps to know that the train you want is the train that ultimately travels to somewhere else (making it easier to identify the train on the reader boards).

Unlike airplane flights, trains are usually not identified by a number, but just by their ultimate destination, departure time, and perhaps by operating train company, too (eg 'The 10.30am (LNER) to Edinburgh').

If you're joining the train at a station somewhere along its journey, the train will stop for only a couple of minutes to allow passengers to quickly leave and join the train.  Most stations have their platforms marked in zones that show you where to wait for first class or standard class coaches.

First and Standard Class

Most trains have both a first and a standard (coach/economy) class, although small short distance regional trains are sometimes all standard class.

If you have a first class ticket, you can of course sit in either class of service, and equally, of course, if you have a standard class ticket, you can not sit in first class.

Just like on a plane, first class accommodation is more spacious and comfortable, and on some train journeys, you might also get complimentary at seat food and drink service.

If we're traveling on a BritRail pass, a first class pass usually costs about 50% more than a standard class pass.  If you're buying individual tickets, the difference between a nicely discounted standard class fare and the lowest first class fare can be very much greater (five or ten times more).

We generally treat ourselves to first class travel if we're buying a pass, but never when we're buying individual tickets.

Depending on the size of the train, the first class section can vary from several carriages to a small part of just one carriage, or, in some cases, no first class at all.

First class tends to be at the very front or very end of most trains; rarely in the middle.  Many stations will tell you where on the platform to stand so that you'll be in the correct place for where the first class section of the train stops.

Seat Reservations

Seat reservations are optional, and most of the time are not required.  You can simply board the train and take any unreserved empty seat.

If you wish to reserve seats, this can typically be done up to about two months before your travel date.  A fee is charged for the reservation.

Sometimes reservations are compulsory (because the train is very popular), and in these cases, the reservation fee is not charged.

You should consider reserving seats if you're on a busy/popular train, or if it is on a day close to a three day long weekend (what the British call a 'Bank Holiday').  Lots of people travel for these long weekends.

Reserved seats have little reservations slips sticking up from the top of the seat back.  However, even reserved seats can often be available.  If all the good non-reserved seats are already full, carefully read what it says on the reservation slips.  There are two things to check for :

(a)  The reservation might be for a different part of the total train journey to the sector you wish to travel, meaning the seat is open and free for your part of the train's total journey.

(b)  The reservation includes the section you're traveling on, but the reservation holder doesn't (or already hasn't) turn(ed) up.

In our experience, at least half of all people holding reservations never turn up and claim their seats.  Because most rail tickets allow a great deal of flexibility in terms of which train they can be used on, and because trains run so frequently, many times reservation holders will choose to travel on an earlier or a later train.

So, chances are you'll be able to get seats on just about any train, whether you have a reservation or not.

Sleeper Trains

These days, trains are so fast that what used to be a long overnight journey has often reduced down to no more than a quick four hour train ride.  For this reason, most sleeper services have been phased out.

Sleeper service still exists on some lines between Scotland and London Euston, and between the far southwest of England and London Paddington.

Many times the trains arrive at their destination at about 4am, and will simply wait in the marshalling yards until a suitable hour when they then move to the platform for passengers to leave the train.  And, unlike most trains, they are usually at the platform an hour or so before they leave, and available for you to board, so you have somewhere comfortable to be (other than just waiting until very late on a train platform).

There are single berth (first class) and twin berth (standard class) sleepers.  They have a washbasin but not a toilet or shower.  Toilets are at the end of each carriage and there are no showers.

Reservations are necessary for sleeper trains.  If you're using a rail pass, you'll have to pay a supplement to allow its use on a sleeper train.  On the one hand, you're saving the cost of a night's hotel accommodation, and getting a different type of travel experience.  On the other hand, you're paying extra.

Baggage

Your official allowance is two large items (such as suitcases) and one smaller item, but no-one seems to notice or care if you have more pieces with you.

There are three places you can put suitcases.  On some trains, there will be specific luggage stowage areas at one or both ends of each carriage.  Sometimes there will also be spaces between seats (when you have two seats, one facing forward and the other backwards, there is an 'A' frame type of empty space between them into which you can slide medium sized suitcases).  And most of the time, there is an overhead rack above your seat to put smaller and lighter items.

Often the luggage spaces can fill up.  For this reason, we try and be among the first people to board the train, so as to have room to conveniently put our bags in the storage area.

You'll also sometimes see that people have placed bags in the empty space at the end of some carriages that is intended for wheel chair passengers.  Sometimes the train guards will insist you move the bags away from this area, but if there is no wheel chair passenger onboard, they are usually reasonable, particularly if there is no remaining space in the main luggage storage area.

Almost no trains have separate luggage vans these days.

There are varying numbers of luggage trolleys to be found at railway stations, but generally you should plan your travels based on the assumption that you'll not be able to find a luggage trolley.  Make sure your suitcases are wheeled.

Left Luggage while City Touring

A great idea is to break your train journey at an interesting place and spend some time sightseeing.  In such cases, it is usually best to leave your luggage at the station's left luggage office.

Most larger stations have a left luggage service, where they'll store bags for you - either for an hour or two, or for a day or week or even longer.  A fee is charged, per bag, based on how long you leave each bag with them.

Connecting Times between Trains

It is not uncommon to find yourself changing trains somewhere with only 5 - 10 minutes of connecting time allowed between the arrival of one train and the departure of the second train.

This is a far cry from 30-90 minute connecting times between flights.

In theory, 5 - 10 minutes is enough time, but that makes the assumption your first train arrives close to exactly on time.  Alas, this is not always the case, and while British trains are generally very much more punctual than American planes, a 5 minute delay when you have only 8 minutes to change trains is cutting it a bit fine.

Trains never wait for passengers connecting from delayed trains for two reasons.  Firstly, because people generally travel without reservations, they have no way of knowing how many connecting passengers there might be.  Secondly, if the train delays itself, then other passengers on that train may in turn miss their own connections at subsequent stops.

Amazingly, very few people report missing their train, even on a sub-10 minute connection.  Presumably, the times when the incoming train is running late are often matched by the connecting train also running a few minutes behind schedule.

In our experience, the major hassle factor when changing trains at a station is finding out which platform your new train will leave from, and then working out how to get to that platform.  Often you'll have to climb up an overbridge, go along, and then go down the other side as part of the travel from one platform to the other.  Note there are usually elevators somewhere at the larger stations to make it easier to go up and down the steps if you have luggage, but these can sometimes be hard to find, especially if you're in a hurry.

The bigger the station you're changing trains at, the bigger and more complicated this can be, with sometimes illogical placement and numbering of platforms.

Recommendation :  Don't try and figure it out yourself.  Ask the first railway staff member you find.

The good news is that usually there'll be another train to where you want to go coming along before too much longer if you miss your connecting train.

Recommendation :  If accepting a schedule with a tight connection, find out what time the next train will also leave from the connecting station so you know your 'worst case scenario' in case you are unlucky.

Delays

Delays seem to be an inevitable fact of life with most forms of transportation these days, even when driving in your own car.

British train services experience delays, and while some trains are very punctual, it is common for other trains to often be running 5 - 10 minutes late, for any one of many different reasons.

In addition to these semi-random delays, there are also delays due to track maintenance work.  Much of the track maintenance is done over the weekend, when there aren't so many trains, and the greatest amount of maintenance seems to occur on Sundays.

Bad weather can impact on train service, too.

Sometimes services will be delayed, sometimes they will be cancelled, sometimes they will operate on slightly different routes, and sometimes they'll be replaced, in part or in whole, by buses.

Recommendation :  Avoid traveling on Sundays if possible.

For Further Information

The most helpful 'main' website covering the entire British Railway network is the National Rail website.

Here also is a page from their site that links to the different individual train operating companies.

 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 13 May 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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