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
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.
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
which shows major London rail stations, (150kB) which are
(in generally clockwise order) :
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
This can be inconvenient if you have several suitcases
with you, and in such cases, it becomes almost essential to use
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.
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.
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
Checking in for your Train
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
Related Articles, etc
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13 May 2005, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.