Travelling by train in United Kingdom

General information

Welcome to our guide to traveling in Great Britain* by train - it should save you time money and stress!

And it's just the beginning, as we have plans to add a multitude of British train journeys and stations to ShowMeTheJourney in the months to come.




*But first something to explain is that for dull technical reasons we’re showing the country name as United Kingdom.

However, train services in Northern Ireland are managed separately and they will be included when we add The Republic Of Ireland to ShowMeTheJourney at a later date.

(No political point being made – it just makes sense geographically as those two networks are physically linked)

An Introduction to travelling by train in Great Britain:

To explain how to travel by train in Britain we use some train jargon, but trust us, it will make things easier to understand.

Every European country takes a unique approach to how it operates its train services, but the core difference with Great Britain’s (England, Scotland and Wales) rail network is the lack of a dominant national rail operator.

Instead a multitude of private operators provide the train services, with each separate Train Operating Company (TOC) managing a number of routes.

Despite this, passenger’s rarely have a choice of companys when making the journey, so planning a journey is little different to taking the train anywhere else in Western Europe.

The key thing to be aware of is which company (TOC) is operating the train service.

When we add the journeys within Britain - we'll soon make everyone's lives easier by including that info on our journey guides.

Knowing which company is providing the train service can help with looking up train times, booking tickets and accessing other useful information, such as the on board facilities.

Which company (TOC) operates each route:

Here's a summary of the routes, most likely to be taken for leisure and tourist reasons, grouped by each company.

Arriva Trains Wales:
The regional and local train services within Wales and regional routes between England and Wales including:

(i) Birmingham – Shrewsbury – Aberystwyth/Pwllheli
(ii) Birmingham – Shrewsbury – Chester – Holyhead
(iii) Manchester – Crewe – Shrewsbury – Cardiff – Swansea – destinations in south-west Wales
(iv) Manchester – Chester – Holyhead

Arriva Trains Wales does not operate trains between London and Wales.

Chiltern Railways:
London Marylebone – Stratford on Avon/Oxford/Bicester Village/Birmingham Snow Hill

Cross Country:
(i) (Penzance) - Plymouth – Exeter – Bristol – Birmingham – Derby – Sheffield – Leeds – York – Durham – Newcastle – Edinburgh – Glasgow

(ii) Southampton – Winchester – Reading – Oxford – Birmingham – Derby – Sheffield – York – Durham – Newcastle

(iii) Bournemouth - Southampton – Winchester – Reading – Oxford – Coventry -  Birmingham – Manchester

(iv) Bristol – Birmingham – Manchester

(v) Cardiff – Birmingham – Derby – Nottingham

(vi Birmingham – Leicester – Peterborough – Cambridge – Stansted Airport

East Midlands:
(i) London St Pancras International – Leicester – Derby/Nottingham/Sheffield
(ii) Norwich – Peterborough – Nottingham – Sheffield – Manchester – Liverpool

Grand Central:
London Kings Cross - York*

*LNER also provides trains between London Kings Cross and York

Great Northern:
London Kings Cross - Cambridge

Great Western Railway:
(i) London Paddington – Reading – Oxford – Worcester – Hereford (via The Cotswolds)
(ii) London Paddington – Reading – Cardiff – Swansea
(iii) London Paddington – Reading - Swindon – Bath – Bristol
(iv) London Paddington – Reading – Exeter – Plymouth – Penzance (via Devon and Cornwall)
(v) London Paddington – Windsor (connect at Slough)
(vi) Bristol – Bath – Salisbury – Southampton - Portsmouth

Greater Anglia:
(i) London Liverpool Street – Norwich
(ii) London Liverpool Street – Cambridge
(iii) London Liverpool Street – Stansted Airport (Stansted Express)

Heathrow Express:
London Paddington – Heathrow Airport

(i) London Kings Cross – Peterborough - Leeds
(ii) London Kings Cross – Peterborough – York – Durham – Newcastle – Edinburgh – Aberdeen/Inverness via Perth

London Northwestern Railway:
Birmingham – Liverpool

All local trains in many northern counties including Lancashire and Yorkshire plus the following regional services:
(i) Leeds – Carlisle
(ii) Newcastle – Carlisle
(iii) Leeds – York – Scarborough
(iv Manchester - Preston - Blackpool/Windermere

All local, regional and express trains in Scotland EXCEPT train services between Scotland and England.

Southern Railway/Gatwick Express:
London Victoria – Gatwick Airport – Brighton

(i) London St Pancras International – Canterbury/Dover (hi-speed)
(ii) London Victoria – Canterbury – Dover
(iii) London Charing Cross – London Bridge – Canterbury/Dover
(iv) London Cannon Street – London Bridge – Greenwich

South Western Railway:
(i) London Waterloo – Richmond – Windsor
(ii) London Waterloo – Salisbury – Exeter
(iii) London Waterloo – Winchester – Southampton –Bournemouth – Weymouth (via The New Forest)
(iv) London Waterloo – Guilford – Portsmouth

Luton Airport – St Albans -  London St Pancras International – London Blackfriars – London Bridge  - Gatwick Airport – Brighton

Trans Pennine Express:
(i) Manchester – Oxenholme (Lake District) – Carlisle – Edinburgh/Glasgow
(ii) Liverpool – Manchester – Leeds – York – Scarborough/Newcastle

Virgin Trains:
(i) London Euston – Coventry - Birmingham
(ii) London Euston – Chester – Holyhead (via north Wales)
(iii) London Euston – Liverpool
(iv) London Euston – Manchester
(v) London Euston – Oxenholme (Lake District) – Carlisle - Glasgow
(vi) Birmingham - Oxenholme (Lake District) –  Carlisle – Edinburgh/Glasgow

If you’re visiting the UK it’s likely that you won’t use the services of some Train Operating Companies, particularly those which operate commuter services  – so we’ve simplified things by not including every company in that summary.

Journeys to UK destinations from London will be added to ShowMeTheJourney by early 2019 – because major changes to UK train travel are imminent.

New IEP trains will soon be introduced on many services operated by Great Western Trains and Virgin East Coast and other brand new trains are on their way to Greater Anglia, Northern, Scotrail and South West Trains.

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Nine Things Worth Knowing About Tickets for Train Journeys in Great Britain.

More info is available on our in-depth guide to British train tickets.

(1) If you’re travelling LONG DISTANCE avoid buying tickets last minute AT THE STATION – you can make big savings if you book online.

If you will be travelling by Cross Country, Grand Central, Greater Anglia, Northern, Trans Pennine Express, LNER and Virgin Trains - you can now also obtain discounted tickets on the day of your travel.

The trick is to still buy your ticket(s) online and NOT at the station - the general time limit for booking last minute discounted tickets with these TOCs only is an hour before the train departs.

Last minute (‘walk-up’) ticket prices for long distance trains at stations are eye-wateringly expensive.

More info is available on the green 'Tickets & Passes' button below.

(2) If you can book long distance journeys online, further ahead of your travel date, you can save up to 8 x times the cost of buying tickets on the day of travel.

Cross Country, East Midlands, Greater Anglia, Great Western, LNER and Virgin Trains are among the Train Operating Companies which offer particularly large discounts if you book in advance.

(3) The further ahead you book, the bigger the savings, the most heavily discounted tickets inevitably sell out faster.

(4) If you will be travelling long distance by express trains, don’t be surprised if 1st class tickets are cheaper – the most heavily discounted 1st class tickets can still be available when the cheapest 2nd class tickets have sold out.

(5) There can also be big price differences between departures on your travel dates – the cheapest tickets sell out fastest on the most popular trains.

(6) If you’re journey involves changing trains AND using more than one Train Operating Company, it can be cheaper to book separate tickets for each part of the journey operated by each company.

(7) Children aged 5 – 15 travel at a 50% discount on any UK train.

Those aged 4 and under can travel for free when accompanied by an adult ticket holder.

Though the terms for those 4 and under can vary between the Train Operating Companies re: how many infants can travel with an adult and whether those 4 and under have to travel in your lap.

(8) Dogs travel for free too.

(9) There is no national policy for senior travellers, but all discounts are dependent on specific passes that UK seniors can apply for - so if you’re visiting from outside the UK no discounts are available.

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How seat reservations are managed on British trains:

Seat reservations are another aspect of British train travel, which is managed differently, compared to what's typical in Europe.

Therefore worth knowing is

(i) If you book long distance journeys ONLINE with Cross Country, East Midlands, Greater Anglia, Great Western, Scotrail, South West Trains, LNER and Virgin Trains – your seats will be assigned.

The reservation will be included free of charge with the booking.

(ii) However, reservations are not included when booking long distance tickets at stations.

If you book at a station you can pay a reservation fee to travel with many companies including Cross Country, East Midlands, Greater Anglia, Great Western, Scotrail, LNER and Virgin Trains.

(iii) So if you book at a station and don’t pay a reservation fee, when it’s an option, seats are NOT guaranteed.

(iv) If you haven’t reserved, when boarding look out for reserved seats that haven’t been occupied.

(v) Reservations aren’t always available on some fairly lengthy regional services, particularly those operated by Northern.

(vi) Despite the comparatively high frequency of departures, British trains can be overcrowded.

Avoid travelling into any major city between 08:00 and 09:30 and away from them between 17:00 and 19:00.

Also try to avoid travelling on train services, on which reservations aren't available, on any route at these times;
(i) between 15:00 and 20:00  on a Friday,
(ii) after15:00 on a Sunday,
(iii) on routes to/from coastal resorts on summer Saturdays.

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Elveen other things worth knowing about Travelling in Great Britain by train:

(1) The rail network is centrally managed by National Rail and its website is a resource for planning journeys and checking whether works are carried out on the line.

It’s also a central resource for information and booking of mobility services for those that require additional assistance.

Though each Train Operating Company offers a specific mobility assistance services and details of how to book mobility assistance can be found on these links below:

Arriva Trains Wales  l   Chiltern Railways  l   Cross Country  l   East Midlands Trains  l   Grand Central  l   Great Northern  l   Great Western Railway  l   Greater Anglia  l   Heathrow Express  l   London Midland  l   LNER  l   Northern  l   Scotrail  l   Southern  l   Southeastern  l   South Western Railway  l   Thameslink  l  Trans Pennine Express  l  Virgin Trains

(2) The Train Operating Companies (TOCs) also have their own specific terms and services on a range of facilities including on board catering, taking bikes on trains, luggage allowances, group travel and access to Wi-fi (paid for or free).

(3) Works on the railway lines tend to be carried out at weekends and when they are occurring, buses are often used as substitutes for the train services:

You can check which works are being carried out on all railway lines here.

(4) When looking up tickets/journeys on the Train Operating Companies websites, it may not be particularly clear that works are being carried out on your travel dates.

If you’re only offered journeys with more changes than our journey summaries suggest, or the journeys are much longer – it usually indicates that works are being carried out.

(5) Many train operating companies offer 1st class long distance ticket holders complimentary food/drink ranging from snacks to a full meal service – particularly when travelling on Monday – Friday.

Great Western Trains, LNER and Virgin Trains offer particularly good 1st class benefits.

When available 1st class holders can access the 1st class lounges provided by the train operating company that they will be travelling by.

(6) 1st class is not available on some fairly lengthy regional express services operated by Arriva Trains , Northern and Scotrail.

(7) No charges apply to taking a bike on any British train, but each train operating company has its own bicycle policy – only folding bikes may be allowed on some services/departures.

Certain Train Operating Companies including;

Arriva Trains Wales  l  Cross Country  l  East Midlands Trains  l  Great Western Railway  l  Greater Anglia  l  LNER  l  Scotrail  l  South Western Railway  l   Trans Pennine Express  l  Virgin Trains, 

request or insist that spaces for NON=FOLDING bikes are booked before boarding – but there is no charge for arranging this.

(Those links above go direct to the bike reservation/info pages for each company).

(8) One of the most unusal aspects of travelling by train in Britain is the breadth of the different types of train used to provide the services across the country.

Each company is resonsible for its own fleet and buys trains to meet its needs, so more than 50 different types of train are used nationally.

Though normally only one, occcasionally two, types of train are used on each specific service on each route - though that is changing temporarily as new trains are being introduced on many routes.

Also in the absence of a national policy, many types of trains aren't 'named', there is no British equivalent of 'Frecce' or 'ICE'.

(9) Outside of London most cities only have one major station – the main exceptions are Glasgow and Manchester.

(10) There is usually no information about where to wait on a platform for easy boarding into the coach in which your reserved seats are located.

The platforms/tracks at British stations aren’t usually zoned as they are in France and Germany.

On long distance trains heading away from London, the 1st class coaches are usually at the rear of the train, when heading to London, they’re usually at the front.

(11) Long distance trains are more frequent in Great Britain than any other country in Europe.

Most long distance routes between London and other major cities have 2 x trains per hour throughout the day, some have three!

A minimum of an hourly service of express trains is the norm on long distance routes that serve major cities, other than London.

Though on some routes fewer trains operate at weekends – particularly on Sundays, and journey times can be longer at weekends too.

(12) Trains very rarely reverse direction in Britain during their journeys.

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