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 confusion!

There are many unique aspects to travelling by train in Great Britain, but more often than not, what are now typical aspects of taking a European train journey apply.

The start-to-finish process of looking up a journey online, booking ahead to obtain a cheaper price and then abiding by the terms of the ticket you have opted for, isn't particularly exceptional.



*Something exceptional that does need explaining is that for technical reasons  the country name  above has to be 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:

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) being responsible for its own network.
And two or more companies often provide a train service between two cities, though rarely on the exact same routes.

Which company (TOC) is providing the train service on a route impacts on both the ticketing and the journey experience.
That's because each specific TOC manages how its tickets will be sold, such as the types of ticket which will be available to purchase on each specific departure.
They also have the freedom to set the service levels provided to passengers on the trains, including which catering facilities will and won't be available and how the Wi-fi access will be managed.

Hence this guide to which company (TOC) provides the services on each of Britain's most popular railway routes.

In depth bespoke guides have now also been provided for train journeys from London to:

Bath  l    Birmingham  l    Brighton   l    Bristol  

Cardiff   l    Cambridge  l    Edinburgh

Glasgow   l    Leeds  l    Liverpool

Manchester   l    Newcastle  l    Oxford  l    York

With many more to be added, including journeys from cities other than London.

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

(1) 'Advance' tickets live up to their name, because if you book these tickets ahead, you will save money, as this type of ticket is discounted.

Avanti West CoastCrossCountry, EMR,  Great Western, LNER, and TransPennine Express are among the Train Operating Companies which offer particularly large discounts on Advance tickets.

In contrast the two other key types of British train ticket 'Off-Peak' and 'Anytime' aren't typically discounted if you book ahead.

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

(2) If you’re travelling LONG DISTANCE avoid buying tickets last minute AT THE STATION – as only the Off-Peak or Anytime tickets will be available.

During peak business hours when Mondays - Fridays are working days, Anytime tickets can be more than 5 x more expensive than the most heavily discounted price of the Advance tickets.

If you will be travelling long-distance by Avanti West CoastCrossCountry, Grand Central, Greater Anglia, LNER,  Northern and TransPennine Express, you can now also obtain discounted Advance tickets online on the day of travel -  for departures outside peak business hours
They'll be more expensive than booking Advance tickets ahead, but will be cheaper than buying last minute tickets at the station.
More info is available on the green 'Tickets & Passes' button below.

(3) Because peak business hours have such a significant impact on prices when Mondays to Fridays are working days, if you travel at weekends or on national holidays, on most routes there will be a much wider choice of departures with tickets at cheaper prices.

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

Tickets are typically placed on sale 12 weeks ahead of the travel date, though the discounted Advance tickets may only be placed on sale 10 - 11 weeks ahead.

(5) On most services and routes you will have a choice of travelling First Class or Standard Class - the latter is the equivalent of Second class.

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

(7) However, if your journey involves changing trains AND using more than one Train Operating Company, then it can be cheaper to book separate tickets for each part of the journey operated by each company - in the UK this is known as Split Ticketing.

(8) 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.

(9) Up to two dogs per passenger can travel for free too.

(10) For those aged 60 and over, discounts are available when using a special railcard that both UK and visiting seniors can purchase (UK residents can buy this online or at station, but visitors need to purchase the card at a station).

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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 the TEN things most worth knowing about seat reservations on British trains are:

(1) Seat reservations are NOT usually mandatory on any British daytime train service - so you don't have to make reservations if you will be travelling with a rail pass such as a Britrail or Eurail pass, or if you will be using any type of 'Rover' ticket.

The exceptions when reservations are mandatory include a few summer Saturday express trains to Devon and Cornwall - and reservations are also required on The Night Riviera and Caledonian Sleeper services.

(2)  Avanti West CoastCrossCountry, EMR, Great Western, Hull TrainsLNERScotRail and TransPennine Express are the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) which make seat reservations available for long-distance journeys.

(3) So if you book long distance journeys ONLINE with those eight TOCs listed above, your seats will be assigned, because seat reservations are offered as part of the ticketing service.

(4) Or if you book Advance tickets at a station, a minimum of a day ahead of your travel date, you will also have seats assigned if you will be travelling on services provided by those TOCs listed above.

(5) However, the time limit for booking reservations at stations is TYPICALLY 3 - 4 hours ahead of travel.
So if you will be departing the following morning, you will usually need to book reservations by the end of the previous day.

Keep this is mind if you will be using a rail pass, such as a Britrail Pass OR a EURAIL pass because it typically won't be possible to book reservations at a station, just prior to boarding.
Though when booking these reservations at stations you won't be charged, but you will need to use a staffed ticket desk and not a ticket machine.

(6) The need to book reservations ahead, is why they are NOT typically available when booking Anytime or Off-Peak tickets at stations, just prior to boarding.

(7) On services/routes on which seat reservations are an option, information for whether each specific seat has been reserved or is available, is displayed on board the trains.

(8) You won't usually have to travel in the seat(s) you have been assigned for your ticket to be valid.
So if alternative seats are available for your journey, you can sit in those instead.

(9) Reservations aren’t always available at all on some fairly lengthy regional services, particularly those operated by Northern AND on most 'commuter' routes to and from London - including trains operated by Chiltern Railways, Southeastern, Southern, South Western Railway and Thameslink.

(10) Despite the comparatively high frequency of departures, British trains can be overcrowded.
Therefore when reservations aren't available, try to 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 long-distance train services, on which reservations aren't available, on any route at these times;
- between 15:00 and 20:00 on Fridays and Sundays,
- on routes to/from coastal resorts on summer Saturdays.

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12 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 great resource for planning journeys, looking up general ticket and national rail pass info and checking whether maintenance works will be impacting on the route you will be travelling by.

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 Assisted Travel can be found on these links below:

Avanti West Coast  l   Chiltern Railways  l   Cross Country  l   EMR  l   Grand Central  l   Great Northern  l   Great Western Railway  l   Greater Anglia  l   Heathrow Express  l   London North Western Railway  l   LNER  l   Northern  l   Scotrail  l   Southern  l   Southeastern  l   South Western Railway  l   TFW  l  Thameslink  l  Trans Pennine Express  l 

(2) The Train Operating Companies (TOCs) also have their own specific terms of travel including the range of facilities they offer, such as on board catering, taking bikes on trains, luggage allowances, group travel and access to Wi-fi.

(3) Long distance train services 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!
When travelling between cities other than London, a minimum of an hourly service of express trains is the norm, some shorter distances routes such as Leeds <> Manchester and Edinburgh <> Glasgow have 4 x trains per hour!

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

(4) 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.

When looking up tickets/journeys on the TOC's websites, it may not be particularly clear that works are being carried out on your travel dates.

Although if you’re only offered journeys with more changes than our journey summaries suggest, or the journeys are much longer, or Advance tickets aren't being made available on specific dates  – it usually indicates that works are being carried out.

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

Avanti West Coast and LNER offer particularly good First Class benefits.

First Class ticket holders can also access the First Class lounges provided at MOST stations by the train operating company that they will be travelling by.

(6) However, First Cass is not available on some fairly lengthy regional express services, including those operated by, Northern, Transport For Wales and ScotRail.

(7) No charges apply when taking a standard non-folding bicycle on any British train - bike tickets aren't required.

However, each train operating company (TOC) has its own bicycle policy – only folding bikes may be allowed on some services/departures.

Certain Train Operating Companies including;

Avanti West Coast  l  Cross Country  l  EMR  l  Great Western Railway  l  Greater Anglia  l  LNER  l  Scotrail  l  South Western Railway  l   TFW  l   Trans Pennine Express 

request or insist that spaces for NON-FOLDING bikes are reserved before boarding on some or all departures – but there is rarely a charge for arranging this.
(Those links above go direct to the bike reservation/info pages for each company).

(8) One of the most unusual 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 TOC is responsible for its own fleet and buys trains to meet its needs, so more than 35 different types of train are used nationally.

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

(There's still many more trains to be added to SMTJ, so the yellow button below doesn't yet provide a fully comprehensive list).

(9) Long-distance train travel in Britain is in the midst of being transformed, because brand new trains have either recently entered service, or will soon be introduced on a swathe of routes across the country.

Shorter distance train travel is also about to be transformed for the better, particularly across northern England, because the notorious 'Pacer' trains, which are in effect buses on rails, are to be replaced by mid 2020.

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

(11) Until recently British stations didn't have any information which informed travellers of where to wait on a platform (track) for easy boarding into coaches in which reserved seats are located.

The platforms/tracks at British stations still aren’t usually divided into zones, as obviously as they are in France and Germany.

Instead the platforms (tracks) at many large stations, at which trains call at during a journey, now have comparatively small signs spaced along the platform, which show the coach numbers of the trains - usually the trains heading to and from London.

It's also a good idea to pay close attention to the information screens on the platforms (tracks) as many of them now show a lot more information than the destination and time of the next departure - they often now also tell travellers where to wait on the platform if you have a reservation.

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

(12) Trains very rarely reverse direction in Britain during their journeys, so if you prefer to face forwards, you will usually be facing that way for the entire trip.
The three major exceptions are:
Manchester <> Bristol/Exeter trains reverse direction at Birmingham
Newcastle <> Southampton services and Manchester <> Bournemouth services both reverse direction at Reading.

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