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.
If you want to save money on a one-way, long distance journey on a direct train, then the start-to-finish steps of looking up a journey and booking it online aren't particularly unusual.
So if you book ahead you can often obtain a cheaper price, but then have to stick by the terms of the type of ticket you have chosen.
What can make planning train journeys in England, Scotland and Wales a tad bewildering are the multiple methods of saving money, which you may, or may not come across; particularly when making a return journey.
You may be offered a choice of different ticket types, prices or train services, depending on the journey you will be taking.
Something exceptional that does need explaining is the use of Great Britain as the country name in place of United Kingdom, as well as the references to British trains and tickets across SMTJ.
It's because train services in Northern Ireland are both managed separately and linked to the rail network of The Republic of Ireland, so they will be included when we add The Republic Of Ireland to ShowMeTheJourney.
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 can provide the train service between cities and this can impact on how tickets can be used on such 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.
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 also has the up to date info regarding the impact on rail services of the rail strikes.
It’s also a central resource for information and booking of mobility services for those that require additional assistance.
In general long distance train services are more frequent in Great Britain than any other country in Europe.
Many 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 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. Many routes and stations outside the major cities have a particularly limited service on Sunday mornings.
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.
That's because long-distance train travel in Britain has recently been transformed, because brand new trains have recently entered service across the country (Greater Anglia, TPE, Northern, TFW, Southeastern, Scotrail, Southern, South Western) or will soon be introduced on a swathe of routes across the country.
Shorter distance train travel has also been transformed for the better, particularly across northern England, because the notorious 'Pacer' trains, which were in effect buses on rails, have now been replaced.
In the coaches of most trains used in Britain there will be electronic information showing the calling points of the train.
It is worth checking to see if the station you're heading to is the next calling point; as the automated announcements which will say "this train is now arriving at..." usually occur only around a minute before the train will get to a station.
This destination info is usually all that's available on the info screens on British trains, info such as details of onward connections, the location and the speed of the train, isn't shown.
So if you will be making an onward connection it can be worth asking the conductor, for the time and platform number of any subsequent train you will be taking.
The seat reservation info
Because seat reservations are optional on British trains, systems have to be used to inform passengers without reservations which seats are available.
Therefore information for reservations is assigned to each specific seat.
On newer trains this is shown electronically, with the info being above the train windows, green lights can indicate available seats, but on older trains paper cards are inserted into the back of the seats
So if you have a reservation, the usual procedure is:
1: find your seat number(s), which will be on your reservation or ticket;
2. find the matching seat number within the coach.
The info in the train will usually confirm that this is the seat you have been assigned, but some operators including South Western Railway, don't display any info re: seat availability.
If you don't have a reservation then blank electronic displays, or green lights, or no cards on the seat backs, are indicators of available seats.
However, on busy trains it's worth checking the info displayed for each seat, because the stations between which the seat has been reserved for, will be shown, so the seat may actually be available for your journey.
For example, you may be travelling from London to York and the reservation info for a specific seat may show that it has been reserved for travel between York and Edinburgh, but as you will only be travelling as far as York, you can occupy this seat.
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.
First Class ticket holders can also access the First Class lounges provided at stations by the train operating company that they will be travelling by.
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
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.
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...
....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).
Click on the buttons below to access info such as on board facilities, and what to look out for when boarding and travelling with luggage/bikes.
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.
At the lager terminal stations, the platform / track number that a train will be leaving from, isn't usually confirmed until around 20 mins prior to departure.
If a train is departing on time it can be removed from the main departure board two minutes before it is due to leave.
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.
Trains very rarely reverse directions at stations 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:
A train numbering system in which every individual train is given a specific code isn't used in Great Britain, so there isn't, for example, a train 5743 to Edinburgh which is also calling in York. Therefore in Britain the departure time is the key piece of information, which specifies the train you will be travelling by.
So if you will be travelling to York with a seat reservation on the 11:30 train from London Kings Cross, the key piece of information on your reservation is the departure time.
When you're at King's Cross station you can look for which train you will be boarding on the main departure board.
You would be looking for the train leaving at 11:30, it's final destination will be Edinburgh, but beneath its destination, all of the other stations the train will be calling, at will be listed.
One of these other stations will be York, so this 11:30 train to Edinburgh, is also the train to York.
Therefore the train departures are arranged in vertical columns of lists of the stations that each departure will be calling at.
As each train departs, the columns shift to the left, because they are shown in departure order from left to right.
Top right on each column will be the platform (track) number, but when each departure is initially listed, it will often be blanked out.
So you'll know which departure you will be taking because you'll have matched your destination to the departure time, but you won't know, yet, which platform it will be leaving from.
You need to keep an eye on the departure board, because at some point the platform number will appear and it won't usually be announced; only untypical information is usually announced at stations.
On the platform
On the platforms at non-terminus stations, the departure info will also list all of the stations that the next train to depart will be calling at.
Though this info can be shown as scrolling text; this text is worth watching closely as it can also covey additional info other than the calling points.
Taking time out to check all of the info on the platform departure screens is recommended, particularly when travelling long-distance.
As explained above, you can often use the info to work out where to wait for boarding into the coaches in which your reserved seats will be located, but other useful info, not usually shown on the main departure boards, can include the scheduled arrival time at each calling point.
Due to its having more major stations than any other city in Europe, there's a weight of useful info that's worth knowing about taking trains to and from London.
Hence the guide below:
The journey guides include access to booking links and information about the trains, tickets and destination stations. Plus for the scenic routes there are insights on how to make the most of the rides on the trains.
The scenic sections of the journey are shown by the arrows:
One of the not particularly unusual aspects of booking train tickets for British train journeys is that there are actually general nationwide terms for how tickets are sold; at most stations you can pick up a National Rail ticketing guide, which explains what they are.
For example, the names of the three main types of tickets sold are Advance, Off-Peak and Anytime, regardless of which website is selling the ticket, or which company is operating the train you will be travelling by.
However, the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) have the freedom to market tickets for the services they manage and the routes they operate.
So for example, they may not offer Advance tickets on all or any of their routes, or can offer cheaper Super Off-Peak tickets at particularly quiet travel times.
Therefore the information below is very much a general guide and refers to the most typical scenarios, travellers will encounter when booking and using tickets on British train journeys.
(1) 'Advance' tickets live up to their name, because you'll need to book this type of ticket ahead of your travel date or time, but you will save money, as this type of ticket is discounted.
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) A fairly recent change to how British train tickets are sold is that if you will be travelling long-distance by Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, Grand Central, Greater Anglia, LNER, Northern and TransPennine Express, you can now also obtain discounted Advance tickets online on the day of travel.
They'll be more expensive than booking Advance tickets ahead, but will be cheaper than buying last minute tickets at the station.
So if you’re travelling long-distance try to avoid buying walk-up tickets at a station ticket desk just prior to boarding, as only the more expensive Off-Peak or Anytime tickets may 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.
(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.
*=Avanti West Coast places weekday journeys on sale 24 weeks ahead.
(5) There can be big price differences between departures on your travel dates; the cheapest Advance tickets sell out fastest on the most popular trains.
(6) 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.
(7) There are four different types of online services which sell tickets for British train journeys:
(8) What can be particularly bewildering are the multiple options, which can be available for booking return (two-way) journeys.
The means of saving money can vary between travelling each way with Advance tickets, booking 'Open Return' or 'Day Return' tickets, or booking a different type of ticket for each direction of travel.
(9) 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.
(10) 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.
(11) Up to two dogs per passenger can travel for free too.
(12) 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).
When travelling between some towns and cities multiple Train Operating Companies (TOCs) can provide the train service.
These TOCs can share a route, or take different routes between stations.
This can impact on tickets on how tickets can be purchased and used, depending on;
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 Coast, CrossCountry, EMR, Great Western, Hull Trains, LNER, ScotRail, TFW and TransPennine Express are the TOCs Train Operating Companies which make seat reservations available for long-distance journeys.
Greater Anglia also offers seat reservations on its London <> Norwich route.
(3) Reservations are automatically included when booking Advance tickets for journeys by those eight TOCs (train operating companies), because you need to travel by the specific departure(s) you selected when booking, in order to use that type of ticket
Seats are also assigned when booking Advance tickets for the longer-distance routes operated by London North Western Railway, Southern and South Western Railway, though when travelling with these operators, the reservations won't be marked on the trains.
(4) If you book Anytime or Off-Peak tickets on the longer-distance routes operated by Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, EMR, Great Western, Hull Trains, LNER, ScotRail and TransPennine Express and on the London <> Norwich route, seat reservations won't automatically be included.
That's because the usual key selling point of these two types of ticket, is the freedom they typically provide of being able to choose between departures.
Though if you book these two types of ticket for journeys by those companies, you can opt to add a complimentary reservation, either when booking the ticket online, or later.
(5) However, the time limit for booking reservations at stations ahead of travel depends on the TOC providing the train service you will be travelling by; it can vary from a couple of hours to just 10 minutes
So if you will be departing the following morning, SMTJ's advice is 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 an InterRail pass, because it typically won't be possible to book reservations at a station, just prior to boarding.
Though when using rail passes you won't be charged for booking reservations at stations, 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 walk-up 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 typically 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;
National Rail, which has overall responsibility for how the trains are managed in Britain, has teamed up with a swathe of tourist attractions for a promotion which allows two entry tickets for the price of one when travelling to and from them by train.
How it typically works is:
The offers are available to visitors to the UK as well as residents, so they can be a great way to save money when on a holiday.
Though what's good to know is:
Be inspired and discover how to make the fabulous journeys
How to experience the coasts and mountains without a car
Make going by rail the star attraction of your explorations.
Escape from Britain on the train:
If you are not resident in the UK you can use Eurail and InterRail 'global' passes to see Britain by train in addition to other countries of your choice; though you'll need to be sure that your trip to and from England / Scotland / Wales falls within your selected period of time that your pass will be valid for.
For European citizens InterRail for Great Britain passes are available for 3, 4, 5, 6 or 8 days of non-consecutive travel.
Everybody else who solely wishes to explore Britain by train can make use of BritRail passes; and if you meet the InterRail criteria and aren't resident in the UK, there are BritRail passes valid for two days of travel which are cheaper than those InterRail passes valid for 3 days.
Eurail passes are not available solely for travel in Great Britain.
With any of these passes you can hop on any daytime national rail service, reservations are available but optional on most long-distance routes; and on daytime trains there will be no charge for making the reservation; special rates are available to rail pass users on the Caledonian Sleeper and Night Riviera services.
Users of Eurail and InterRail 'global' passes can book reservations on Eurostar, which can seem pricey, but the cost per day of using the pass + the reservation fee, is often much cheaper than booking Eurostar tickets.
However, BritRail passes are not valid on the Eurostar.
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This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.