British railways overview

This is the first part of “British railways. Visitor’s manual”

Taking a train is the most efficient and convenient way of traveling across Great Britain. Although residents of the island constantly rumble at the trains being outdated and crowded, and everyone agrees that the tickets are a rip-off, as a visitor, you’ve got a different angle of view. Your alternatives are either more expensive, or slower, or both. But unlike the commuters, you don’t have to spend thousands of pounds on an annual ticket and ride overcrowded rush-hour trains. You will make your journeys (mostly) pleasant and relatively cheap if you plan them well ahead and understand how the system works. This manual will help you with that.

I don’t live in the UK but each time I visit the country I catch a train and go to places which I haven’t seen yet. So far I’ve logged 85 rides along 29 different railway lines, from Exeter to Newcastle. On one particularly loaded day in January 2017, I managed to make eight journeys, although two of them being the result of catching a wrong train.

With this kind of experience, I’ve got many tips and tricks to share. In this chapter, we’ll begin with a practical overview of the British railway system in general. Then we will untangle the lore of tickets and discounts - this knowledge will be your money saver. Next come the how-to’s for journey planning - you’ll learn how to save even more. Finally, we’ll be going for a ride, and there are a few catches you might want to know as well.

Note. Examples in this manual are based on real ticket prices. These prices were valid at the moment of writing (October-December 2018). When you are reading this, particular numbers might have changed. However, the general principles should hold.

National Rail network

The rail network of Great Britain is called “National Rail”. All National Rail stations feature the “crow’s foot” logo; it also appears on tickets.

Crow's foot logo

National Rail includes most but not all passenger train services that run on the island. Metropolitan networks such as London Tube, DLR, or TfL rail, and specialty services such as Heathrow Express or Eurostar, are not part of National Rail. You can distinguish them by their specific logos. In this post we will focus on traveling across the country, so let’s follow the crow’s foot.

Canterbury West station Canterbury West station featuring the crow’s foot [Image by Joshua Brown]

Marylebone station sign London Marylebone station is served both by National Rail and the Tube [Image by Elliott Brown]

Under the hood, National Rail consists of about twenty companies that actually run trains and sell tickets. When you hear something like “a Thameslink service to Brighton”, it means that this train to Brighton is run by a company called Thameslink.

Often you don’t care about train operating companies. National Rail maintains the unified timetable and provides through ticketing across all the network. There is no need to deal with each train company separately. Yet in some cases you might want to know what company runs your train; we’ll get to these in due time.

Types of trains

Usually, such factors as timing and price rather than the comfort of the carriage will define your choice of the train. Yet it might be useful to know what to expect on board.

There are many types of the rolling stock, from cramped grim rail-buses to bullet-shaped shiny high-speed trains. The more rural is the rail line, the more chances that you find yourself packed into one of these:

Class 153 rail-bus One-carriage train (rail-bus) [Image by David Ingham]

Class 153 interior Interior of the above [Image by Peter Skuce]

… or, even worse, these:

Class 142 Pacer train Two-carriage “Pacer” rail-bus [Image by Sam Pedley]

Class 142 Pacer interiror Interior of the above [Image by R~P~M]

On longer trips, especially on the main lines connecting major cities, you may expect a bit more room and the modern comforts. These include air conditioning, power outlets, on-board WiFi, a buffet or a trolley service, a dedicated bike storage, toilets with baby changing stations.

Not every train operator provides the entire range of the above. Sometimes power outlets are very scarce. Sometimes WiFi is absent or not free of charge - you can find the details on National Rail web site. However, even if a facility is listed available I wouldn’t rely on it as the last resort for something important. Recharge your phone and get things done on the Internet before you board the train. For more information about the train’s facilities, check the websites of individual train companies.

The fleets of Virgin Trains, London North Eastern Trains, Grand Central, Hull Trains, Southeastern High Speed, and Thameslink consist of comfortable trains.

Javelin high speed train Southeastern High Speed train [Image credit]

Interior of Javelin Standard Class interior of the above [Image by Sunil Prasannan]

Interior of a Virgin train Standard Class interior of a long distance Virgin train [Image by Jasper]

Interior of a Virgin train close-up Close-up: tray table and power outlet [Image by Jasper]

With East Midlands Trains or Northern you are likely to find yourself on a rail-bus. The fleets of the other companies are somewhat balanced between mainline trains and rural carriages.

First Class seating

For a longer travel, when buying an Advance ticket well in advance you may get an excellent bargain for the First Class. Yet before paying a premium for a First Class ticket, you would want to do some research to find out what exactly you’re going to pay for.

My experience in the First Class is quite limited but, nevertheless, varied.

First Class of London North East Railway (former Virgin Trains East Coast) in a train to Durham was great. There was a dedicated First Class coach with broad comfy seats, both individual and paired. You get free WiFi, and a free meal (a sandwich, a cake, and a drink).

Virgin Trains First Class interior Virgin Trains First Class interior [Image by Andrew Rabbott]

First Class of South Western was just ok. I found it at the end of the last car of the train en route from Salisbury to London. Seats were big and comfortable enough, but add-ons were nonexistent (they advertise a free drink and a biscuit on selected trains only in the morning hours). WiFi is either available or not for all passengers, regardless of the class.

South Western First Class interior South Western First Class interior [Image by Peter Skuce]

West Midlands Railway (former London Midland) provided the most underwhelming experience. I had been waiting for this train on the barren platform of Lichfield Trent Valley station. It was a freezing January night and I was looking forward to a relief in the ambiance of a First Class. What I found was a pass-through compartment in the middle of the train that looked and felt a Standard class: same seats, no add-ons. The only benefit of this First Class seating was that this section was less crowded.

West Midlands First Class interior West Midlands First Class interior [Image by Peter Skuce]

Note that many local trains do not offer First Class seating.


National Rail maintains a scoreboard which track train punctuality by operator.

As you can see, London North Eastern Railway (former Virgin Trains East Coast), while running very decent trains, has one of the worst scores. On average, 25% of their trains arrive more than 10 minutes late. Precisely so! I can’t help wondering at that mysterious, haunted signal north of Newcastle that kept failing every second time I took a southbound Virgin train, year after year.

My personal statistics is taken across 13 train operators whose services I have used. It appears that exactly 10% of the journeys have failed to complete within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival. The worst non-disruptive delay I experienced was about thirty minutes (southbound Virgin East Coast, of course). This is why I advise allowing at least half an hour for a connection involving a long distance train even if your trip on that train will be short.

By “non-disruptive” I mean that the railway, in general, is maintaining normal operation. Once a suspicious item had been found at Canterbury East station, and my train was terminated on an intermediate stop. I was diverted on to a long uninspiring tour over Kent missing my appointment in Canterbury. You cannot plan for such incidents. This is the subject of your Disaster Recovery protocols rather than the normal schedule.

Time and length of travel

It is almost imperative to avoid rush hours (7 to 9:30, 16:30 to 19), especially on the routes going into or out of large cities. In the case of Britain, this cliché advice is bolstered by an explicit economic incentive: tickets are cheaper if you set off after 9 AM.

On working days, traveling from London (or another large city) in the morning and returning in the afternoon is an anti-pattern, so the train should not be crowded.

At weekend the pattern reverses. People tend to fill outward trains after 10 AM. The masses return in the evening. The days around the major holidays are particularly busy.

Avoid trains serving large sport events or festivals.

If you get unlucky with the train timing, the experience can turn really awful. I have seen people having trouble to squeeze themselves into a train, let alone finding a seat. As a visitor, you can afford more flexibile schedule than resident commuters, so plan your rides accordingly.

It is unlikely that even your longest journey takes more than four and a half hours. For your reference, I’ve made a map which shows travel times from London to other cities by fastest trains.

Travel times map Travel times from London by fastest trains

Just for the fun of the thing, the longest direct service I could find is Aberdeen to Penzance. It takes 14 hours 21 minutes to do the full length of the route via Edinburgh, Newcastle, York, Birmingham, Bristol, and Exeter. Ironically, the direct train is not the fastest. Your journey will be one hour shorter if you change trains on the way.

There are also two sleeper trains from London, one going to Penzance and the other fanning out to several destinations in Scotland. You could take these for the sake of the experience and save on a hotel. The same destinations are reachable within the daylight hours in a shorter time frame.

Next chapter: “Understanding train tickets”.