Trains in the UK

Rail network, train standards and tickets

Trains in the UK

The railway network in the UK is one of the most extensive in Europe with over 17,500km (11,000mi) of lines, some 2,500 stations and around 15,000 trains a day. The UK pioneered railways and the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825) was the first public passenger railway in the world.


In an effort to reduce government subsidies and as part of its privatisation doctrine, one of the Conservative government’s last acts in office was to privatise British Rail (completed in 1997) and passenger services are now operated by some 25 separate private companies. Other companies include those that lease locomotives and passenger carriages (rolling stock); freight service providers; infrastructure maintenance companies; and track renewal companies.

In 2002, Railtrack, the company responsible for the tracks and infrastructure, went into liquidation and was taken over by Network Rail, a government-backed, non-profit company. Despite the privatisation, railway companies still receive government subsidies, although they’ve been reduced (while fares have rocketed).

Since privatisation, railway services have gone from bad to worse resulting in higher fares, fewer services, poor connections, increased train cancellations, late trains (punctuality is one of the biggest problems), too few seats (overcrowding is widespread), narrower seats, closed ticket offices, non-existent or unhelpful staff, poor or no catering on trains and a paucity of accurate information.

More importantly, there have been a number of fatal accidents in the last few years, often as a result of poor maintenance (now taken over by Network Rail staff), which has deterred many people from travelling by rail. Not surprisingly there’s widespread public dissatisfaction, which results in over one million complaints a year! In fact, most observers believe that privatised rail services are even worse than official figures reveal and that the UK now has the worst (and most expensive) railways in Western Europe.

Trains are expensive and even if you’re able to take advantage of special tickets, excursion fares, family reductions and holiday package deals, they’re still usually dearer than buses (or private cars) over long distances. The harsh reality (accepted by every other western European country) is that it’s impossible to run a comprehensive, quality rail service at a price people are willing to pay (or can afford) without huge public subsidies. Although services are expected to improve in the long term, most analysts believe that without increased state subsidies (or re-nationalisation) the only certain thing about the UK’s rail service is that fares will continue to increase and services be reduced.

Types of Train in the UK

Most trains consist of first (shown by a ‘1’ on windows) and standard class carriages. Services categorised as suburban or local are trains that stop at most stations along their route, many provided by modern Sprinter and Super Sprinter class trains, with push-button operated or automatic doors.

Long-distance trains are termed express and InterCity, and stop at major towns only. Express services are provided by new 158 (158kph/98mph) class trains in some areas. InterCity 125 trains, so named after their maximum speed of 125mph (201kph), are the world’s fastest diesel trains and operate on most InterCity services. New InterCity 225 (225kph/140mph) trains have been introduced on major routes.

All InterCity 125 and 225 trains are air-conditioned, have a buffet car in standard class and a restaurant car in first class, although the food has been criticised for its poor quality and high cost. During rush hours (before 9.30am and from 4 to 7pm), trains are frequent on most routes, although it’s best to avoid travelling then, as trains are packed and fares are at their peak. Although travelling by train may not always compare favourably on paper with air travel, it’s often quicker when you add the time required to get to and from town centres and airports. Many towns and cities are served by half-hour or hourly services.

First Class

InterCity Pullman is the name given to the fastest first class and executive class services between London and major business centres in England and Wales. Executive tickets include a first class ticket, seat reservations, 24-hour parking, vouchers for a meal or refreshments on the train, and central zone tube tickets for London arrivals. Executive passengers can purchase vouchers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which are served at your seat. Pullman lounges are available for all full fare first class or executive passengers at London’s Euston and King’s Cross stations, plus Edinburgh, Glasgow Central, Leeds and Newcastle stations, where telephones, photocopiers, televisions and meeting rooms are provided.

Steam & Holiday Trains

Although the major operators no longer operate steam trains, the UK is still a mecca for steam fans and private railway steam trains provide scheduled services in many parts of the country. Steam fans should obtain a copy of the yearbook of the Association of Railway Preservation Societies, Railways Restored by Ian Allan, which is a guide to over 100 steam lines, museums and static railway exhibits throughout the UK (many are operated by volunteers and provide limited scheduled services for tourists and railway enthusiasts). Many railway magazines (e.g. Steam Railway) are published in the UK and leaflets about steam trains and services are available from tourist information centres.

Trains can be hired for the day in most parts of the UK and some companies operate special day and longer trips for train enthusiasts in Pullman-style, first class, saloon coaches, many including travel on narrow-gauge railways. The ultimate (and the world’s most expensive) nostalgic rail journey in the UK is on the Royal Scotsman. You can also book a trip on the famous Orient Express from London to Venice, which is one of the world’s most popular train trips. If you’re planning a holiday in the UK travelling by train, it will pay you to visit a travel agent, who will provide you with comprehensive rail information and a detailed itinerary at no extra cost.

General Information

  • Many main railway stations offer a choice of restaurants and snack bars, although the standard of food often leaves much to be desired.
  • Food and drink machines are provided at many stations.
  • Some old trains have doors with no handle on the inside. To open the door from the inside you must open the window and turn the handle on the outside.
  • It’s prohibited to open the windows of air-conditioned carriages or put your feet on seats.
  • Many large railway stations provide wash, shower and brush-up facilities, including hair dryers. Some also provide nappy (diaper) changing rooms. Most main line stations charge 10p to use a toilet.
  • Most main stations have instant passport-size photograph machines.
  • Public payphones (which accept credit and debit cards) are available on InterCity and express train services.
  • There are car parks at most railway stations, where fees usually range from around £2 to £3 a day (some stations also have free car parks, while others are free at weekends). Season tickets are also available. There’s a high incidence of car theft (and the theft of articles from cars) at station car parks, so don’t leave anything in your car and take precautions against theft.
  • Some London railway stations, e.g. Victoria, have banks with extended opening hours.
  • Accommodation for smokers on trains is extremely limited and sometimes non-existent. There are fines for those caught smoking in non-smoking areas.
  • Railway companies often carry out engineering work affecting services, particularly at weekends. You’re advised to check with local information offices before travelling. Planned engineering work may be detailed in timetables and train delays are also listed on television teletext services.
  • Toilets are provided on trains on all but the shortest distance services (but shouldn’t be used when a train is in a station).
  • Travel insurance for rail passengers is available from main line stations.
  • Luggage can be sent unaccompanied and can be insured. Many stations and airports have luggage lockers, left luggage offices and luggage trolleys (although they’re often difficult to find). When using a luggage locker, insert the correct money to release the key. Note the number of the locker (on the key) in case you lose the key. Railway porters are available at large stations.
  • Bicycles can be sent between any two stations using local services, i.e. excluding express and InterCity services.
  • It’s possible to hire a car from all major stations (e.g. Hertz executive connections or rail-drive services) and, if you book 24 hours in advance, a car can be arranged to meet you at around 100 major stations at any time of the day or night. Cars can also be hired on the spot from some stations and left at other mainline stations. To make a Hertz InterCity reservation, contact your local travel agent or InterCity Business Travel Service.
  • Wheelchairs for disabled passengers are provided at major railway stations, and most trains have special facilities for the storage of wheelchairs, including all InterCity services.


Railway operators offer a bewildering range of tickets depending on a variety of considerations, such as the day and time of day you’re travelling, when you will be returning and how often you travel. The private railway companies operate diverse services ranging from local rural lines to major cross-country routes, many offering few standard services and tickets.

Therefore, with the exception of national InterCity services, some rail passes and tickets may be available only in certain regions, although most provide similar services. Ticket staff are supposed to provide you with the cheapest ticket available for your journey, although overcharging is commonplace (if less widespread than previously). Always double or treble check ticket prices before buying a ticket for a long-distance journey involving a number of railway companies.

There are two classes of travel on most routes, first and standard (or second) class. First class fares are around 50 per cent more expensive than standard class, which is used by the vast majority of travellers. Only single, day return and season tickets are issued for first class travel. One Day Travelcard (valid only after a certain time of day, e.g. 9.30am) and AwayBreak tickets are issued for standard class travel only, but the holders of Network cards may purchase first class supplement tickets that are valid for the day on which the ticket is dated. At weekends and on public holidays you can upgrade a standard ticket to first class on all InterCity trains on payment of a supplement.

Children aged 5 to 15 pay half the adult fare (except for Apex, SuperApex and shuttle advance InterCity tickets, where no child fare is available) and children under five travel free (subject to a maximum of two children per fare-paying adult). All tickets and passes are described in leaflets available from any station.

A ticket must usually be purchased from a ticket office or machine before boarding a train. If a station is unstaffed, a ticket may be obtained from the conductor on the train (if there is one) or you must pay at your destination. In many areas, local public transport tickets can also be purchased at post offices, ticket agencies, travel agents and corner shops. At many stations there are ticket machines, although these sell tickets to a limited number of local destinations only.

There are various types of machines, but you usually select your destination from those listed, select the ticket type required and then insert the amount displayed. Machines usually accept all coins from 5p to £1, plus £5, £10 and £20 notes. There are also machines selling ‘permit to travel’ tickets (for a nominal fee) indicating the boarding station and the time. You give the permit to the ticket inspector on the train or the ticket collector at your destination, and must pay the difference between the permit’s cost and the fare.

Fare Evasion

Fare evasion is rife and costs around £50 million annually, particularly at undermanned stations. Ticket inspectors check tickets on many trains and staff carry out undercover operations to detect persistent fare evaders, who face heavy fines and possibly a prison sentence. In 1990, on-the-spot fines of £10 were introduced in some areas although, if you’re discovered travelling without a valid ticket, you’re normally required to pay only the full or correct fare for your journey. Fare-dodgers who don’t pay their fines may be blacklisted and reported to credit agencies. If you’re discovered travelling in first class with a standard ticket, you must pay the full first class fare, not just the fare difference. You must usually show your ticket (or surrender an expired ticket) to a ticket collector at your destination station.


Seats can be reserved on all InterCity trains (Apex tickets include free reservations). If you’re travelling in a group, you can make up to four reservations together for the same fee. InterCity bookings are free on some services or included in the fare. Seats can be reserved from two months in advance and up to two hours before a train departs (or from 4pm the previous day for early morning trains). InterCity seats can be booked from over 300 stations nationwide or from an appointed travel agent. When booking, you should indicate any preferences, such as smoking or non-smoking, window or aisle seat, or facing or back to the direction of travel.

A ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat – in fact during rush hours you’re lucky to get one – and it’s advisable to reserve seats on long journeys, particularly when travelling during holiday periods or at weekends. Don’t sit in a seat with a ‘reserved’ sign on it (unless it’s yours). Special seats are reserved for the disabled on most trains. Tickets can be ordered by telephone and paid for with an Access, American Express, Switch or Visa card.

Eurostar Passenger Services

The opening of the Channel tunnel in 1994 gave the UK a direct rail connection with the continental rail system, with the introduction of the Eurostar train service to Brussels and Paris. This threatens to drag the UK’s railways screaming and kicking into the 21st century, although passengers had to wait until October 2003 for high-speed trains on the British part of the journey. Since the start of Eurostar services, an estimated 25 per cent of business travellers have switched from air to rail for journeys between London and Brussels and Paris. However, many have switched back to air travel, as Eurostar is more expensive than budget flights and, if you don’t travel in first class, it’s also cramped and uncomfortable.

Eurostar trains run from London Waterloo International to Paris and Brussels at speeds of up to 185mph, taking around 2 hours 35 minutes to Paris. Later in 2007 St. Pancras International will become Eurostar’s new London home and create a high-speed link to the Continent from the heart of the City. Meals in first class are complementary (i.e. you’ve already paid for them in the price of your ticket), although the food leaves much to be desired. There are a range of special fares (including discovery special, weekend return, Apex weekend, pass holder (for holders of international rail passes), senior return, youths (under 26) and groups. For reservations 08705-186 186 or 

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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