Trains in Great Britain

In January 2019, I traveled to England, Scotland and Wales. The primary purpose of my journey – to travel on as many different train types and routes as possible in a two week period. I had purchased a 15 day first class BritRail pass, which allowed me unlimited travel on the National Rail network, in first class seating (where available). The pass had cost A$858, which was extremely good value for the use I made of it.

The division and franchising out of the nationalized British Rail network in the 1990s was very unpopular. This unpopularity was justified at the time, as the system declined in both customer service and reliability under loose contracts and unscrupulous operators. The poor performance of the early franchisees has tarnished the concept, and that ill will has carried forth to today’s operations. What I observed as a visitor in 2019 was a well managed, reliable and integrated system of operators. There are imperfections, but the system appeared to be working better than I have seen in many other countries.

Network Rail

Network Rail a government owned company that owns the infrastructure, including the railway tracks, signals, overhead wires, tunnels, bridges, level crossings and most stations in Great Britain. Although it owns over 2,500 railway stations, it manages only 20 of the biggest and busiest of them, all the other stations being managed by one or other of the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs). Network Rail operates a small fleet of “departmental” works trains for infrastructure maintenance, but does not own or operate any passenger or freight rolling stock.

Works Train Fort William

A class 37 locomotive on a Network Rail works train at Fort William in Scotland

Train Operating Companies (TOCs)

TOCs operate rail services. They are mostly “franchised” from government routes, although there are a few open operators who have applied for the right to operate over other TOCs systems. In many areas, multiple TOCs run over one section of track offering services to different destinations.

Below is an alphabetically sorted list of the TOCs:

  • c2c – Operate interurban services on two high frequency lines lines to the east of London. They operate only one type of rolling stock (class 357 EMU) in rather boring white and yellow livery.
  • Caledonian Sleeper – Operate overnight sleeper trains between London (Euston) and various locations in Scotland.
  • Chiltern Railways – Operate medium distance trains between London (Marylebone) towards Birmingham and Oxford
  • CrossCountry – Operate long distance services on various cross country routes. CrossCountry operate the longest regular route in Britain; Aberdeen (Scotland) to Penzance (Cornwell). 
  • East Midlands Trains – Operate regional and long distance services in the East Midlands.
  • Eurostar – Operate international services from London (St Pancras) to mainland Europe through the Channel Tunnel.
  • Gatwick Express – Operate services from Gatwick Airport to London and Brighton
  • Grand Central – An open access operator on the East Coast Main Line with a small fleet of Class 180 DMUs
  • Great Northern – Operate regional services from London to Kings Lynn and Peterborough
  • Greater Anglia – Operate long distance and regional services between London and the Anglia regions of eastern England
  • Great Western Railway – Operate long distance and regional services in England’s South West and Wales. Operates out of Paddington Station in London, and also some cross country services from the south of England to Wales. Operates branch line services in the South West and the Night Rivera sleeper train from London to Penznance.
  • Heathrow Express – Operates express services between Heathrow Airport and Paddington station
  • Hull Trains – An open access operator running a handful of services per day between London (Kings Cross) and Hull, with a small fleet of Class 180 DMUs
  • Island Line – Operates on the Isle of Wight using the oldest non-heritage rolling stock in the UK
  • London North Eastern Railway (LNER) – Operate high speed express services on the East Coast Main Line.
  • London Northwestern Railway – Operate long  distance regional services between London (Euston), Birmingham, Crewe and Liverpool.
  • London Overground – Operate suburban services in London
  • Merseyrail – Operate suburban services in Liverpool.
  • Northern – Operate cross country regional services in northern England.
  • ScotRail – Operate local, regional and long distance services within Scotland
  • Southern – Operate local services to the South of London.
  • Southeastern – Operate services south east of London. Operate the fastest services in the UK, with their class 395 Javelin running at up to 140 mph (225 km/h).
  • South Western Railway – Operate services south west of London. 
  • Stansted Express – Operate services between Stansted airport and London
  • TfL Rail – Operate suburban services in London, including non-express services to Heathrow Airport. TfL Rail will operate along the new underground Elizabeth Line when it (finally) opens.
  • Thameslink – Operate suburban and interurban services around London.
  • TransPennine Express – Operate long distance services in Northern England and into Scotland
  • Transport for Wales – Operate regional and long distance services in Wales and from Cardiff to Manchester.
  • Virgin Trains West Coast – Operate high speed express services from London (Euston) to Glasgow and England’s West Coast.
  • West Midlands – Operate regional services around Birmingham. Also operate Britain’s shortest branch line between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge Town.

National Rail

National Rail is the government organisation overseeing the TOCs. Although TOCs sell tickets, all tickets are issued through on behalf of National Rail, meaning that you can buy a ticket through one TOC for another TOC’s service. National Rail has a good journey planner at https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/.

Ticketing

As mentioned earlier, TOCs sell tickets on behalf of National Rail. The result is an integrated ticketing system where you can buy a trip for multiple TOCs in one transaction. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about rail travel in Great Britain. There are so many conditions and exceptions, that it can be difficult to work out what the best value ticket is and when to buy it.

There are several factors which influence the price, but mostly how far in advance you buy the ticket and flexibility. For example; a ticket from London to York will cost £132.50 for a ticket on a train tomorrow with LNER, but if you travel by Grand Central Railway, when it will cost £91.00 for the same journey (despite it being a little bit quicker). The same ticket on the same train bought 2 months in advance will cost £84.50 with LNER or £51.20 with Grand Central. The only difference between the two fares is that the cheaper one is only valid on one particular train, whereas the more expensive fare can be used on any train run by that TOC on that day. Ticket price can also vary by route taken, and as there are railways criss-crossing most of Great Britain, this can lead to many different combinations.

None of this matters if you’re on a travelling on a rail pass, as they are valid for any train covered by National Rail ticketing in the pass region.

First Class

Many TOCs offer first class service, although this varies widely between the different TOCs. LNER offers the best first class service, with free meals for all first class passengers with a scheduled journey of over 70 minutes. Virgin is a close second, with hot meals at designated times and snacks at all others. Some of the shorter distance operators just offer a segregated area for first class passengers; no real difference off peak, but better chance of getting a seat during peak times.

Virgin Trains first class meal

Complimentary Breakfast on Virgin Trains West Coast

Seating is often of a higher standard in first class, with most long distance TOCs operating a 2+2 seating arrangement in standard class, with 1+2 seating in first class.

Although most TOCs offer some first class accommodation, many do not offer it on all services and some have no first class accomodation at all (such as Northern). The only TOCs that appear offer first class on all trains are Cross Country, LNER, TransPennine Express, Virgin West Coast, Grand Central and Hull Trains.

Virgin Trains First Class

First class car on board a Virgin Trains West Coast service

Below is a list of services that different TOCs offer when first class is available. Blank means that that service is not generally provided, Y means almost all first class trains have this service and S means some first class trains may have this service. This list is compiled from my own experiences and the TOC websites, so may not be 100% accurate. If you really want to know, check with the TOC before you travel.

TOC

Free drinks & Snacks

Free Meals

Lounge at Major stations

c2c

No first class

Caledonian Sleeper

  

Y

Chiltern Railways

No first class

CrossCountry

Y

S

 

East Midlands

Y

S

Y

Gatwick Express

   

Grand Central

Y

 

Y

Great Northern

   

Greater Anglia

S

  

Great Western Railway

S

 

Y

Heathrow Express

   

Hull Trains

Y

  

Island Line

No first class

London North Eastern Railway 

Y

Y

Y

London North Western Railway

   

London Overground

No first class

Merseyrail

No first class

Northern

No first class

ScotRail

Y

 

Y

Southern

   

Southeastern

   

South Western

   

Stansted Express 

   

TfL Rail

No first class

Thameslink

   

TransPennine Express

S

  

Transport for Wales

No first class

Virgin Trains

Y

S

Y

West Midlands

   

BritRail Pass

Britrail passes are available to non British passport holders, and must be purchased and delivered prior to arriving in Britain. The passes come in various duration of validity, and are available for both Standard and First class. For more information take a look at http://www.internationalrail.com.au/britrail-uk-passes/britrail-passes-(uk).aspx.

If you are not doing a lot of travel and can purchase tickets for specific services in advance, it may be cheaper to buy individual tickets. But if you’re doing a lot of travel or want to be able to jump on any train you want to, a BritRail pass is great value. I was doing around £200 of rail travel per day on the pass. When you consider that the low season pass cost A$858 (around £475) for 15 days (high season is 20% more expensive), the savings were very significant!

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