Great Britain invented the train with the first passenger service opening between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830. Prior to it opening there was the famous Rainhill trials where various types of steam locomotives were pitched against each other with the winner being Stephenson's Rocket. Following the opening of this railway railwaymania gripped Britain where every town of every size was connected to the network over the next 40 years or so. The Liverpool and Manchester set the standards for railway construction which are taken for granted today. It set the gauge between the two rails as being 4ft 8.5 inches which is often referred to as standard gauge. This standard you will see on rail lines world wide apart from mountain lines in some parts of Europe where the gauge is often narrower.

Train Travel Within Britain

Train travel within Britain is relatively easy with most towns on the rail network. However due to the Beeching cuts carried out in the 1960s there are some parts of the country which are sparsely served by the network  such as north Cornwall and some parts of Wales. The majority of the key routes radiate from London to the north and to the west. South of London the lines are an extended commuter network served by semi fast and slow trains. The exception to this in Kent is HS1 which needs to have line speeds that can get out of the way of following Eurostar trains. Other key routes are Newcastle to Plymouth and Manchester to Bournemouth - both via Birmingham as well as Manchester to York. In Scotland the key routes are those that link Glasgow and Edinburgh and between these two cities to Aberdeen and Inverness. Despite many principal lines radiating from London the true hub of the network is Birmingham New Street from which the majority of the country can be reached with one change of train.    

Line speeds and type of trains vary with the best generally being long distance trains from London. However improvements to cross country routes mean that long distance trains travelling cross country can match London trains for speeds. North American visitors will find that trains in Britain travel at speeds faster than what they are used to certainly outside the North Eastern Corridor. The fastest trains travel at around 125mph with many secondary trains running at 100mph. Pendolinos which run between London, the Midlands, the Northwest and Glasgow have a capacity to run up to 140mph but are constrained by track conditions. These trains also tilt to maximise the benefit of high speed running so get a window seat if you suffer from travel sickness. Other types of trains you may find are High Speed trains - a diesel train built for speed and long distance travel and these are found mainly on services to the west country and the east midlands. Other trains you may find a mixture of diesel and electric trains that vary in length. Outside of the south east local trains can be quite short made of two or three carriage trains and can get crowded at busy times. All long and middle distance trains will have at least one first class carriage and several standard class carriages. On local trains first class is not available. Catering facilities on board vary from a full meal service in first class to on board shops and trolley services.

Train frequencies are generally pretty good. Most lines will see at least one train per hour. The exceptions to the rule are central Wales, North and western Scotland and the line to Whitby which have less frequent services.  Generally most routes have two trains an hour or more although not all stations may be served. For many local lines there may be a combination of a fast and a slow train or the second train may only serve part of the route. For long distance services there tends to be two trains per hour on the busy core parts of the route with the less busy parts being served hourly. The routes with the highest frequencies are

Manchester to Leeds - 4 trains per hour

Glasgow and Edinburgh - 4 trains per hour on the route via Falkirk. There are others

London to Leicester - 4 trains per hour 

London to Birmingham - 3 fast trains per hour. There are others

London to Manchester - 3 trains per hour 

London to Southampton - 3 trains per hour

The important thing is to check the timetable before starting your journey to ensure that it goes smoothly.  

 Rail Routes From London

Central London has a number of stations and its important to select the right one for your train:

Paddington - trains to Heathrow (the most expensive rail link in the UK), Oxford, Bristol, South Wales, Devon and Cornwall

Marylebone - serving commuter routes into Buckinghamshire but also Stratford and Birmingham

Euston - West Coast Main Line linking London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow

St Pancras - the East Midlands - Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield as well as HS1 to Kent

Kings Cross - East Coast Main Line to Yorkshire, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Aberdeen but also serving Cambridge  

Liverpool Street -   East Anglia as well as Stansted airport

London Bridge - services to Kent but also First Capital Connect services to Gatwick and Brighton

Charing Cross - services to Kent

Waterloo -  Surrey, Portsmouth, Southampton, Dorset and  Sailsbury   

Victoria - Gatwick, Brighton, Sussex and Kent

London is not the only place whose centre is served by more than one main station. In Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow the city centre is served by at least two so care needs to be taken that you go to the right one for your service.

A number of airports are linked to the rail network where passengers can take the train to the air terminal and these are Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester. Liverpool and Luton have a shuttle bus that covers the last mile or so to the terminal. 

Terminology for North American Visitors

Station = train station, Platform = track, Carriage = coach, Ticket Inspector / Guard = conductor, Driver = engineer, standard class = second class

Large stations have many facilities for travellers. As well as ticket offices you will find news agents, supermarkets and food outlets. Supermarkets tend to be on the small side and do not have the range that you would find at similar outlets in continental Europe. Food outlets tend to expensive as does food bought on trains. To find your train consult electronic departure boards which will give details of each train service as well as its departure platform. These screens are also found on platforms and will display the train due to its arrival. These screens will give details of the final destination as well as the stops made on route.  All stations will also have paper timetables so that you can look up a train service to a particular destination. The information on these is for direct trains from that station only and these are displayed alphabetically. If you cannot see your station enquire in the travel centre if there is one or ask a member of staff. Unlike in many places in Europe Britains railways are print happy and you should be able to pick up all sorts of information about your journey. This can range from pocket timetables, service changes and points of interest about your route if you are travelling on a service that has tourist appeal. This could be about local scenery, natural history or historical interest. All stations should also display posters giving information regarding engineering works that may be disrupting services and the arrangements in place to keep travellers moving. This tends to be putting people onto buses or service diversions.      

Many stations have train announcements to inform passengers as to where an approaching train is going to but in some large stations such as Manchester Piccadilly these can be few and far between and there is a reliance on screens for train departure information.  Away from main stations services become more basic with some commuter stations in urban area just having a bus shelter type building and little else.      

Buying Tickets

Tickets can bought at most stations and from on line ticket agencies. The range of tickets available can be confusing and can basically be divided into

Off peak - for use after 9.30 in the week and anytime at weekends

Anytime - can be used as its name states but you pay more for the flexibility

On top of this some companies offer cheap day returns and discounted tickets. Buying tickets on the day is the most expensive way - and sometimes eye wateringly expensive compared with similar journeys in Europe.  Buy in advance unless you know that you can get a cheap day return. Many people buy discounted singles which are on sale 12 weeks prior to the departure day. A return journey is made of two singles and a seat reservation is compulsory. However ensure that you take the train stated as to miss it may mean buying another ticket as your ticket will not be valid should you wish to take a different train. Although it has to be noted that it is only on trains to London and some busy summer Saturday services to the West Country that this is enforced. Some leeway may be given to missed connections due to late running. Many companies will only check that you have a valid ticket and do not bother so much with seat reservations. On local and many semi fast services seat reservations are not available and advanced purchase may not give any advantage to buying on the day.  Tickets can be purchased from ticket offices or fast track machines, and these machines can be used to collect pre purchased tickets provided you have the booking reference. You can also buy tickets on line and the best place to do this is on individual train operating companies web sites. These will not charge a booking fee unlike agencies such as the trainline which a flat fee for ticket collection. If when booking on line to add travel insurance to your booking decline it. It may only cost a pound or two but it really is not worth having and overseas visitors are already covered by travel insurance for their trip.  

There are a number of different types of rail pass available and these range from the all line Britrail pass to regional passes for various parts of the country. These can offer some considerable saving on ordinary fares especially if a lot of travel is planned. But to get the most from them you really do need to be travelling on most days that they are valid for. Visitors from Europe can take advantage of Interrail passes but if traveling by Eurostar then it may be cheaper to buy an ordinary ticket rather than a pass holder ticket..