Many changes have happened to the British train system has during the past fifty years. Many of those changes leave something to be desired and it would be fair to say that British rail services have also seen a long period of decline and neglect. But in more recent times that unfortunate trend has now changed direction, and in a nation that is characterized by dense population and relative proximity between major cities, British train travel is now once again becoming popular.
The British Government was trying to save money back in the 1960s and in the process, made a complete mess of Britain’s railway network. Many unprofitable lines were running then which have now been closed, but the real cost to the nation has been excessively high.
Then came the 1980s and the remains of that debacle were privatized, resulting in higher ticket prices, not to mention the standards of punctuality and service deteriorating even further. These days, even though the British railway system continues in the hands of private enterprise, the trend of decay has begun to retreat. The major railway lines now experience increased traffic thanks to the popular Channel Tunnel link and the engineering improvements that have also been made.
On many of the major British railway lines, the time it takes to get from one place to another has been halved since the 60mph trains have been replaced by much faster 120mph trains. The trip duration times between major UK cities and the Channel Tunnel have also been shortened, and branch lines connecting to this network have also seen improvements. There is still much to do, but in comparison to the early 90’s when the channel tunnel (“chunnel”) was first built, the railway network is noticeably better.
Since 1995, Britain’s rail network has been run by over 20 private train companies. But the government makes sure they work together as National Rail, with co-ordinated fares, ticketing & information. You can find train times & fares for all train operators all on one website, you can buy a train ticket between any two stations, tickets are normally valid on any operator’s trains. This page is a guide to train travel in Britain.
British train travel is vitally important. Congestion and delays on the major British road systems are common, despite the outrageous sums of money injected into the road building program over many years. You might as well forget Inter city air travel because the distance between UK cities is so small. To get to an airport by road would almost take the same amount of time as the flight itself, since airports are away from the city centers – so the British rail system becomes an attractive alternative. The Brits are at last waking up to the importance of rail travel in their country, but way too late.
British Train Service – Buying Tickets
If you plan to use the British train network, you’re going to have to purchase tickets. The best way to get these in most cases, is in advance, because you can save a lot of money this way. The internet allows you to book the tickets online from anywhere in the world, and you can collect them at the ticket machines at the railway stations.
All you have to do is simply go to the machine when you arrive and enter in the reference number from the online booking, plus your debit or credit card for identity verification. You don’t have to worry about being charged again – it won’t happen. Once the machine has verified your identity, it will produce your tickets.
Buying train tickets from human ticket operators is not cheap, so you can save a packet by utilizing this advance booking facility. You can peruse rail routes and timetables online up to three months before the departure date, so planning your journey in advance is certainly advantageous. If you have unpleasant railway memories of a past visit to Britain, you may be surprised by the improvement in the standard of British trains today.
How to buy British train tickets online
You can buy train tickets for any train journey in Britain at www.virgintrains.co.uk at the official price with no booking fees or credit card fees added. All routes, all trains, all operators.
Collect tickets at any main railway station free of charge (recommended option, but make sure you take a credit or debit card with you as ID, not necessarily the one used for the booking), sent to any UK address for around £1.50 or sent to any address worldwide for £7.50. Tickets for Virgin Trains can in many cases be printed at home.
See below for a quick guide to the 3 types of UK train ticket, Anytime, Off-Peak & Advance so you know what the choice means in the search results.
If you prefer, you can also buy from the one independent retailer that doesn’t charge a fee, at least if you use a debit card. Loco2 is particularly easy to understand – sometimes easier than train operators’ own sites.
There’s no need to find the ‘right’ operator’s site or to compare prices on different sites, as all train operator websites sell all tickets for all operators’ trains at exactly the same prices from exactly the same National Rail fares database.
Train operator websites don’t add a booking fee… Train operators’ own websites such as Virgin Trains (see above) don’t charge a booking fee or credit card fee. So buying from a train operator website is a no-brainer!
Or book at Ticketclever with a split ticket check & no booking fee. This new independent ticket retailer also doesn’t add a fee, and clicking their frugal option does a check to see if split tickets would be cheaper.
Other independent ticket retailers usually add a booking fee. There are various independent retailers including:
There’s no need to check them all as they all sell exactly the same tickets at exactly the same prices from exactly the same National Rail fares database used by the train operators’ websites. However, all these third-party retailers except www.ticketclever.com & www.loco2.com charge a small booking fee on top of the ticket price. For example www.trainline.com charges a 25p to £1.50 booking fee plus a 2% credit card fee, www.raileasy.com charges around £1 for debit cards or £2.61 for credit cards.
If you buy from www.ticketclever.com, www.loco2.com or any train company website such as www.virgintrains.co.uk you don’t pay any booking fee or credit or debit card fee. Same prices, same tickets, in fact the Virgin Trains website is powered by Trainline’s own system, just with Virgin branding instead of Trainline branding and without Trainline’s own booking fee & credit card fee!
Occasional extra discounts. A handful of train companies give a small extra discount on their own fares, for example Great Western have been giving a 10% discount off their own Advance fares on routes such as London to or from Bath, Bristol, Plymouth or Cardiff if you buy at www.gwr.com. www.southernrailway.com also offers discounts on its own routes including London to Brighton, Portsmouth, Eastbourne.
So it’s a good idea to pick the train operator site that www.nationalrail.co.uk suggests at the top of the list at the end of an enquiry. Some operators also allow you to choose a specific seat from a seat plan if you use their own site to book their own trains – including Virgin Trains West Coast at www.virgintrains.co.uk and Virgin Trains East Coast at www.virgintrainseastcoast.com.
The National Rail website. It’s often best to start with the national rail website, www.nationalrail.co.uk. This doesn’t sell tickets itself, but after answering your enquiry it will offer you a choice of all the ticket selling websites, including the train companies’ own sites, and the operator most relevant to your journey will be offered at the top of the list. Pick a train company site such as www.virgintrains.co.uk or www.tpeexpress.co.uk and you won’t pay a booking fee.
To buy train tickets by phone, there are a number of train operator telesales lines, all selling the same tickets at the same prices, for example, Virgin Trains on 08719 774 222.
Reservations normally open around 12 weeks before departure, you can’t buy tickets before then. But here’s a good idea: Sign up for a free email ‘ticket alert’ when bookings open for the specific route you want, allowing you to snap up those cheap fares as soon as they are released (It’s worth trying later in the day if you don’t immediately see any cheap deals available). To sign up for an alert, go to www.trainline.com, click Tools & Apps top right, then click Ticket alert. Some other train companies also offer this service.
A word of warning, if you don’t see any cheap Advance tickets 11-12 weeks out... If you’re too eager to book, there’s often a week or two around the 11-12 week point when relatively expensive Off-Peak & Anytime fares go on sale (as these have unlimited availability and can be sold before reservations open) but reservations have not opened so no cheap Advance fares appear. Don’t be fooled into thinking “It’s expensive”. Just wait a few days or a week or two until you see cheap Advance fares appear.
How to buy British train tickets online, if you live outside the UK
If you live in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, India etc, you can buy British train tickets online at genuine UK prices with no booking fee or credit card fee at www.virgintrains.co.uk.
Their site happily accepts non-UK credit cards, doesn’t charge any credit card or booking fee, you can select the option to collect tickets from the self-service ticket machines at most main British stations, including all the London ones, which is free of charge, or they’ll send tickets overseas to any address worldwide for a £7.50 fee (must be signed for).
Remember that bookings normally open 9-12 weeks before departure, you can’t book before then. Beware of agencies in your home country selling point-to-point train tickets at inflated prices. Also remember that you’ll need the same credit card used to make the booking to retrieve the ticket from the machines.
For short distances (for example, London to Greenwich, Oxford or Cambridge) just buy a ticket at the station & hop on the next train. For longer distances (for example, London to Bath, York or Edinburgh) you can also buy tickets on the day, as advance reservation is never compulsory on any British train so they can never ‘sell out’, but the big advantage in pre-booking is that on long-distance routes you’ll usually find cheap budget-airline-style ‘Advance’ fares.
If you have problems booking online, you can check train fares & availability at www.nationalrail.co.uk, then buy the same tickets at exactly the same prices via an international phone call, for example to Virgin Trains telesales on +44 870 9080 107.
Using this advice, one traveller avoided a $183 (£110) London-Edinburgh fare and found a cheap £25 ($40) train ticket instead!
How to find the cheapest British train tickets
Train fares have a reputation for being complicated, but the Quick guide to the 3 types of train ticket on this page will make it simple. If you book a cheap ‘no refunds, limited changes’ ticket in advance you can find some great fares, for example:
Need a Taxi at the other end?
Visit www.traintaxi.co.uk where you’ll find up to date phone numbers for taxi firms local to each UK railway station. An excellent site!
The Best British Train Ride – The Deerstalker
Easily the best British train ride is the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William – look for the train they call the Deerstalker.
Why? Imagine the convenience of a train that leaves rainy central London after work at 21:00 and arrives at Fort William in the glorious Scottish West Highlands at the foot of Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Britain) at 09:43 next morning.
Imagine a trip where you go to bed as the train speeds through familiar London suburbs at 80mph, then wake up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, streams and woods, sunlight streaming through the window, deer bounding away from the train, a diesel locomotive struggling to haul the two sleeping-cars and lounge car up the gradients and around the sharp curves of the scenic West Highland Line at 40 mph. Imagine a train that has almost ‘cruise train’ facilities – private sleeping compartments and a plush lounge – yet on which you can travel for as little as £85.
Fares start at around £85 each way including a light breakfast sharing a 2-berth room or £130 with a room to yourself. Passengers travelling alone can book a berth in a 2-berth room and share with another passenger of the same sex, if they don’t want to pay the 1st class single berth fare.
Anyone who lives in the South of England but who loves the Scottish Highlands should know about this train. If you fancy a weekend away in the heart of the Highlands, this train makes it possible!
To complete the experience, take the connecting train from Fort William to the end of the line at Mallaig, a small fishing port and ferry terminal for Skye. This is one of the most scenic sections of line anywhere in the UK. Or you could climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain – the main track up ‘the Ben’ starts just 15 minutes walk from Fort William station.
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