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Trains in the United Kingdom (Great Britain) can be confusing to navigate, especially if you're coming from abroad. The UK proudly boasts the oldest railway network in the world, however, its trains are also some of the most modern and efficient, which is great news if you're planning on exploring this great nation by rail.

The UK train network

The UK train network may seem a little complex if you're visiting for the first time. First, let us break down how the network works, and the different types of trains you can travel on in a bit more detail.

great britain train map

In the UK, the train network is run by National Rail. All train companies in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) operate under the guidance of National Rail who are primarily responsible for the administration of passenger bookings. National Rail was formed following the privatisation of the British Rail network in 1996, when the network split into 25 separate operating franchises to run trains across the country.   

Network Rail is a separate organization that oversees and maintains all rail infrastructure in the UK, from train tracks to major stations, and is also responsible for timetables and logistics to make sure everything runs smoothly. 

There are currently 28 national train companies that operate within the UK. Although this may seem confusing for visitors to the UK, finding the right train to get on is pretty simple 

So you don’t get confused, we recommend that you focus on the route you want to travel on rather than the train company to travel with if you are unsure. If you do prefer to travel with a particular train company, check out this UK train map to help you work out which companies operate the main routes across Great Britain. 

The main differences between train operating companies in the UK is the type of trains and onboard services. Some bigger train companies such as Virgin Trains and GWR have newer trains, and a full-service First Class section with WiFi and at-seat food and drink services on some of the more popular or longer routes like London to Edinburgh, whilst smaller commuter services like Thameslink have Standard and First Class sections, but only offer basic onboard services. 

To find out about all the different train operating companies who keep all the wheels on track in the UK, visit our train companies page.

Many of the major cities in the UK are connected by high-speed train routes, so there's no need to travel by plane. The UK's high-speed trains whisk you through the countryside from city centre to city centre in speed and style, saving you the hassle of getting to and from the airport, queuing at passport control, and paying for those average, over-priced sandwiches in the terminal.  

Trains that run along the HS1 (High Speed 1) line like the Eurostar from London to Paris, and the Southeastern services from London to Ashford International, run at speeds of up to 186 mph - that's about 300 km/h! The rest of the high-speed lines across the UK race along at speeds of up to 125 mph (around 200 km/h). Sure, this isn’t as fast as a plane, but taking the train is a great option if you plan on visiting the great cities the UK has to offer. You’ll get to see some awesome views out the window without the chance of turbulence.

If you're a night owl or want to save some time by travelling by night, then a sleeper train could be just the ticket. Sleeper trains are usually equipped with beds, washbasins, towels and air-conditioning, and have several travel classes onboard depending on your budget and requirements.  

One of the most popular sleeper trains in the UK is the Caledonian Sleeper, which runs an overnight service from London to Edinburgh, and also up to Aberdeen and Inverness (in Scotland). To search for Caledonian Sleeper services, check out our Sleepers Search page. 

The are other options for sleeper trains in the UK, such as the Night Riviera train from London to Penzance in Cornwall, however you can only book regular train services (non-sleepers) with us, which can usually get you there quicker than most of the overnight services.  

For more information on the sleeper services we sell, check out our Caledonian Sleeper page.

If you're flying in or out of some of the major cities in the UK, the great news is that most of the major airports have train stations inside or near the terminals to whisk you away to the city centre in comfort, so you won't need to worry about getting stuck in a traffic jam.  

For those arriving into London, chances are you're going to land at Heathrow or Gatwick Airport. The fastest way to get from Heathrow is by taking the Heathrow Express train, which will take you from the airport to London Paddington Station in as little as 15 minutes. Five out of the six airports in London have airports inside the terminals, except for Luton Airport which is a short bus transfer away from Luton Airport Parkway station. Other popular airports including Manchester Airport and Edinburgh Airport also have direct train services to the city centre.  

To see the full list of UK airports with train transfer services and to book online, check out our UK airports page. (Oh yeah, did we mention we also sell bus tickets tthe major airports too!?)

If time isn't a factor, or you’re a penny pincher travelling on a budget, we can take you where you want to go by bus instead. There's an extensive bus and coach network in the UK which makes reaching the most remote and unique locations possible, and we’ve partnered with the UK’s largest bus/coach operator National Express to take you there. 

Buses in the UK are usually cheaper than trains, but the journey time can be a little longer. As well as being an affordable option for travellers, most bus companies in the UK come equipped with all the modern onboard facilities that make bus journeys comfortable and hassle-free.  

If you’re keen to explore your options, search for UK bus tickets here.

UK train tickets explained

There are lots of different types of train tickets available in the UK, and it can be confusing to know which ones to buy, even for the locals. We've tried to make it as easy to understand as possible by filtering out the noise and leaving you with only clear, understandable information about how to get the best prices.

UK train ticket types

Ticket type Description
Advance tickets

If you know your exact travel dates, book Advance tickets ahead of schedule to reserve your seat.

Learn more about Advance train tickets.

Anytime tickets

Offers complete flexibility. Catch any applicable train at a time that suits you, although seats cannot be reserved and are not guaranteed.

Learn more about Anytime tickets.

Off-Peak tickets

Travel at less busy times and benefit from reduced fares.

Read more on Off-Peak tickets.

Super Off-Peak tickets Like Off-Peak tickets but only available at the very quietest times of the day. Prices tend to be cheaper too.
GroupSave tickets

Less of a ticket type, more of a discount. Activate GroupSave by buying train tickets for a group of three to nine people.

Learn more about GroupSave train tickets.

Peak vs. Off-Peak travel

If you've got flexible travel plans, then travelling by train in Off-Peak times may save you some money. The main difference between Peak and Off-Peak tickets are all about what time(s) during the day you travel. Peak times vary from train operator to train operator but generally, they tend to be in the mornings and late afternoon times during busy commuting times on weekdays. Off-Peak tickets can usually be found outside of these times, such as in the middle of the day or later at night on weekdays, and on weekends and public holidays (known as bank holidays in the UK).

For more information, check out our Off-Peak train times and tickets page.

 

Flexible tickets

If you're a nomad who doesn't like to be tied down by exact travel dates and times, you can purchase flexible tickets to allow you to travel at any point of the day. In the UK they are normally called Anytime tickets (either Anytime Day or standard Anytime). You can get flexible tickets for travel on a certain date or ones that cover travel for multiple dates. They're usually a tad more expensive than fixed time tickets because they allow you to travel during Peak periods.

Note that if you book a flexible ticket and travel on a train without a reserved seat, you can only sit in a seat if it hasn’t been reserved by another passenger (as noted by a digital display above the window, or a printed paper reserved ticket attached to the chair).

One-way or return options

Like with airline travel, you have the option to book either one-way or a return ticket. If you're travelling out of town for a day trip, or you're returning to the same destination within a month by train, you can usually buy a ticket that is cheaper than two single one-way trips by selecting the return option. Selecting the Day Return (Anytime Day Return, Off-Peak Day Return etc.) option will allow you to take a trip to and from the same destinations in the same day, or a standard Return (Anytime Return, Off-Peak Return etc.) will normally allow you to travel back on your return journey within one calendar month of the date shown on your ticket.

Find out about Return train tickets in the UK. 

 

Standard or First Class

If you're looking for the most affordable train travel options, a standard ticket could be what you're after. Alternatively, if you're coming to the UK for a well-earned break, you can treat yourself and upgrade to a First Class ticket. Most train companies in the UK offer First Class tickets that come with bigger tables and extra legroom, with some including a meal and free WiFi access. First Class facilities depend on the route and the train company you're travelling with and are sometimes subject to availability.

Discover more about the benefits of First Class train tickets.

 

Connections to inner-city public transport

In train stations in the many big cities in the UK, you'll find convenient bus, tram and subway connections to get you to your hotel or to catch another train if you're only passing through.

In London for instance, if you need to connect to the subway system (known as London Underground, or "The Tube"), you can to buy a Visitor Oyster Card online here or at a staffed station when you arrive.

UK train times and schedules

Whether you're going from London to Edinburgh by train or trying to get to an airport from a city centre, we'll show you live train times and schedules 12 weeks in advance for any National Rail journey in the UK, all in real time.

Get live train times in our app

By downloading our app, not only do you have your tickets in the palm of your hand, you also get access to live train times. If everything is running smoothly with your train, or it's delayed for some reason, you'll be the first to know. What's more – app users get platform information before those waiting by the departure boards.

Download our app

 

Live updates at the station

If you don't have our app, you'll find electronic departure boards in most stations' entrance halls, showing live updates, train times and platform information. All travel information will also be announced on a tannoy (loudspeaker) system in English.

How to buy UK train tickets

Buying your UK train tickets online or on our app is the quickest way to get onboard. To speed up the process we've also got Mobile Ticket and eticket options, or have a look at the other collection methods below.

How to find cheap train tickets

If you're after cheap UK train tickets, check out the hints below and see how you could bag yourself a bargain. We'll even highlight the cheapest prices!

UK train pass (BritRail)

Investing in a BritRail Pass can be a great way of taking your time and travelling at your own pace. By buying a BritRail pass, it could prove to be money well spent too. They start at £116* for three days use and give you an affordable and flexible way to explore the UK. If you're planning on visiting more than one country in the UK during your trip, a BritRail Pass might be better than buying individual tickets.

Learn more about BritRail Passes

*Pricing correct as at 20th June 2018 and are subject to change without notice. All post-sale care and communications will be with the third party booking company.

Travel Britain by train

There are loads of amazing places you can visit by train in Great Britain, and the interconnected rail network makes travelling cross-country quick and easy. To find some inspiration on where to go, check out these country highlights below.

England

London to Manchester / Oxford to Birmingham

Discover the length and breadth of England. From coastal counties such as Cornwall and Devon, to cosmopolitan hotspots like London and Liverpool, to the many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) that reside up and down the nation, see all England has to offer by rail.

Discover trains in England.

Scotland

Glasgow to Edinburgh / Inverness to Aberdeen

Explore the land of bagpipes, Braveheart, whisky and tartan by train. From crossing the epic Firth of Forth bridge to jumping on the magical Harry Potter train, Scotland's beauty can be seen from the comfort of your cabin. Benefit from smooth cross-country connections like Edinburgh to London in just 4 hours.

Discover trains in Scotland.

Wales

Cardiff to Swansea / Newport to Bangor

Feel the pride of a nation by taking inspiring train journeys in Wales. Whether you're into rugby, nature or castles, Wales has something on offer for everyone. From Cardiff, the capital and most diverse city, to the small towns and villages that make up Wales, go by train to get the most of this gem of a country.

Discover trains in Wales.

Ireland

Rail and Sail (trains to Ireland)

If you're off to anywhere in Ireland for a short city break or you just want to know why the Irish have all the luck, we'll find the best way get you there by land and sea. Take the scenic route and join up your train journey with the ferry to Dublin or Belfast with Rail and Sail package today.

Find out more about Rail & Sail.

UK city breaks by train

If you're travelling from abroad, don't just stick to the London bubble – To find the true beauty of Great Britain, you need to get out and explore! Check out these incredible UK destinations you can reach by train.

Good to know

If you haven't already learnt enough, we've added these extra handy tips and FAQs to make your life just that little bit sweeter.

As we've mentioned before, it all depends on what your travel plans look like. If you're in the UK and only want to go from say, London to Bath and back again, then a return ticket could be the best option. If you're here for a while and want to see as many cities and countries as you can, then getting a UK train pass, known as the BritRail Pass may be your best bet.

You don't need a passport if you're travelling between England, Scotland and Wales by train, but it's always advisable to carry it around with you as a form of identification. If you're catching the Eurostar train over to France and beyond, then you'll definitely need your passport.

On longer or more popular routes, you can usually reserve a seat if you book a ticket for a fixed time and request a seat allocation when you book. You can't choose your exact seat like you can when booking a plane ticket, but you can request services like an aisle or window seat, forward or rear-facing seat, a seat in the quiet carriage, a table seat, or a seat near a toilet. Please note that these services are requested, but can never be guaranteed. If a seat booking is available, you will see it in your basket on the payment screen on our site I.e. Coach B, seat 48 (Window).

If you book a flexible ticket, you may be given the option to reserve a seat and travel time for your outbound journey, but you won't be guaranteed a reserved seat if you don't travel on the train you've booked the ticket for. Many trains have unreserved sections allocated, so you'll need to board the train and walk through the carriages to look for a seat without a printed ticket slip (usually found attached to the headrest). Some seats may only be reserved for a smaller portion of the journey, so if there's a printed slip on the seat and nobody is sitting in it, you maybe be able to sit there for some of the journey if the passenger is getting on at a later stop.

Children under the age of five can travel for free with a fare-paying adult however it doesn’t always mean they're guaranteed a seat. On busy trains, infants may have to travel on the lap of the adult to make room for other passengers. For 5-15 year old's, there are half-priced tickets available on selected routes but a proof of age may be required when you travel. Be sure to select the "child" option in the journey planner when you're booking.

You can travel with three items of luggage per person on most UK trains. This usually means you can take two suitcases and a piece of hand luggage. Additional articles such as surfboards and bicycles may be taken for a fee and are subject to space availability. For peace of mind, it's best to contact the train company ahead to make sure you can travel with these extra items.

Yes. In some major UK train stations there are places where you can store your luggage. While some smaller stations don't have this facility, to find out which stations have luggage storage facilities, visit our UK train stations page.

You can only break your journey provided you haven't bought an Advance ticket. If you're going from say, Glasgow to Mallaig, one of your calling points would be Fort William. At this station, or any others along the way, you'd be free to get off and explore for a few hours. After that, simply hop on the next available train and continue on your way.

For more information visit the National Rail Conditions of Travel page.

Train operating companies in the UK

There are 28 train operating companies (TOCs) across the National Rail network in the UK. But don't worry, together with the TOCs, we work to make your journey as smooth as possible. Just let us know where you're going to and we'll do the rest. To see all UK TOCs, visit our UK train companies page.

Travelling to Europe from the UK

A major advantage of visiting the UK is that you're within easy reach of other parts of Europe by train. Fancy a spur of the moment day trip to Amsterdam or to watch the closing stages of the Tour de France in Paris? Discover trains in Europe.