The Complete Guide To UK Train Travel

The Complete Guide To UK Train Travel

Travelling by train in the UK is a great way to get out of your neighbourhood and see more of the country. Whether you’ve lived here your whole life or are still getting to know your adopted country, exploring the UK by train helps you discover new places and meet new people.

Whether you want a beach holiday, cultural trip, or a visit to the countryside, there are lots of places to explore by train. You can even cross the channel and visit France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

In this guide to UK train travel, you’ll learn all the basics of travelling by train, so you can feel confident getting out of the city and exploring the UK.

Travelling within the UK by train

All cities and large towns have a train station, as well as most smaller towns and even lots of villages. So it’s possible to travel almost anywhere by train (with the exception of highly rural areas, such as the Scottish Highlands).

This map shows every station on the UK rail network (pdf — click to zoom):

Major cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow have dozens of connections out to other areas. Here are ten direct routes to popular cities, along with their estimated journey times:

  • London to Brighton (1 hour)
  • London to Manchester (2 hours)
  • London to Edinburgh (4.5 hours)
  • London to Penzance (5 hours)
  • Birmingham to Manchester (1.5 hours)
  • Birmingham to Cardiff (2 hours)
  • Manchester to Liverpool (1 hour)
  • Manchester to Leeds (1 hour)
  • Newcastle to Manchester (2.5 hours)
  • Edinburgh to Glasgow (1.5 hours)

Travelling to Europe by train

As well as travelling within the UK, you can reach Europe via the Eurostar — a train that goes through the Channel Tunnel to mainland Europe.

From London, you can travel directly to:

  • Paris (2.5 hours)
  • Brussels (2 hours)
  • Amsterdam (4 hours)

Prices are competitive and train emissions are far lower than plane travel, so this is a great alternative to flying if you want to reach the continent from the UK.

How to check train times

There are several ways to check train times:

  • Check online — The National Rail website and Trainline app often have the most up to date timetables.
  • Check boards at the station — All major stations (and most minor ones) have boards that display up-to-date train times. Be aware that these are only usually in English (and Welsh at stations in Wales).

Train times can change at short notice, so make sure you arrive with plenty of time to catch your train. Smaller stations don’t always have boards, so bring your smartphone to check times online.

Engineering, maintenance, and strike action can all impact UK train times. So it’s important to check your scheduled train is still running before you arrive at the station.

What do you need for UK train travel?

Tickets are essential for travelling by train in the UK. This can be a digital ticket (usually a QR code) or paper ticket (usually issued by a ticket machine or at a manned ticket desk).

If you have an advance ticket, your ticket might come in two parts: your seat reservation and your valid travel ticket. Your ticket may not be valid unless you have both parts, so keep all your issued documents handy, just in case.

If you buy a discounted ticket with a railcard, you’ll also need to bring your railcard with you.

You don’t need to validate your train ticket in the UK, though you’ll need it to get through the barrier at most major stations. You may also need to show it to train staff, so keep all your tickets and travel documents with you until you’ve completed your journey.

UK train ticket types

Several types of train ticket are available in the UK, including:

  • Advance tickets: These tickets are available up to 10 minutes before departure, or until they sell out, whichever comes first. Advance tickets are cheaper than regular tickets, but they’re only valid for a specific train.
  • Off-peak tickets: Off-peak means you can’t travel at peak times. Peak times are usually 6.30am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm on weekdays. Off-peak tickets are usually cheaper than peak time tickets, and you can travel on any train outside these peak hours.
  • Anytime tickets: Anytime tickets allow you to travel on any train on your permitted route, regardless of time. Seat reservations are only valid for the specific train you book.
  • First-class tickets: First-class tickets allow you to travel in premium coaches. These typically offer more space, reclining seats, and complimentary food and drink. They are more expensive than standard tickets.

What does “Any Permitted Route” mean?

Some train tickets state that you can travel on any permitted route. This often happens if different train services operate between your starting and destination stations.

Any permitted route means you can travel on any train between those stations.

Some services apply different prices to similar routes. In this case, your ticket might state that you can only travel on one permitted service. If you see this, make sure you travel on the right service, or your ticket might be invalid.

How to buy train tickets in the UK

You can buy a train ticket in one of the following ways:

  • Buy online via a website (National Rail is your best bet, as they don’t charge booking fees)
  • Buy online via an app
  • Buy from a ticket machine at the station
  • Buy from a manned ticket desk at the station

Buying online is the most popular way to get a train ticket. You can access the QR code via the app, or download your ticket(s) to your device.

If you buy a ticket at the station, you’ll be given a paper ticket. Make sure to keep hold of this throughout the whole journey.

How much does it cost to travel by train in the UK?

It’s more expensive to travel by train in the UK than in many other countries. Prices depend on when you’re travelling, journey distance, when you book, whether you have a railcard, and many other factors.

Here’s a cost comparison chart for a single journey between London and Edinburgh on a Saturday at 10am, when booking via the National Rail website:

  • Booking on the day: £87.00
  • Booking 6 weeks ahead: £76.00
  • Booking on the day with a 16-25 railcard: £57.40
  • Booking 6 weeks ahead with a 16-25 railcard: £52.80

Guide to UK railcards

Depending on how often you plan to travel in the UK, it may be worth investing in a railcard. Railcards give you discounted train fares, though they’re only available for certain groups.

Railcards currently available include:

  • 16-17 Saver — Gives people aged 16 and 17 up to 50% off rail fares.
  • 16-25 Railcard — Gives people aged 16-25 (plus mature students in full-time education) up to a third off rail fares.
  • 26-30 Railcard — A digital-only railcard that gives those aged 26-30 up to a third off rail fares.
  • Disabled Persons Railcard — Gives eligible people with disabilities up to a third off rail fares.
  • Family & Friends Railcard — Up to four adults get a third off, and up to four children (aged 5 to 15) get 60% off rail fares.
  • Network Railcard — Gives up to four adults and up to four children a third off rail fares in South East England.
  • Senior Railcard — Gives those aged 60+ a 33% discount on off-peak fares.
  • Two Together Railcard — Gives you and a named friend, partner, or family member one-third off rail fares whenever you travel together.
  • Veterans Railcard — Gives those who have served in the UK armed forces one-third off rail fares.

Most railcards cost £30 for one year (the Disabled Persons railcard costs £20). You can often get a discounted price for a three-year railcard.

You don’t have to be a UK citizen to get a railcard. Even visitors can buy one, as long as you have a valid passport. Buy your railcard here.

How to find cheap rail fares

Train travel costs can rack up — so here are some tips for keeping UK train travel costs down:

  • Book in advance where possible — Cheaper fares are usually available if you book earlier.
  • Use a railcard — If you’re eligible, consider picking up a railcard. For longer journeys, you might find you recoup the costs in just one trip.
  • Buy off-peak tickets — Try to avoid travelling at peak times if you can.
  • Take the scenic route — If you’re not in a rush, longer, slower journeys can be cheaper than direct or super-fast routes.
  • Sign up for ticket alerts — Sites like Trainline allow you to sign up for email alerts when advance tickets become available for specific journeys.
  • Try split ticketing — Sites like Split My Fare split your journey up into several different legs to find the cheapest possible price.

What happens if my train is cancelled or delayed?

Train cancellations and delays are relatively common in the UK. So it’s important to be prepared.

If your train is cancelled, you can travel on the next train heading to your destination, even if you have an advance ticket. Be aware that permitted route rules might still apply.

This doesn’t apply to delayed trains. If you have an advance ticket, you’ll need to wait for your delayed train to arrive and travel on this specific train. Alternatively, you can buy a ticket for another train.

If your train is delayed, the Delay Repay scheme can help you get some or even all of your money back, depending on the length of the delay. Each train service has their own Delay Repay procedure, so visit their website to find out more.

Station staff can help you if your train is delayed or cancelled and you need advice on what to do next.

Is it safe to travel by train in the UK?

Yes, it’s generally safe to travel by train in the UK. This is a popular way to travel, so there are usually staff available to help you and plenty of other people around.

If you do feel unsafe or uneasy on the train, you can contact the British Transport Police by texting 61016, or download the Railway Guardian app.

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