24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Rail travel in the UK

If you are visiting other destinations in the UK, the rail network may be the most convenient way of getting around. The service is not perfect, but it is relatively reliable by global standards, and routes and timetables are generally easy to understand. Trains run frequently to most major towns and cities.

If you’re not familiar with the British railway system, perhaps the best introduction appears on the Man in Seat 61 website. Note the sections at the bottom explaining the difference between the two grades of service (‘First class’ and ‘Standard class’), and the advice on BritRail passes for international visitors intending to do a lot of travelling.

To plan a particular journey, start with the National Rail enquiries website. This allows you to find times and buy tickets in advance by card payment. The rail maps page has maps of the national and regional networks. Visitors with mobility difficulties should check the disabled passengers page.

The TripAdvisor guide to rail travel in the UK also has useful summaries of various quirks in the system.

Once you’re in the UK, you may find asking at a ticket office the easiest way to get information. Staff are often very helpful in explaining which options are the most appropriate for your needs. There are staffed ticket offices at all large railway stations.

Ticket prices

The most confusing feature of the system is its ticket pricing policy. Long journeys are often cheaper than shorter journeys on the same route, and a wide range of different prices may apply to the same journey depending on when it is booked. The arrangements are famously incomprehensible even to regular rail users who live in the UK: it has been suggested that only one man, a columnist for a specialist railway magazine, has ever actually understood the whole system.

Knowing at least the basics of the policy, however, can help you to travel much more cheaply, mainly by making advance bookings. There are some very detailed sources of information on how to do this, but here’s a summary.

Firstly, note that price differences are not significant for short journeys, such as the connection from Manchester Airport to the city centre. For these journeys, you can simply buy a ticket for immediate travel.

For longer journeys, you need to know about the different types of ticket:

Flexible tickets

These do not require you to specify a particular departure time in advance: you can travel on a variety of different services. There are two categories:

  • Anytime (otherwise known as full fare) tickets can be used on any train making the appropriate journey. They are very expensive for long journeys, because they allow travel on the busiest services used by early-morning and evening commuters.
  • Off-peak (also known as saver) tickets are much cheaper, and a better option for most visitors. You can use them on any service outside peak commuting hours. The exact permitted hours vary between operating companies and routes: you will need to ask at a station or call the helpline if you’re unsure.

For both categories, you can usually buy either a one-way ticket, called a single, or a round-trip ticket (to your destination and back), called a return.

Some very short journeys are only available as singles, but the assumption for longer trips is that almost all travellers will make the return journey. The complete return price is usually only slightly higher than the single price, so you should always buy a return if there is any chance at all you’ll be coming back the same way.

On some services there is a cheap day return, at a special lower price, for those travelling there and back the same day.

Advance tickets

Advance tickets are very different. You must select a specific train (route, day and time) to travel on, and will receive a seat reservation as part of your booking. Advance tickets are usually entirely non-transferable. If you miss the intended train, you have lost the service, even if it was not your fault. (One exception: if you miss a connection between advance ticketed journeys because of a delay which is the train company’s fault, you are usually allowed to take the next available train.)

The advantage of advance tickets is that they are sometimes much cheaper than the alternatives. Viewed online, the prices often appear to fluctuate randomly: this is because there are usually several differently priced quotas of tickets for the same service, and the system will offer you the cheapest which has not yet sold out.

All advance tickets are singles, but a pair of advance singles is often cheaper than the equivalent return.

You can buy advance tickets at any time from around 3 months before the day of travel to the evening before, in person at a railway station booking office or over the web.

You can also buy Anytime and Off-peak tickets in advance in the same way: they will retain their flexibility. Sometimes, you can get a seat reservation for a particular service with a flexible ticket, and ignore it if you want to take a different service. With an advance ticket, you must use the reserved seat.

Online sources such as the National Rail enquiries site will usually give the current cheapest price for the journey time you have chosen, whether this is for an Anytime, Off-peak or Advance ticket. It’s often possible to get a better price if you are willing to travel at a different time of day.