Operated by several different private companies, the train system in Britain is extensive and useful, though less than perfect. Some regional trains are old, and virtually all lines suffer from occasional delays, schedule changes, and periodic repair work that runs over schedule. All major cities and many small towns are served by trains, and despite the difficulties, rail travel is the most pleasant way to cover long distances.
On long-distance runs some rail lines have buffet cars; on others you can purchase snacks from a mobile snack cart. Most train companies now have "quiet cars" where mobile-phone use is forbidden (in theory if not always in practice).
Most rail lines have first-class and second-class cars. In virtually all cases, second class is perfectly comfortable. First class is quieter and less crowded, has better furnishings, and marginally larger seats. It also usually costs two to three times the price of second class, but not always, so it’s worth comparing prices. Most train operators offer a Weekend First ticket. Available on weekends and holidays, these tickets allow you to upgrade for as little as £5.
Fares and Schedules
National Rail Enquiries is a helpful, comprehensive, and free service that covers all the country's rail lines. National Rail will help you choose the best train, and then connect you with the right ticket office. You can also book tickets online. A similar service is offered by the Trainline, which provides online train information and ticket booking for all rail services. The Man in Seat 61, a website, offers objective information along with booking facilities.
Ticket prices are more expensive during rush hour, so plan accordingly. For long-distance travel, tickets cost more the longer you wait. Book in advance and tickets can be half of what you'd pay on the day of departure. A journey from London to Cardiff costs £18 if you buy a ticket two weeks in advance, but the fare rises to £42 if you wait until the day of your trip.
Ask the local tourist board about hotel and local transportation packages that include tickets to major events.
The Man in Seat 61. The Man in Seat 61 www.seat61.com.
National Rail Enquiries. National Rail Enquiries 0845/748–4950; 020/7278–5240; www.nationalrail.co.uk.
Trainline. Trainline 0871/244–1545; www.thetrainline.com.
National Rail Enquiries has information about rail passes such as All Line Rovers, which offers unlimited travel on National Rail services for a week, with some restrictions, for £478.
If you plan to travel a lot by train in England and Wales, consider purchasing a BritRail Pass, which gives unlimited travel over the entire British rail network and can save you money. If you don't plan to cover many miles, you may come out ahead by buying individual tickets. Buy your BritRail Pass before you leave home, as they are not sold in Britain. The passes are available from most U.S. travel agents or from ACP Rail International, Flight Centre, or VisitBritain. Note that Eurail Passes aren’t honored in Britain.
BritRail passes come in two basic varieties: the Consecutive Pass and the England FlexiPass. You can get a Consecutive Pass good for 3, 4, 8, 15, or 22 consecutive days or one month starting at $179 standard and $269 first-class for 3 days. The FlexiPass for 3, 4, 8, or 15 days of travel in two months costs $229 standard and $335 first class for 3 days. If you’re based in London, the BritRail London Plus pass offers access to southern England destinations such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, or Stratford-upon-Avon from $126 for standard class, $191 for First. Tickets can be used for 2 or 4 days of travel within 8 consecutive days or 7 days of travel within 15 consecutive days.
Don't assume that a rail pass guarantees you a seat on a particular train. You need to book seats even if you’re using a rail pass, especially on trains that may be crowded, particularly in summer on popular routes.
ACP Rail International. ACP Rail International 866/938–7245; 0207/953–4062; www.acprail.com.
BritRail. 866/938–7245; www.britrail.net.
Flight Centre. Flight Centre 0800/678–1134; 866/743–3648; www.flightcentre.co.uk.
VisitBritain. VisitBritain 020/8846–9000; www.visitbritainshop.com.
Reserving your ticket in advance is recommended. Even a reservation 24 hours in advance can provide a substantial discount. Look into cheap day returns if you plan to travel a round-trip in one day.
Short of flying, taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel is the fastest way to cross the English Channel. Travel time is 2¼ hours from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris's Gare du Nord. Trains also travel to Brussels (2 hours), Lille (1¼ hours), and Disneyland Paris (2¾ hours), and to Avignon (6 hours) on Saturday from July to September. On Fridays and Saturdays between mid-December and mid-April, ski trains go to Moûtiers (7 hours) and four other nearby Alpine ski resorts.
Early risers can easily take a day trip to Paris if time is short. Book ahead, as Eurostar ticket prices increase as the departure date approaches. If purchased in advance, round-trip tickets to Paris start at £69.
Channel Tunnel Car Transport
Eurotunnel. Eurotunnel 0844/335–3535; www.eurotunnel.com.
Channel Tunnel Passenger Service
Eurostar. Eurostar 0843/218–6186; 44-1233/617–575; www.eurostar.com.
Rail Europe. Rail Europe 800/622–8600; 0844/848–5848; www.raileurope.com.