The railway system in Britain was nationalized in 1948 and re-privatized in 1997. Now there are four main companies and several smaller ones; the infrastructure is maintained by a public entity called Network Rail. Somehow, privatization has not delivered significant competition because the four large companies serve mostly non-overlapping areas, and British rail travel is the most expensive in Europe. However, if there are rails where you’re going, travel is frequent, reliable, and fairly comfortable.
Visitors to Europe often consider buying a Railpass, which is available only outside the area for which it is valid. The UK railpass comes in two varieties: one for a certain number of days in a month, and the other for a certain number of consecutive days. They do offer flexibility, but they’re not cheap and not refundable if you don’t use all the days you planned. We did buy a London Plus pass on our last visit. Shop for the best price; these are sold by vendors and the price does vary somewhat.
Once our schedule firmed up, I considered buying a Railpass and having someone at home send it on to us here in Britain (mail takes about a week). But our frequent movement made having a reliable UK address impossible.
budget travel tip: A better solution is railcards. There are two of interest: the Two Together, which lets two people over age 16 travel together at 30 to 50% discount; and if you’re over 60, a Senior card, which does the same thing for an individual, but doesn’t require a photo. For couples, I recommend the Two Together as you only have to pay one £30 railcard fee per year. You will need passport sized photos; it’s a good idea to bring a few extra on a long trip. $10 at Costco for four, I think. Or get them here; UK “passport size” are smaller than US size, and the nice clerk at Bridgwater station trimmed ours down for us. Larger train stations have automated photo kiosks that will make them. If you have a UK address you can order railcards online, although you’ll need digital files of your photos for the Two Together; otherwise just visit a train station during non-busy time and they’ll make it for you.
(Linda inserted a couple of vintage railroad train photographs that she took at the York railroad Museum to brighten up this post)
Secondly, on long distance trains, you can book and buy online in advance. These non-refundable tickets can save you an additional 50% depending on how early you buy, and for what time of day. Using both discounts, Linda and I traveled from Somerset to York (5 hours of train ride, leaving Saturday morning) for a total of £72 each. And that was First Class from Bristol to York; I found a train where the upgrade from Standard was only £9; usually it’s about 50%. We used this to go from York to Edinburgh, and will definitely do it again from Cambridge to Truro on August 6.
You can still buy tickets on the day of travel. They’re more expensive of course, but then you have no risk of having to change your plans and buy new tickets. Don’t buy these full-fare tickets in advance; they’re only valid on day of purchase. You still get the railcard discount. And on at least Cross-Country trains, you can buy Advance Purchase tickets up to 15 minutes before departure, but I’ll bet the savings isn’t much.
First Class, by the way, mostly gets you more room. There are three seats across instead of four, and there is more space between rows of seats. There are power outlets, and Wifi is free, whereas there is a charge in Standard. There are free beverages and snacks, and on weekdays there is some free food. There is an attendant who will fetch food and alcoholic drinks from the vendor somewhere else on the train.
On weekends, but not with advance purchase tickets, you can upgrade to First Class on the train if there’s room. I don’t think anyone did this on our trip.
Ticket prices vary, just like airline prices. Each of the biggies promises lowest price on their website, but you can book any train in the UK on the website of any railway, and there are 28 of them. When you do this, you’ll be presented with the available trains around your requested time. The prices will vary by as much as 3-to-1, depending on how booked it already is, or is expected to be. And the premium for First Class will vary too, from almost nothing to over 100%. Have fun choosing! Mid-day travel seems to be the cheapest.
Having now experienced both First (Bristol to York) and Standard (York to Edinburgh) classes, I have to admit that when you’re traveling with three big bags and two backpacks, First Class is more likely to have room for all of that in the car. In Standard, the backpacks fit in the overhead rack, the small suitcase can go under you feet for a couple of hours, but there won’t be room for the big bags unless you get on at the origination point. Our train came from London and it was packed; the bags stood in the vestibule (no one complained) until the last hour, because the tiny luggage storage area was full. A First-class car is likely to have at least a couple of empty seats, and fewer people competing for slightly more bag storage.