Travel Advice

A quick guide to travelling Britain by rail

This post has been inspired by a BBC documentary, the Great British Railway Journeys which follows host, Michael Portillo, as he travels around this windy isle using the original Bradshaw’s Guides to rail travel during Victorian Britain.

I am not a ‘train nerd’. I don’t know anything about models of trains nor their historical designs. I am however a big fan of rail travel, and since moving to Europe, from Germany to Britain, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to enjoy train travel, going to and from cities, between countries and between offices for work.

Book. Check. Coffee. Check. Ticket. Check. Ready for my rail journey!
Book. Check. Coffee. Check. Ticket. Check. Ready for my rail journey!

The best way to see the countryside of Britain is by rail, and despite the many issues with strikes and sometimes complex connections, in comparison to the hassle of driving and the expense of flying, it is certainly the most pleasant way to get around.

Trains In And Around London

Most people come in to Britain through London. It is the country’s biggest air hub and is also one of the most visited, filmed and most ‘Googled for’ city in the world.

And trains in and around London, by default, has the most extensive network.

London-tube-station_MorgueFile_By JohnEdwards

The main form of train you’ll use is the iconic Tube. The extensive network pretty much take you anywhere in the city centre and to all the attractions.

Warning: the day before you travel you should check the Transport for London website for any disruptions to the network, especially on weekends when maintenance work might be performed, or any planned strikes that might make your journey difficult.

Other than the Tube, various terminal stations will have trains that goes a little beyond the city borders giving you plenty of options for day trips out of London, or travelling on to the rest of the country.



Navigating The Rail Network

Britain is not a big place, and you can pretty much take the train to almost anywhere in the country in less than half a day.

It can be confusing for the first time travellers however, when it comes to navigating the network. When you purchase a ticket it may be routed differently to what you had originally imagined, so take notice when purchasing.

To start your planning, check the maps available for the UK’s National Rail services. Have a brief idea of where you want to go and how you might want to get there before looking at your ticketing options.

If travelling from London, you’ll need to head to one of the many terminal stations around the city’s border. We are talking about Kings Cross, Euston, Paddington, Waterloo, Liverpool Street, Victoria, Marylebone, Fenchurch Street and other smaller terminals.

KingsCrossStation_MorgueFile_By fractl
Kings Cross Station, one of the major hubs for rail travel in Britain

Each station specialises in a direction. Waterloo for example, is the terminal for South West trains, which services south west areas of Greater London and beyond. However, for direct south coast of England, you will have to depart from Victoria, not Waterloo. Trains from these two stations join at Clapham Junction, so if you happen to be staying around there, you have a good choice of trains to catch :)

Selecting which train station to depart from can affect the ‘recommended route’ and pricing, so consult a map if you are not sure.


Ticketing For Your Trips

When you first arrive make sure you get an Oyster card, it is cheaper than buying paper tickets and will make your life easier around the city. These can be purchased at ticket machines at any of the Tube stations and at the end of your trip you are able to get the card deposit and remaining credit refunded, conveniently all through the machines.

(c) Transport for London
Image (c) Transport for London

Load the card and pay as you go. Each time you exit a gate, the screen on the gates will tell you how much you’ve used and how much you have left on your card for you to keep track. To top up, simply hold the card against the big yellow circle on the ticket machines, it’ll show you the remaining credit and give you options to top up. After you’ve paid the money, make sure you hold the Oyster card against the yellow circle again to load the credit onto the card!

If you are going to stay a few days, load travel cards onto your Oyster card, which can be 1 day, 3 days or 7 days for unlimited travel wherever the card is accepted (tubes, trains, buses and some ferries).

For journeys on the rail network, it is always advisable to book early, before the same trip could cost you as much as £100 more if you purchase on the day of travel, compared to if you are able to book about 3 days ahead. Some of the cheaper fares are only available online as well, and you get the benefit of looking at the routing before you purchase the tickets. So it’s worth to do a bit of research before your trip.

When you have booked online, you can get your tickets printed at a ticket machine at a specified station. You’ll need a reference code, and the credit card you paid with to pick up the tickets.

Keep all the tickets until the very end of your journey. Some stations require the tickets for entry, then the tickets will be checked on the trains and some stations will require the tickets for exit.



Steam Rail Journeys

While I am not a train nerd, I am very much fascinated by steam trains and there are plenty of these special trips that you can take in Britain to experience the British countryside, at the same time, to enjoy a ride on an old steam train.

steam-train_MorgueFile_By Jusben

Of course, you won’t be able to catch the steam with your regular commuter trains, so the only way to enjoy a bit of this classic train experience is to join a tour. Simply google ‘steam train journeys in the UK’ and you’ll get a list of operators that runs these train trips throughout the country.


Have you travelled extensively by train? Got any more tips to add? Comment below!



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