For long-distance travel around England, trains are generally faster and more comfortable than coaches but are nearly always much more expensive. The English like to moan about their trains, but around 85% run on time. The other 15% that get delayed or cancelled mostly impact commuter services rather than long-distance journeys. The main headache these days is the cost – if you leave booking your ticket to the last minute, fares can be extremely high, so it's always worth booking as far in advance as you can.
About 20 different companies operate train services in England, while Network Rail operates tracks and stations. For some passengers this system can be confusing at first, but information and ticket-buying services are mostly centralised. If you have to change trains, or use two or more train operators, you still buy one ticket – valid for the whole journey. The main railcards and passes are also accepted by all train operators.
Where more than one train operator services the same route, eg York to Newcastle, a ticket purchased from one company may not be valid on trains run by another. So if you miss the train you originally booked, it's worth checking which later services your ticket will be valid for.
Your first stop should be National Rail Enquiries (www.nationalrail.co.uk), the nationwide timetable and fare information service. Its website advertises special offers and has real-time links to station departure boards and downloadable maps of the rail network.
There are two classes of rail travel: first and standard. First class costs around 50% more than standard fare (up to double at busy periods) and gets you bigger seats, more legroom, and usually a more peaceful businesslike atmosphere, plus extras such as complimentary drinks and newspapers. At weekends some train operators offer 'upgrades' to 1st class for an extra £5 to £25 on top of your standard-class fare, payable on the spot.
If the train doesn't get you all the way to your destination, you can add a PlusBus (www.plusbus.info) supplement when making your reservation to validate your train ticket for onward travel by bus. This is more convenient, and usually cheaper, than buying a separate bus ticket.
Once you've found the journey you need on the National Rail Enquiries website, links take you to the relevant train operator to buy the ticket. This can be mailed to you (UK addresses only) or collected at the station on the day of travel from automatic machines. There’s usually no booking fee on top of the ticket price.
You can also use a centralised ticketing service to buy your train ticket. These cover all train services in a single site, and add a small booking fee on top of every ticket price. The main players include the following:
Rail Easy (www.raileasy.co.uk)
Train Line (www.thetrainline.com)
To use operator or centralised ticketing websites, you always have to state a preferred time and day of travel, even if you don't mind when you go, but you can change it as you go through the process, and with a little delving around you can find some real bargains.
You can also buy train tickets on the spot at stations, which is fine for short journeys (under about 50 miles), but discount tickets for longer trips are usually not available and these must be bought in advance by phone or online.
Mobile train tickets are gradually becoming more common across the network, but it's a slow process – for now printed tickets are still the norm.
For longer journeys, on-the-spot fares are usually available, but for long-distance travel, tickets are much, much cheaper if bought in advance. You can also save if you travel off-peak. Advance purchase usually gets a reserved seat, too.
Whichever operator you travel with and wherever you buy tickets, these are the three main fare types:
Anytime Buy any time, travel any time – always the most expensive option.
Off-peak Travel at off-peak times (what constitutes off-peak depends on the journey). Can be bought at any time up to the point of travel.
Advance These tickets can only be purchased in advance, and travel is only permitted on specific trains. This is usually the cheapest option, as long as you're happy with the restrictions. Note that the cheapest fares are nonrefundable, so if you miss your train you'll have to buy a new ticket.
For an idea of the price difference, an Anytime single ticket from London to York will cost £127 or more, an Off-peak around £56 to £62, with an Advance around £44 to £55, and possibly less if you book early enough or don't mind arriving at midnight.
Local train passes usually cover rail networks around a city (many include bus travel, too).
If you're concentrating your travels on southeast England (eg London to Dover, Weymouth, Cambridge or Oxford), a Network Railcard (www.network-railcard.co.uk) covers up to four adults and up to four children travelling together outside peak times (£30 per year).
If you’re staying in England for a while, passes known as Railcards (www.railcard.co.uk) are available:
16-25 Railcard For those aged 16 to 25, or a full-time UK student.
Family & Friends Railcard Covers up to four adults and four children travelling together.
Two Together Railcard For two specified people travelling together.
Senior Railcard For anyone aged over 60.
Disabled Persons Railcard For people with registered disabilities.
Railcards cost £30 (valid for one year, available from major stations or online) and get a 33% discount on most train fares, except those already heavily discounted. With the Family card, adults get 33% and children get 60% discounts, so the fee is easily repaid in a couple of journeys.
A digital-only 25-30 Railcard was being trialled at the time of research; find out the latest at www.26-30railcard.co.uk.
For countrywide travel, BritRail (www.britrail.net) passes are available for visitors from overseas. They must be bought in your country of origin (not in England) from a specialist travel agency. Available in different versions (eg England only; all Britain; UK and the Republic of Ireland) for periods from four to 30 days.