Train Travel in the UK: A Foreigner’s Perspective
Although British people love to complain about the state of their railways, my impressions about train travel in the UK were mostly positive.
Impressions of UK train travel
I just returned from a two-week overland trip from Romania to Scotland and back again by train.
Earlier this summer, I spent another full week in England travelling around the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire by train.
Although I have visited the UK quite a few times before, these two trips were the first ones in which I could experience the British railways as the train was my primary mode of transport.
British people love to complain about the state of their railways – and although some complaints are justified there is also so much to like about train travel in the UK.
These are my main impressions of train travel in the UK:
1. Train stations across the UK are gorgeous
If there is one single aspect about UK train travel that surprised me most it has to be the gorgeous railway stations you can find all over the country.
When most people talk about beautiful British train stations they quite rightly point at the country’s amazing railway cathedrals like the London terminals of St. Pancras and Paddington.
However, it’s the smaller British train stations that impressed me most.
Some of these stations such as Knaresborough or Grange-over-Sands are downright idyllic and can only be described as absolutely stunning.
Many of the smaller stations even feature cosy tea rooms or pubs, making a short wait a pleasant affair.
Sure, some stations such as London Euston aren’t exactly pretty, but I found even some of the uglier stations to be extremely well kept.
Take for example the station of Harrogate in Yorkshire, which certainly isn’t the prettiest station it being located next to some ugly high-rise buildings.
However, even this station was brightened up with flower pots and was well kept and clean.
Compare that to many train stations on the continent where mountains of rubbish piles up and there is graffiti everywhere.
2. UK train travel looked complicated at first sight
At first sight, train travel in the UK looked quite complicated to me as a foreigner.
In most other European countries, there is either a single national railway company or just a few smaller private companies next to the big national company.
This is of course different in the UK as there are over 20 or so different railway companies operating trains all over the country.
However, all these train operators fall under the umbrella of National Rail, so there is some harmonisation (for example when it comes to ticketing).
In my experience, looking up schedules, booking tickets, reserving seats and travelling by train was all as straightforward as can be.
3. The on-board service is surprisingly good
In most European countries, a first class train ticket doesn’t come with any additional perks.
What you pay for is basically a bigger, more comfortable seat in a more quiet part of the train.
The situation in the UK is different as many railway companies do offer complimentary food and drinks on their trains when travelling in first class.
Avanti West Coast and LNER are the pick of the bunch in this regard as both offer quality hot meals and free-flowing drinks in first class, including beer, wine and strong alcohol.
4. The UK has two great sleeper trains
On my travels across the UK I had the pleasure to take two sleeper trains: The Caledonian Sleeper from London to Scotland and the Night Riviera sleeper train from London to Cornwall.
Although it is quite expensive, the Caledonian Sleeper has to be one of the railway highlights of the UK.
It’s a phenomenal train service in each and every aspect, from the beautifully furnished compartments to the quality dining car and the amazing Scottish scenery from the window.
The Night Riviera sleeper train run by Great Western Railway (GRW) deserves a special mention too it being a convenient and comfortable service with some of the friendliest employees I have encountered in the UK.
5. Train travel in the UK can be expensive, but..
During my travels in the UK I heard lots of Brits complain about the price of train tickets.
Indeed, you occasionally read stories in British newspaper how it’s cheaper to fly from Newcastle to London via Majorca than it is to take a direct train!
Although last-minute tickets can be expensive, train travel in the UK is perfectly affordable if you book in advance, use a less premium service or try split ticketing.
Besides, it’s not that train travel is so much cheaper on the continent.
On the contrary, I’m sure British people will be shocked to see how expensive some last-minute train bookings can be in countries like Germany, Sweden or Norway!
6. A rail pass can be excellent value in the UK
Foreign visitors who plan to travel extensively through the UK should also consider buying a rail pass such as Interrail (for European citizens) or Eurail (for those living outside of Europe).
Due to the high last-minute fares and the UK not having obligatory seat reservations, such rail passes are extremely good value in the UK as they give you full flexibility, allowing you to basically hop on any train you want!
7. Platforms are announced late
As someone who is used to travel a lot by train in continental Europe, it surprised me to see how late platforms are announced at many UK train stations.
When standing in a big London terminus such as Euston or King’s Cross, you will see hundreds of travellers all staring at the departure screens waiting for the moment the platform number of their train is finally announced.
Sometimes, the platform number is only announced a few minutes before departure, leading to a mad rush to the train.
A handy tool when travelling by train through the UK is the website Realtime Trains, which announces platform numbers well before they are posted on the station departure boards.
8. Trains were on time
This might surprise British readers, but I have nothing but good things to say about the reliability and punctuality of trains in the UK.
I travelled quite extensively throughout Europe by train in the last three months and of all countries visited it was the UK which had the best record when it came to trains running on time as I don’t think I had one which arrived more than five minutes late.
Sure, I had my share of issues too as I was impacted by one of the railway strikes and had one train cancelled due to staff shortages.
However, those are not exclusively British problems as railways across Europe from France to the Netherlands were plagued by similar issues this summer.
It’s important to see things in the right perspective, and I think this is why a lot of British people are unfairly harsh about their own railway system as they have a way too rosy view of the railways in continental Europe.
Germany? The days of German punctuality on the rails have all but gone as both commuters and long-distance travellers alike have to deal with mass delays, cancellations and overcrowded trains.
France? Sure, the high-speed TGV might be a fast and reliable train but the complete decimation of railway services in rural France are arguably a hundredfold worse than the British Railways under Dr Beeching!
9. Railway employees are amazing
I also have nothing but good things to say about the people working for the different British railway companies or staffing the stations.
British people are generally among the most helpful and decent folks you can come across and that extends to the railways.
Whether it’s the on-board service with a smile or the excellent communication and information provision about connections and service disruptions, I have nothing but good things to see about my interactions with British railway staff.
Moreover, I loved the typical British cheekiness of some of the railway employees I encountered, cracking a joke or two with passengers and making them feel like they really are at home on their trains.
10. Train travel in the UK can be highly scenic
The UK might not have the same reputation as Switzerland when it comes to scenic railway lines, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some beautiful train journeys you can make across Britain.
From big cities to quaint villages and from the coast to the mountains, the scenery you can admire from British trains is certainly highly diverse.
Some of the most scenic British railway lines can easily compete with their counterparts in continental Europe.
In particular, the following four train journeys I took on my trip across the UK really stood out when it came to the scenery:
– The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig through the wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands.
– The Kyle of Lochalsh Line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh for some more amazing Scottish Highlands scenery.
– London to Penzance by train, with some fabulous views of the southern English coast, estuaries and rivers in Devon and Cornwall.
– The Settle and Carlisle Line from Leeds to Carlisle through the valleys, moors and hills of the Yorkshire Dales.
11. The UK does seat reservations right
In Europe, there are generally three different approaches to seat reservations on trains:
At one hand you have countries where seat reservations simply do not exist, which is most common in smaller countries with a dense rail network like Belgium and the Netherlands.
Then there are countries where seat reservations are compulsory on almost all medium- and long-distance trains, which is the case in France and Spain.
The UK has a hybrid model which is also in use in countries like Germany, which means that seat reservations can be made on many trains but aren’t compulsory.
This optional seat reservation system is so much better as it means that trains can technically never sell out and you can always hop on board of a certain service.
Sure, on a busy train that might mean that you have to stand when the train is full and all seats are taken, but that’s certainly much better than not being able to travel at all which would have been the case on a train with compulsory reservations!
Coupled with the fact that the UK has a dense passenger rail network, with many lines having a train service at least every half hour, this offers unparalleled flexibility for the passenger.
If you are sure you want to take a certain train departure, you can reserve a seat on it, and if not you just hop on board spontaneously and search for an empty seat.
This worked out like a charm on my travels across the UK as each time I spontaneously decided to take an earlier or later train than planned I was still able to find a unoccupied seat.
And while other countries such as Germany charge you around €5 to reserve a seat, it is free to do on UK trains, which makes me think that the British system really is the best.
Although many people in the UK love to complain about their railways, I actually had an excellent time travelling across the country by train.
My trains ran on time, the on-board service was on a high level and the views from the window were absolutely wonderful.
With this post, I mostly wanted to show the aspects which I liked and appreciated about train travel in the UK and to give a bit of a different perspective.
Keep in mind that I’m not saying that everything is perfect about train travel in the UK, as there certainly is room for improvement and I can understand voices saying things used to be better in the past.
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13 thoughts on “Train Travel in the UK: A Foreigner’s Perspective”
The thing in Germany is also that the lower fares on the ICE network are bound to a train regardless of seat reservation, so you can have both no flexibility and no seat.
Enjoyed reading this post. I’ve only ever had good experiences on the British train system myself, but haven’t been using it much recently as it can be a bit pricey for a student, especially compared to bus travel- but train is much more pleasant! I’ve never been over ribblehead viaduct but I’m fairly sure I’ve walked past it- although there are quite a lot that look just like it. Same for Knaresborough, the ironwork is identical to a different station that I have been to.
Try Wales/Cymru next time…I gael profiad gwych!…Maybe;-)
I think the experience, service and punctuality differs a lot between commuter routes and long distance. What you describe is usually great in the UK. What most people complain about is the trains they take to work every day, in the large cities (mostly London) which are never on time, and lack the food, service and scenic routes.
To be honest I also didn’t have any issues when taking commuter lines in greater London/Leeds/Manchester in rush hour outside of the summer holidays. Seems ridership numbers are still low compared to pre-COVID times? That said, I certainly understand that everyday commuters face more issues/have more reason to complain, also as monthly/yearly tickets are expensive.
I am glad your experiences of UK rail travel have been positive.
Unfortunately, for the vast number of UK rail passengers, ticketing complexity, cost, punctuality, poor onboard services and overcrowding remain a big problem. This, coupled with poor national coverage and the dominance of London as an inefficient “hub” (for lots of North/South travel) leaves the UK in dire need of further train travel improvements.
Privatisation and the creation of franchises are a failure but, for dogmatic reasons, remains the chosen means to operate train services. Maybe this is why the UK rail franchises remain popular with European train operating companies – guaranteed revenue and shareholder returns.
Consequently, the UK consumer and tax payer subsidises shareholders whilst our train employees are underpaid and our services deteriorate.
Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately don’t know enough about the English rail network/politics behind it in order to comment whether nationalisation or other solutions would improve it – but it does seem to me it could do with extra capacity, less complicity and generally more focus on other parts of the country besides London!
Thank you, Koen, for your visitors’ view. I agree with your comments about railways on the continent — the grass is not always greener! Eddie: you are right about ticketing complexity, but there are no longer any franchises, except Caledonian Sleeper, and that reverts to the Scottish Government in March. ScotRail and Transport for Wales Rail are also run by their respective governments. Of the former English franchises, three are now run directly by a state-owned organisation and the rest have become operating concessions, with very little commercial risk but also very little commercial freedom. The British system is also no longer so popular with European train operators — Dutch Abellio, for example, is selling out to a British management buyout and the transaction is set to be completed by the end of this year. On the other hand, British Go-Ahead Group has just been awarded some German train operating contracts, and British National Express has been operating trains on the continent for years. Finally — do forgive me — but neither of you mean the UK. You mean Britain — because the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, where the railway has remained nationalised throughout and is a completely separate system. Kind regards
Very interesting Koen and thank you for your insights.
Just one comment, surely you are not old enough to have visited Grange-over-Sands? 😉
Ha, I did actually stay there for one night after making an epic real ale crawl along Yorkshire/Lancs train station pubs as it was the most logical place to stay in order to do the Cumbrian coast line the next day 🙂 I certainly did feel like a century or so younger than the other hotel guests!
I’m glad you appreciate our railway banter. One of the best aspects aspects of the job!
What a brilliant in depth post! It was definitely eye opening to be presented with the good side of British rail (I am guilty of complaining about it a lot!) And so cool to see my hometown Knaresborough featured!! I think the issue of prices is interesting. You’re right, generally booking in advance can get you cheaper tickets. That said, I think short distance services are more problematic; if someone wants to get the train to work daily that will add up very quickly, for example!
Thanks for such a detailed post!
Thanks Fizz! Knaresborough was such a lovely station (with a nice little pub too).