Monday, May 5, 2014

Intercity rail travel in the UK

East Coast express at Kings Cross
Recently we traveled to England, where we took three trains.  British Rail was broken up a few years ago, and regionally based companies compete (back to the days of the GWR....).   Back in the days of British Rail (when I lived in the UK in the early 90s), they were notorious for delays and problems and creative excuses.   But things have definitely gotten better.  The stations have been thoroughly modernized, and everything was quite efficient.

We traveled from London to York (East Coast Rail), York to Liverpool (Trans-Pennine Express), and Liverpool to London (Virgin Rail).

First, ticket booking:  I could book all the travel through one site (, reserve seats, and collect all my tickets at once through a machine at the first station.  This was great, since it meant I didn't have to worry about collecting tickets for each journey separately.  Advance booking saved money, as travel is quite expensive in the UK and last minute unreserved adds up.  There is also first class travel if you want to spend more. (We didn't.)  And, of course slow trains, or those that connect, will cost less than those that are express and call only at a few major stops.

You absolutely MUST know what time your train is scheduled to depart (and what company runs it) as there are no train numbers:  simply "the 9.52 East Coast departure to Edinburgh is on track 8".  If you are getting off at an intervening stop, you have to look at the list of stations on the board, to see if yours is there.  And remember, there may be a 9.57 train to Durham, which also calls at York--so you really need to know that your booking is for 9.52, not 9.57.

All our trains were on time.  The two intercity trains (London to York, and Liverpool to London)  were modern, single level trains, somewhat cramped inside.  There were little cardboard tabs in the seats if they were reserved, and these said where they were reserved TO.  For example, ours said "reserved to York".  Seats are reminiscent of the new, thin seats on Southwest Airlines.  An attendant pushed through a trolley with snacks on it, and there was a cafe car.    Luggage space was extremely limited;  our coach ran out quickly and people had to walk back to the baggage car (11 or 12 cars back!) to put their cases in.

Narrow inside
The train to Liverpool (trans-Pennine express) was a small train almost like a light rail train.  We didn't see any toilets on board, and it stopped in all sorts of places.  The trans-Pennine part went through long tunnels, so the view was disappointing.

The Virgin train back down to London was similar to the north bound train.

So how does Amtrak stack up, at least the Surfliner?  Our trains are big and the seats are better, but the ride is harsh and rocky (and let's not even mention the hideous Amfleets). We do have better beer and outgoing, often quirky LSAs and conductors.  The British crew are, well, British.  The Surfliner, capable of >100mph, does not reach anything like full speed.  Not so across the pond: our trip from London to York was about 175 miles, and we did it in under 2 hours, making 2-3 stops on the way. My Surfliner from SOL to LAX is 120 miles, and takes over 2 hours. Of course, the mainline routes we were on in the UK do not have single track, so we never waiting "in the hole".

Sleek looking locomotive
Now, of course it's not perfect.  We happened to be lucky with no delays, or problems. But overall, you can tell the difference of a country that puts investment into passenger rail and one that doesn't.

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