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Rail travel in the U.K. can be a pleasant and relaxing way to get from A to B, unfortunately it generally isn't and usually involves such things as waiting, queuing, stress, confusion and in extreme cases physical pain. I have experienced all of these things whilst travelling by train, and now in my third year of having student status, but no car, I believe I have enough experience to offer a rough guide to surviving rail travel in the U.K. Remember this is all written from a student perspective although most of the points I raise can be used by anyone. I've also tried to avoid being too 'rail operator' specific, but I may have dropped in the names of a few service providers.

Tickets and Booking

Since the privatisation of the railway in the U.K. purchasing a ticket for rail travel has become an artform. Tickets are now subject to various restrictions which are negated in certain circumstances and generally ignored in others.

Discount Railcards
Discount railcards are available for purchase for several different groups of people (Young Person's railcard is about £20 for a year) and give up to 1/3 off the price of most standard class tickets. If you're planning more than a few journeys in a year they are worth getting (So long as you qualify). An added bonus to having a young person's railcard is that they can counteract some 'peak travel' restrictions on certain types of tickets. For example: a saver return is not usually valid in peak hours, but with a YP railcard it can be used anytime.

Advance Bookings
Many companies offer significant discounts on a limited number of advance booking tickets. These can be a godsend if you're on a student budget and want to go long distances. In general however advance booking tickets are train specific so you must catch the train at the time printed on the ticket. You will get charged the full price if caught on the wrong train (Unless for have a good reason like a delay in connecting services). As I mentioned above, advance purchase tickets are limited in numbers so book sooner rather than later in you want that discount.

Know your Restrictions
Saver, or value tickets are excellent at saving you money but they do tend to come with 'time of travel' restrictions. Although most people selling such tickets at a counter will tell you these restrictions, ticket machines do not make them so clear and will happily sell you a saver ticket in peak times only for you to get on the train and have to pay an upgrade. Many tickets also carry route restrictions, the most common being 'NOT LONDON' (Although it is generally cheaper to travel avoiding London, it can be inconvenient, especially if you're trying to get to... Ummm.. London?)

Seat Reservations
Seats can be reserved on a lot of services. Generally you need to buy tickets a minimum of an hour before travelling to get a seat reservation. Online booking services (like thetrainline.co.uk) will usually automatically give you a seat reservation if you have specified a specific time of travel. You do NOT have to travel on a specific train just because you have a seat reserved. If your ticket is valid for all trains then you can still use it on any service; you just might not get a seat. Tickets sent by good old Royal Mail are rediculously large and include all sorts of weird + wonderful information. Just be sure to double check these tickets as the seating type could be confused with your reserved seat. 2

Ticket machines
Main stations will probably have two types of ticket machine and smaller stations may have a permit to travel machine:

  • Fast-Ticket - These are for collection and purchase of tickets. Online booking services will give you the option of collecting your ticket at a Fast-Ticket machine, this will require the card you used to pay for the tickets and a code given to you in the booking confirmation. You can also buy tickets from these machines for travel today or tomorrow using credit card.(Note: If you have one of the KRAZY shaped egg cards then the machine may eat it and stop working...)
  • Local Tickets - These sell tickets for local services. They will have a large grid of green buttons with all the local stations listed. Push the one you want, then select a fare type from the yellow buttons next tot the grid of green buttons. The price for the ticket will be displayed on the LCD display. This type of machine accepts coins and notes, but not cards.
  • Permit to travel - An interesting concept invented for small stations with counter service for only some of the day. It looks like a parking ticket machine. Put in the cost of the fare (or as close as you can get in coins) and the machine produces a ticket saying that you have paid that amount of money and agree to pay the remainder on arrival or to the conductor on the train.
Routes
Know the route you are going to take! It is always helpful to have a copy of the timetable with you when travelling. Even if you don't need to use it there is always some poor lost soul on the train who wants to know when the next train to Basingstoke is. Engineering works may force you around another way, or onto a replacement coach. These are the times when you really need to know how to get to you destination avoiding 'X'.

At the station

Stations in the U.K. are confusing places. They range from a platform in the middle of nowhere with no information at all, to bustling scenes of chaos filled with lots of boards which contain far too much information and people who think they have the correct information but will send you to the wrong platform. I advise that you know the time of departure of the train you want to catch and its final destination before you arrive at the station, this will save you some trouble when finding the correct platform. The big stations have cashpoints, food places, bars and usually a W H Smith. These will be fairly expensive, but not as expensive as the food on the train, so buy a drink and a snack if you think you'll need one, it could be quite some time until you get to your destination.

Information
Information points are usually annoyingly located outside the ticket barriers so ask and questions before you go through that turnstile. On the platforms there should be officials standing around so any queries should be addressed to them. If you are just looking for the next train to 'X' then there should be large boards giving departure times and final destinations of trains to major stations. Information screens are located around most stations. General information screens display all departing or arriving trains, platforms and final destinations. Specific information screens display details for the next train on a certain platform and gives full service details.

Litter
Ummm, there are no bins at large stations. I've yet to find an effective way of disposing of my snack wrapper whilst standing on the platform. I advise one of the following two methods depending on the type of waste product:

  • Scrunch it up, insert into pocket and wait for a convenient receptacle on arrival at your destination
  • Place on floor discreetly under bench and hope someone doesn't trip over it.
Technically there should be cleaners constantly cleaning the station because of this problem and they will be happy to accept litter off you and they will put it in one of the large locked bins. It's just never happened to me yet.

On the Train

Assuming you've got the correct ticket and are on the correct platform and the correct train has turned up then the next thing you must do is survive the actual journey. For general comfort I advise taking a coat or sweater with you, it can be quite cool. Also remove things like keys, wallets and phones from your pockets when sitting down. They may not bother you at first, but after a few hours can be uncomfortable!

Doors
Ok, I'm not patronising you! I know you know how to use a door, but I thought I should mention them just in case. External train doors are either automatic and therefore operated with a push button from either inside or outside once the train has stopped or manual and you must push down the handle on the outside to open them. When opening the manual type doors from the inside you usually have to hang out of the door window and awkwardly try and press the stiff handle down with your fingertips. Internal doors separate the seating areas from the 'vestibule' areas. Some use a push button to open them, and others have a movement sensor. All of them are designed to close on you as you're pulling your heavy bag through.

Seating
Most carriage layouts have two different types of seating. Aircraft style seating will be two seats next to each other behind another two seats. They usually have an 'aircraft style' drop down tray for you to do whatever you want to do with. The other style is four seats with two on either side of a table. At quiet times these will actually allow you to get something done while travelling, but generally you feel quite selfish if you lay all your lecture notes over the table and three other people want to put their coffee down. Reservations are displayed either on digital displays above the seats, or on pieces of paper on the backs of the seats. If you have a seat reserved and someone is sitting there then feel free to ask him or her to move. It is common practise to sit in reserved seats if no others are available in the hope that it will remain free. Many services have quiet coaches which will be clearly marked, try and avoid using your phone/personal stereo/noisy laptop in these zones. Most trains have both a standard and a first class. The amount of coaches devoted to first class depends on the service, it may be useful to note that virgin trains operates cheap weekend upgrades to first class if you want bit of extra comfort!

Luggage
You are allowed to travel on most trains with a standard suitcase or two and usually have no trouble. If you are planning on travelling with excessive baggage (or bicycle) it is worth phoning up the service operator and asking advice first. They will hopefully be able to give you instructions for getting it onto the train quickly and easily. Remember to keep your luggage with you at all times or it is likely to be taken away and blown up.

Entertainment
I take a book with me when I travel, that way even if I'm stuck on sitting on the floor in a luggage area I can still lose myself in its pages. I also tend to fall asleep if the service is quiet, and I would advise you to set an alarm to wake yourself up if you are prone to doing such things. Walkmans/Mp3 players/CD players etc. make good ways to pass the time. The new Virgin trains offer an in journey entertainment system which gives you some poor quality music by plugging your headphones into the panel on your seat. They also give you power points to plug in a laptop and I have seen many people recently enjoying a movie whilst on the train. Other ways1 to entertain yourself involve drawing on the person asleep next to you or pretending to be asleep and then tripping people up as the walk past you.

Refreshment
If you didn't take my advice earlier then you'll probably want a drink or snack about now. Most long journey trains offer refreshment in the form of a shop service, or someone with a trolley. Check prices before you buy stuff, it will be expensive. First class customers often get a selection of complimentary refreshments thrown in. You can expect a choice of hot/cold drinks, sealed snacks (crisps etc.), Sweets, Alcoholic beverages, Reheated sandwiches and possibly cakes. The shops can close suddenly for staff changes at various stations so listen to announcements, as it is very disappointing walking all the way through the train only to find it's not serving.

Toilets
The toilets on trains are not pleasant places, Guys have trouble aiming with the motion of the train and they don't seem to be able to ventilate them very well. The water is NEVER drinkable and to activate the tap you may have to try and find some hidden button of switch probably on the floor. Remember to lock to door.

Smoking
All the trains I travel on are non-smoking, much to my relief! If you do feel the need to smoke on a train journey then listen out for announcements by the train manager on early arrival into stations. This will mean that the train will be stood at the platform for a few minutes giving an opportunity to jump out and light up.

Overcrowded trains

Sunday and Friday evenings are generally bad for rail travel. Travel either later or earlier if you can. If you have to catch the train then here are my thoughts. At the platform you want to be quick off the mark, I don't mean pushing old ladies down to get to the door, but just be standing and ready to board when the train pulls up. If you get a seat you're lucky! Don't leave that seat while the train is stopped at a station, It will be gone when you return. If you are without a seat then find somewhere with a bit of space to stand, or if you are not in the way you might want to sit down on your bag/the floor. Try and relax! It can get hot, confined and stuffy, keep your cool! Everyone is in the same position, just try and do something to take your mind off it. Read a book, close your eyes, anything. Sometimes it is an ideal time to strike up a conversation with someone looking equally as uncomfortable. I'm not a very sociable person so I'm very bad at making conversation, but occasionally I have done so in these sorts of situations and it can make the whole journey go much faster. Also if you think it will be crowded then take a bottle of water with you, sip it every now and then, but don't drink too much or you'll have to fight your way to the toilet. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffinated drinks.

Replacement Bus service

The phrase that strikes fear into the heart of all passengers. It occurs when the line between two particular stations is closed for engineering works and the train company has laid on busses to bridge the gap. Get to the busses as quick as possible The company will not have arranged enough busses for the people on the service. Establish quickly which bus is going where and join the queue. If you're lucky then you'll get on! If not you may potentially be faced with an hour or more wait until the busses return. At this point it is usually advisable to yell out the phrase:

"Is anyone going to (Insert destination here) and wants to share a taxi?"

Most black cabs will seat 5, so a fairly steep fare may be reduced to something reasonable if there are enough of you. The taxi driver will be used to such things and may be able to give you a flat rate for the journey (i.e. Exactly £45 between Oxford and Reading stations). You will probably be forced to make conversation with these strangers but it is infinitely more pleasant in a taxi than on a coach which you've waited hours for. Once you get to your destination then I would consider looking at the next section of this write-up.

Complaining

Complaints can lead to compensation in the form of travel vouchers for that train company. Complaints of arriving over 2 hours later than expected usually get some compensation; this is best used if you have had to wait for the bus service. It is best to say that you were over 2 hours late even if you took my advice and got a taxi just to get your money back. Remember to keep your ticket and send it with your letter of complaint, most timetables and information boards will give an address for you to address your letter to.

I think that's it! I wish you all pleasant and stress free journeys on the train!

Useful resources!
www.thetrainline.co.uk - Online Ticket booking
www.nationalrail.co.uk - National Rail enquiries website, or you can call them!
www.wandsworth.gov.uk - Then follow the travel planner link on the left. This is a very cool service, and was pointed out to me by spiregrain

Thanks to will for pointing out the following: http://www.traintimes.org.uk - nice accessable version of the National Rail site
http://nrekb.com/incident_index.html - check service alterations and works on the line (important as this isn't always updated in the timetable).
http://www.traveline.org.uk/ - allows you to find connecting bus, ferry, coach and metro/underground
http://www.qjump.co.uk/ - alternative to thetrainline


1 - Not really! 2 - will seems to think so anyway! :-)

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