Sampling some of British trains' many flavors

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, June 2, 2018

I’ve heard fellow train travel aficionados sing the praises of Great Britain’s extensive and diverse passenger train services and its large and thriving heritage railway industry. I finally made it across the pond to see for myself on an 11-day jaunt that barely scratched the surface, despite the fact that I probably rode an average of over 250 rail miles each day I was there. The trip was mostly solo, but partially coordinated with my friend Sam, a retired Amtrak conductor who had planned his own tour to catch up with friends and sightsee.

The Brits have a habit of complaining about their trains. As I experienced, their on-time performance often falls short of Swiss standards (though is excellent by American standards), ticket prices are continually increasing, and service frequencies and span on some lines aren’t what they could be. But it’s hard for someone who’s used to a country where even major cities are served by just one train a day, if that, to knock a system that provides at least three daily frequencies to even the least densely populated lines. If this is what remains after the infamous early 1960s Beeching cuts, which saw the abandonment of many secondary lines, then what existed before must have been absolutely mind-boggling.

10:00 PM on a Tuesday, May 15, at London's magnificent Paddington Station. At right, a Great Western Railway
Hitachi dual-mode train has just arrived from points southwest, with a Great Western DMU train across the platform.
All photos by Malcolm Kenton. Click on any photo to enlarge.

I covered nearly 3,000 miles of track over the 11 days, excluding rail transit within London, Manchester and Edinburgh. For eight of the 11 days, I took maximum advantage of a First Class BritRail Pass, good for unlimited travel on all National Rail services. (National Rail is the consortium of the 12 franchisee companies and 24 operating units that have comprised the regional and intercity passenger rail system of England, Scotland and Wales since the 1997 privatization of British Rail.) For a price of $532 USD, I undertook over £1,000 GBP ($1,328 USD at the current exchange rate) worth of travel (had I paid the full price of each ticket on the day of travel), which included meals on five trains and unlimited access to the First Class Lounges at major stations, which serve snacks and beverages. With my pass in hand, I felt like a kid in a candy store trying to decide which varieties to taste, knowing that I lacked the capacity to digest them all in one sitting.

The fast, frequent trains on a thick web of primary, secondary and tertiary lines and the beautifully maintained steam locomotives and vintage coaches — both those operating on the main line and on separate heritage railways — lived up to the hype. I was particularly impressed with how heritage railways operate in concert with the national network, running several daily frequencies and making convenient connections. Also astonishing is the number of main line steam trips that operate — at least two day trips from London or another major city every weekend, and several during the week. All of these have their schedules, almost down to the milepost, displayed at, which also allows live tracking on the day of operation. It almost takes the fun out of train chasing and trackside photography by removing the thrill of the hunt! More on those in my next post.

A newer Virgin Trains East Coast high-speed trainset rests at London's Kings Cross Station.

The regular National Rail trains I rode were about evenly split between electric and diesel power. Most of the lines emanating within a 100-mile radius of London are electrified — both the East Coast and West Coast mains boast catenary as far as Edinburgh and Glasgow from London, and several other lines have third-rail power, including the South Western trains between London Waterloo and Weymouth via Southampton, which I rode — the world’s longest continuous third rail-electrified railway at 136 miles, whose electrification was completed in 1988. By contrast, America’s longest electrified railroad is only 57 miles: Metro-North’s Harlem Line from Grand Central Terminal to Southeast, N.Y. Trips of up to 200 miles on electrified lines tend to be covered by Electric Multiple Unit trainsets, while electric locomotive-hauled sets cover longer runs.

Top speeds for expresses on the electrified mains range from 100 to 125 MPH, akin to Regionals on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Older equipment is usually limited to 80 to 90 MPH. On less busy branch lines, speeds top out between 40 and 70 MPH depending on track condition. Some of these lines are dark territory and some still use semaphore signals and manually-operated switch towers (signal boxes in British parlance).

A Northern Railways DMU and a Virgin Trains East Coast diesel high-speed train meet at York.

Catenary electrification is working its way westward on the Great Western main line towards Cornwall, but long-distance expresses on this line use either 1990s-built High-Speed Train trainsets powered by diesel locomotives on both ends or two-year-old Hitachi dual-mode (catenary electric and diesel) multiple unit trainsets. Most services on less busy lines, however, are provided by Diesel Multiple Unit trainsets of varying vintages and configurations, often of just one or two cars. ScotRail’s rural services, including the five-hour run Sam and I took from Glasgow to Mallaig, all use DMUs.

Of the ten different branded National Rail services I sampled, I was most impressed with Virgin Trains, Great Western and Chiltern Railways. I took Virgin’s expresses on both the East and West Coast main lines and both offered a comfortable First Class product with hot meals and alcohol included, similar to Acela First Class. Great Western’s First Class seats were the most comfortable and the color schemes and seat arrangements the most attractive, and the food service included sandwiches as well as snacks, coffee, tea, sodas and still or sparkling water. On most trains traveling for more than one hour, there is food and beverage service from a cart. In most cases, First Class passengers get one complimentary snack (such as pretzels, fruit, crisps (potato chips in British parlance), candies, cookies and pastries) and one drink each time the cart passes through the coach.

Interior of a Standard Class coach of a newer SouthWestern Railway EMU. This is fairly typical of medium-distance
Standard Class accommodations in Britain.

Of the shorter-distance trains I experienced that don’t have First Class accommodations, Chiltern Railways offered the most comfortable Standard Class product. This innovative operator formed by combining commuter services out of London and Birmingham to make a through service also connecting to Oxford that competes with the older West Coast main line services. Among the nice touches on its newer DMU trains are pleasant wallpaper images in the toilet compartments that advertise destinations along the line like the Oxford University gardens.

In a class by itself, however, is the Caledonian Sleeper. Its two routes between London Euston station and Scotland using the West Coast main line are two of the three sleeper train routes in the U.K., the other being the Great Western’s Night Riviera between London Paddington and Penzance, which I plan to sample on a future trip. Sam and I took Caledonian’s Highlander from Fort William to London via Glasgow and Edinburgh. The operator is rolling out modern equipment later this year, so we were some of the last to experience their visibly aging 1970s-built Mark 2 and 3 cars.

Caledonian Sleeper's first class lounge, with kitchen, a 1970s-built Mark 2 car.

The compartments are quite small, with only a sink beneath a small window (there are two toilets at the end of each car), but the bed is more comfortable than a typical Amtrak bed. First Class passengers are given an amenity kit in a paper bag including a restful aromatherapy spray, a shampoo-body wash and a lotion, plus an eye mask and earplugs, plus a copy of the in-house Nocturne magazine. The food service in the first-class lounge car ( seating 20 people at 4-and-2 tables) is remarkable — almost all Scottish-sourced food and beverages, including unique whiskey cocktails, prepared in a very small kitchen. Amtrak could use a few pointers from the Caledonian on upping the value proposition for its first-class overnight product.

The nightly (except Saturdays) 7:50 PM Caledonian Sleeper departure to London Euston readies for boarding at
Fort William, Scotland on May 14, with a two-car ScotRail DMU parked across the platform.

A Direct Rail Services (a freight carrier that also provides equipment to passenger services) diesel locomotive,
seen at Carlisle, England about to take a passenger train down the Cumbrian Coast Line to Barrow-in-Furness on May 12.

A Grand Central Railway high-speed DMU train seen along the East Coast Main Line on May 9.

A London-bound Great Western Railway diesel High Speed Train passes through the middle of Sydney Gardens
in Bath, England on May 16.

A Southern Railway EMU (right) prepares to depart Brighton, England on May 17, while a red Gatwick Express
EMU is seen to the left.

Exterior of a newer SouthWestern Railway EMU at Weymouth, England on May 8.

A TransPennine Express EMU having arrived at Edinburgh Waverley station from Manchester on May 12.

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