An American's Review of Travel on British Rail

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From Dec 16, 1999 to Jan 6, 2000 my family and I visited the United Kingdom on holiday. There were a total of seven of us and we planned to use British Rail for most of our transportation needs. We stayed in hotels near rail stations for about 4 days at a time and used the rail system to get around to see the sights within range of our "home base."

This page describes both our trip and what I observed about the British Rail system.

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The British National Rail System

British Rail System Map
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It is clear that the British take their rail system seriously. The entire country is crisscrossed with rail lines and the trains run frequently. The trains are heavily used and the train operators take pains to run on time. Much intercity traffic goes by rail as the country is relatively (by American standards) small so that rail schedules are often better than air schedules and the trains leave much more often than flights. Further, most train stations are right downtown and most airports are way out in the country. Traffic is so heavy that the stations near London see a train movement every couple of minutes and there are up to 12 parallel tracks for considerable distances.

Heavy Electric Loco
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Much or the system stretching for a hundred or miles south from London or so is electrified via a third rail. Most trains in the south are MU sets of 3rd rail electric or diesel railcars with control cabs at either end. Intercity trains that run north tend to be diesel or electric push-pull sets that run from overhead catenary at 25kV AC. The diesel sets usually have a locomotive at both ends. The electric equipment usually has a B-B electric locomotive on north end and a control/baggage car at the south end. Commuter equipment that runs north tend to be electric carsets running off the overhead catenary. Most of these seemed to be 4 or 5 car sets with a control/passenger car at each end, a passenger carrying power car somewhere in the middle and regular coaches filling out the consist.

During the day, most of the trains near London are passenger moves. There are freight trains that run, but most run at night. There would just be too much passenger traffic to do any freight moves while passenger trains are shuttling every few minutes. Away from London, there are more freight moves, mostly of short unit trains with a single B-B or C-C diesel or electric locomotive. I did see several rod coupled 6 wheel diesel switchers near the main line These apparently the 350 hp English Electric 08 class. Near Crewe, there appeared to be a collection of old engines and cars in storage. We went by too fast to really see what was there and the windows of the car were so dirty that photography was impractical. In south Wales and western England we saw unit consists of oil tankers, gondolas labeled for British Steel, side dump ballast cars and coil steel carriers. Near the port of Cardiff, there were some container moves. I never did see a "mixed freight."

Central London itself is ringed by major railroad stations, some of which are very close together. Each station was established by a major railroad company and positioned around the city to serve the direction where that particular company went. These companies were eventually merged into a single large rail system and later privatized back into smaller independent operators. All of the track and stations are owned and maintained by a company called Railtrak. The stations are operated on a shared basis by the operators serving that station.

In nearly two centuries of rail development, the British have built a system that allows efficient travel. Most of the system runs on continuous welded rail with concrete ties. There are some short stretches of jointed rail, but these appear to be in places due for replacement as lengths of continuous rail were laid in storage between the running rails. Primarily due to the favorable geology of England, the rail routes have mostly minimal grades and little curvature. With the exception of about a mile of track to the Cardiff Bay station, every line I saw was at least double tracked. Most main routes leading to London have at least 4 tracks to allow the commuter trains to stop at most stations without interference to the Intercity trains that blew through the stations at very high speed. I am a poor estimator of speed, but some of them might have been running up to 125 mph.

Virtually the entire system is grade separated and fenced. I did see a very few grade crossings with most of them appearing to allow farm equipment access to fields next to the track. There were, in places, pedestrian crossings on the non electrified lines. In the very few places where there were regular roadway grade crossings, there were all protected by guard towers.

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The London Underground

London Underground Map
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London itself is also served by the London Underground, a subway system more popularly known as the "Tube." For reference, in England a "subway" is an underground pedestrian walkway, not an underground train. Being from southern California, I don't have much experience with public transit. Our rail transit system, the Pacific Electric, was gone by 1960 and I hardly remember it. The existing busses that go anywhere near my house run maybe once an hour and usually late. The new rail lines that do exist don't go near where I live nor near anywhere I am likely to want to go. The Tube goes everywhere in and around London and the trains run about every 3 to 5 minutes. Even the Boston "T" or San Francisco Muni, with which I do have considerable experience, do not run as well. Tube passes are not cheap, a daily pass is about $5 but you can ride anywhere all day. The Underground could use some trackwork improvement as the cars lurch and sway quite a lot. The longer distance commuter cars rode infinitely better and the track seemed to be in much better condition as well.

Central London Map
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In London, we stayed at the Travel Inn, a "budget" hotel that was right across the river from Big Ben and right next to the Millennium Wheel. The Travel Inn at $100 per night is considered very reasonable for central London. Waterloo and Waterloo East stations (serving the Channel tunnel and the south of England) and the Waterloo Underground station are a couple of blocks away.

Central LondonWe had purchased a BritRail Pass in the US before we left. These passes were less than $1900 for 7 people for 22 days of unlimited rail travel. Adults were about $500 each, a student pass was about $350. The children under 16 rode free with an adult. Rail travel is so effective in Britain that this pass and some careful selection of cheap (relatively anyway) hotels eliminated the need to rent a car for the whole trip. Note that the "BritRail Pass" appears to be a US marketing term. Even some of the rail personnel in Britain didn't recognize the term "BritRail Pass." The term "British Rail Pass" did work. We found, more or less by accident, that we could get across the river from Waterloo East station to Charing Cross station in downtown London for free on the BritRail pass but had to pay $5 to go the same distance on the Underground. There are Underground stations at both Waterloo and Charing Cross.

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Our Rail Trip

A sparsely photographic chronicle of our travels follows. I got pictures where I could, but shooting from a moving train is an iffy matter so many of the shots were taken in or near stations while we were standing or moving slowly. Also, I found that the digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix 900) was just too slow to set up and take pictures on an opportunistic basis, so most of these photos were snapped with a 35 mm Ricoh FF90D and scanned later.

We arrived at Heathrow International on Dec 16, 1999 in the early afternoon. After wandering around the airport, gathering our baggage and clearing customs, we looked for a way into London. Heathrow is southwest of London and is serviced by a rail shuttle and the London Underground Piccadilly line. Since the rail office was closed, we could not convert our BritRail vouchers into rail passes so that we could ride the shuttle, so we took the Underground to a stop near our hotel. It was nearly freezing outside and we had no clue where our hotel was exactly, so we took a couple of London cabs the rest of the way to our hotel. There were seven of us with lots of luggage so even two London cabs were jammed full.

We stayed in the first hotel for only one night because it was very expensive. We located a much cheaper one and the next day, we moved across town to the Travel Inn Capital via the London Underground. Many of the Underground stations are accessed only by stairways so dragging our wheeled luggage around was a major pain. It would have been easier to go by cab.

connex train at waterloo east The next morning we hopped on a train to Dover on Connex (one of the independent operators) out of Waterloo East station and went to see Dover Castle and then rode back the same afternoon.

slamdoor carThis trainset was an older "slam door" set because the doors had to be slammed by the passengers to be closed. The doors couldn't be opened directly from the inside, the window on the door had to be slid down so that the handle on the outside could be reached. These cars didn't ride as well as the newer cars, but they were OK. On the way back, the set was even older, with a "slam door" in between each seat set. Since we rode the same line on the way back, I could tell that these older cars rode even worse. They lurched and swayed almost as badly as the London Underground.

Connex serves most of southeast England on a network of lines mostly from Charing Cross station. Charing Cross is right across the river from Waterloo station and its lines run right through Waterloo East station. All the trains from Charing Cross stop at Waterloo East. The EuroStar trains also terminate at Waterloo station. The entire system is 3rd rail electrified, overhead catenary starts only near the channel tunnel entrance. Near the tunnel, we did see a small freight yard under catenary.

connex train at waterlooAfter a few days running around London, we hopped on Wales & West Alphaline two car RDC train for bound for Cardiff in south Wales were we stayed until Christmas Eve. Cardiff is the capital of Wales and is served by several rail stations. Cardiff Central station is the main railway station for intercity travel. It and several other stations are also served by the Valley Lines for local travel.

Valley Lines RDCThe Valley Lines are served by RDC sets. These cars have only two axles, so the ride was a little rougher and the trains ran a little slower.

bullhead railSome of the Valley line is still jointed bullhead rail. This kind of rail is held between steel clamps and secured against the outer clamp by steel springs or even wooden blocks. We did take a couple of rides on the Valley lines to Cardiff Bay and to Caerphilly Castle.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we got back on Wales & West and rode to Crewe on the line to Manchester. There we transferred to another Wales & West train to Llandudno Junction in north Wales. Our hotel there was a short taxi ride from the train station. The trains didn't run on Christmas day and only a few trains were running on Boxing day (the day after Christmas). As a matter of fact, the whole damn country closed up for Christmas and Boxing Day. We spent those days touring by foot in the rain and hail.

RDC at FfestiniogThe following day, when the rail services became available again, our plan was to ride the train to Blaenau Ffestiniog to ride the Ffestiniog railway, a 2' gauge excursion line. The Ffestiniog was built to haul slate down to the docks at Porthmadog. This didn't work out for me as I came down with a nasty English version of the flu against which my US formulated flu shot was apparently ineffective. I stayed in the hotel room all day wondering if I was going home in a box. For me, the Ffestiniog will have to wait for a later day. My wife, son and father in law did ride the train to Blaenau Ffestiniog and took some pictures, but they didn't ride the narrow gauge train. The 2' line can be seen next to the standard gauge line.

The following day, our plan was to move to Edinburgh in Scotland. I dragged my carcass down to the train and poured myself into a seat. There was no hope of photos as the train windows were so dirty that it was hard to see through them, much less shoot photos. This train was yet another two car RDC consist operated by First North Western. We changed trains at Warrington Bank Quay to a Virgin Trains consist that was heading north to Haymarket station in Edinburgh. The schedule showed that we had a 5 minute transfer at Warrington Bank Quay, but when we unloaded 7 people and 10 bags and hauled to them to the right platform, there was no train there. It had suffered a locomotive failure and was running an hour late. Our train came finally came through with a single diesel unit on the point. The train was so full that we had to leave our luggage in the vestibules for the whole trip and we couldn't even find seats until about the third station stop. I didn't reserve seats ahead of time for us, a serious screwup on my part. By the time that we got into Edinburgh, the train was over an hour and a half late. It seems that in Britain, when a train runs late enough, the passengers are due a credit on their fare, so the train staff went through the train handing out forms to mail in for some kind of a refund. I don't recall AMTRAK ever doing this.

I spend another day in Edinburgh recuperating before we hopped a ScotRail train to Stirling to tour Stirling Castle, a royal home of several Scot kings. This train was yet another two car RDC consist, but it was quite new and felt tight (no creaks) and rode smoothly. In general, the ScotRail equipment seemed to smoke less, sound better (as diesels go anyway) and be better maintained than most of the other equipment that we rode. I did get a chance to ask a driver about the running gear. They are similar to Budd RDC's. The diesel engine under the floor drives one truck with a direct drive through a two speed automatic transmission and torque converter.

ScotRail covers the Scottish lowlands and border areas with a tight network of lines. As the lines penetrate into the highlands, the rail lines become more sparse. All of the lines in southern Scotland are electrified with overhead catenary, but the electrification stops north of Edinburgh. There rest of the lines into the Scottish Highlands are served by diesel only.

edinburgh castle at nightWe had planned to spend a quiet New Year's Eve in some out of the way corner of the world, away from potential trouble. We found ourselves in Edinburgh. The Scots do know how to party and had set up a street party for 180,000 people in the Edinburgh town center. So much for a quiet backwater..... The street party was madness, but in an orderly sort of way. This shot of some of the buildings on the Royal Mile and of Edinburgh Castle was taken from North Bridge overlooking Waverley station sometime in the last few minutes of 1999.

The trains didn't run at all on New Year's Day, so we just hung around. The whole town was closed up tight so it was a good time for walking tours. Jan. 2, 2000 found us on the train again, headed back toward London for the last leg of our journey. Because all the reservations and ticket offices were closed, I couldn't get seat reservations for these trains either. In a defensive move, we hopped a ScotRail train from Haymarket Station to Waverley Station, both in Edinburgh, so that we could get on the train at its originating station in hopes of finding unreserved seats before they were snapped up. This tactic worked and we found both seats and room for our luggage.

silverliner cab carWe had to make two transfers to get Hemel Hempstead. Hemel Hempstead is a small station about a half hour by train from London's Euston station. We rode a "Silverliner" train each day to London and then used the Underground to get around. The more we rode on the Underground, the more we appreciated the excellent trackwork on the regular rail system. The Silverliners were electric sets running from the overhead catenary. There is only one power car somewhere in the middle of the set, the rest of the cars are not powered. It is easy to tell when you are riding in the power car from the heavy 50 Hz hum of the main transformer. The ceiling of the car is also depressed at one end to allow room for the Faiverly pantograph.

One day, we took a trip to Euston and then walked about two blocks, past St. Pancres station to King's Cross station (some of the stations are very close together) to ride the WAGN line north to Cambridge where we went to see the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. Duxford is a WWII fighter base that played an important part in the Battle of Britain. The museum is supposed to be the best aviation museum in Europe, and I don't doubt it. The next day, we had planned to ride a long distance train from King's Cross to York to go to the National Railway Museum, but it would have been a 2 hour train ride each way in addition to the ride from Hemel Hempstead into Euston and we were exhausted as a group and I hadn't completely shaken the flu so we reluctantly canceled that trip and toured London instead.

On our last day, the only thing to do was to get to the airport for the 11 AM flight home. On a previous day we had checked out transferring from the line to Euston station to the Underground Bakerloo line and riding that to Paddington station to catch the Heathrow Express to the airport. The Bakerloo line was less than satisfactory. The trackwork was very bad, the stations were full of stairs (a problem when carrying luggage) and the train was slow. At some of the stations, there was an 18" step up to get off the cars. The underground cars are considerably lower than the commuter cars and the platforms are shared at some stations. Instead, we just took two cabs from Euston to Paddington which actually cost less than going on the Underground and was much quicker.

The Heathrow Express is a 15 minute nonstop ride to Heathrow that leaves 4 times an hour. This train was easily the nicest train that we rode on the entire trip. It is an electric train with control cars at either end. The cars were clean, spacious and comfortable and for once, had sufficient storage for luggage. The suspension and trackwork were very good so that it was a smooth ride. Since we rode the whole way just before and at dawn (sunrise was 8:04 AM on this English winter day), we didn't get a chance to see much from the train. However it took us right to our terminal and we got there in plenty of time to check in and fly back home.

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Rail Logistics

Overall we found that touring Britain by train was very effective. The BritRail Pass was obviously a good deal. We estimated that we would have spent about twice as much if we had just purchased tickets when we needed them. We also avoided waiting in lines to buy tickets except for the Underground which is NOT covered by the BritRail pass.

The key to effective rail travel in Britain is to stay at cheap hotels that are within walking distance from a train station. We were not always successful in getting really close to a station, so we also ended up taking a bunch of short taxi rides. We stayed mostly at the Travel Inn chain (similar to Motel 6 in the US) which usually cost about $60 a night for up to four people. Travel Inn's in London and Edinburgh were higher at about $100 a night. The Travel Inn Capital is the one near Waterloo station right on the river Thames. The Travel Inn Euston (which we couldn't get into) is located a block from Euston station and is also a 5 minute walk from King's Cross station. In Edinburgh, the Travel Inn was two blocks from Haymarket station.

All we had to do was climb on a train and go to where we wanted. The stations always had accurate timetables for the lines served by that station so we knew when and where the trains were going. There is also a 24 hour National Rail Network telephone line where a trip can be planned by phone if the timetables for a particular destination were not immediately available. When the conductor came around to punch tickets, I just showed him the pass and he moved on. Since none of the individual carriers kept track that we were riding their trains, I have to assume that the cost of our rides were covered by allocations to all the operators from British Rail.

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British Food

I couldn't write about a trip to Britain with discussing British food. The British have a well deserved reputation for being terrible cooks and in general, my experience supports that reputation. Food is expensive in Britain, up to twice the cost for an equivalent meal in the US.

Traditional British Food. From my limited experience, it would seem that the traditional way of British cooking is to boil everything and to eat potatoes at every meal. I found this cuisine unacceptable and we didn't partake in much of it. In one hotel restaurant, they managed to bake a tuna steak into a crispy brick.

Pub Grub. Another, more satisfying form of British food is the traditional menu of the English pub, or public house. The typical menu is deep fried battered fish, meat pies, lasagna, or sausage served with chips (french fries to Americans). The quality of pub grub is variable, but the meal was usually filling and reasonable in cost (typically about $7).

Ethnic Food. The United Kingdom is very ethically diverse, especially from those parts of the world that were part of the British Empire. These ethnic groups brought back their own style of cooking and for the most part, this is the best food that I found. However, since my traveling companions aren't into "exotic" food, I didn't get to sample as much as I would have liked. Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Italian foods were the most common kinds.

Grab Food. Several US grab food chains are represented in the UK. McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut were the most common. Since I don't touch McDonald's food here, I didn't try any there either, but my kids said that it was a reasonable representation of US McDonald's fare. I did get a Whopper in the Waterloo station and it was also similar to the US version but it cost about $4. I didn't try Pizza Hut either, but my family did and they said that it was similar. I did get some pizza's at other places that were actually pretty good. There is a local hamburger chain called Wimpy which I found most unsatisfying and expensive.

The food in Wales was similar to the food in England. I found that the food in Scotland was especially poor. Not only did they do English food, they did it worse than the English. The one exception was a "take away" place in Edinburgh where I found an excellent taco. Nowhere else could I find a hint of "Mexican" food. I am willing to bet there isn't a green chile enchilada to be found anywhere in the UK.

The British don't seem to care for pickles, the only place they could be found was at Burger King. Even there, I couldn't find plain yellow mustard. Everybody just had the stuff with horseradish in it (yech). The only regular yellow mustard that I found was at a street hot dog vendor in Edinburgh where I had a pork and leek sausage with onions. It was good, but I've never come across a sausage and onion sandwich like the ones that you can get outside of Fenway Park in Boston.

As soon as I got back, I headed to In-an-Out (a California burger chain) for a grab food fix. A couple of double-doubles hit the spot.

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© 2000-2011 George Schreyer
Created Jan 7, 2000
Last Updated February 19, 2011