Rail transport in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and previously consisted of Great Britain and the whole of Ireland. Rail transport systems developed independently on the two island masses of Great Britain and Ireland, and most of the railway construction in the Republic of Ireland was undertaken before the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Thus, the logical division to discuss the history and present-day state of railways in these areas is by geographical division, rather than the nationalist division of nation states.

The United Kingdom is a member of the International Union of Railways (UIC). The UIC Country Code for United Kingdom is 70.

Additionally, there are rail systems in two Crown Dependencies, namely:

None of the British Overseas Territories have railways at present, although some, such as Bermuda were historically served by railways. Gibraltar is accessible by the Spanish and Moroccan rail systems. Hong Kong was the last dependent territory to have an extant rail system.

Similarly, for the history of rail transport, rather than the current situation (described in the above articles), see history of rail transport in Great Britain and history of rail transport in Ireland. The United Kingdom, despite its island geography, runs three separate cross border train services:

Eurostar at St Pancras railway station

Eurostar at St. Pancras International

Enterprise Train Lisburn 2007

Enterprise train at Lisburn

National Rail logo
National Rail (Great Britain)
NIR logo
NI Railways (Northern Ireland)

See also

Community rail

Community rail in Britain is the support of railway lines and stations by local organisations, usually through community rail partnerships (CRPs) comprising railway operators, local councils, and other community organisations, and rail user groups (RUGs). Community railways are managed to fit local circumstances recognising the need to increase revenue, reduce costs, increase community involvement and support social and economic development.

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) supports its fifty or so member CRPs and also offers assistance to voluntary station friends groups that support their local stations through the station adoption scheme. Since 2005 the Department for Transport has formally designated a number of railway lines as community rail schemes in order to recognise the need for different, more appropriate standards than are applied to main line railway routes, and therefore make them more cost effective.

CrossCountry network

CrossCountry is a train operating company that has operated Great Britain’s Cross Country rail franchise since 11 November 2007.

The basic routes are:

There are also extensions to the normal service pattern:

to Penzance from Plymouth

to Glasgow Central from Edinburgh Waverley

to Aberdeen from Edinburgh Waverley

to Cardiff Central from Bristol Temple Meads

to Paignton from Bristol Temple Meads

to Guildford from Reading

to Southampton Central from Reading

Frog war

In American railroading, a frog war occurs when a private railroad company attempts to cross the tracks of another, and this results in hostilities, with the courts usually getting involved, but often long after companies have taken the matter in their own hands and settled, with hordes of workers battling each other. It is named after the frog, the piece of track that allows the two tracks to join or cross and is usually part of a level junction or railroad switch.

Sometimes the first railroad was built specifically to delay the completion of the second.

History of rail transport in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and previously consisted of Great Britain and the whole of Ireland. Rail transport systems developed independently on the two islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and most of the railway construction in the Republic of Ireland was undertaken before independence in 1922. Thus, the logical division to discuss the history of railways in these areas is by geographical division, rather than the political division of nation states.

History of rail transport in Great Britain discusses the history of rail transport on the larger of the British isles, comprising England, Scotland and Wales. Here, the vast majority of the railway system standardised on the standard gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm).

History of rail transport in Ireland discusses the history of rail transport on the island of Ireland, comprising the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Here a system using a broad gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) developed.

Inter-city rail in the United Kingdom

In Great Britain, there are inter-city trains to numerous parts of the country. Most of these trains are high speed, and some operate into France and Belgium.

After the sectorisation of British Rail, inter-city trains were operated by InterCity. InterCity ran trains from London to Devon, Cornwall, Bristol, South Wales, Cheltenham, the Cotswolds, Oxford, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, North Wales, North West England, Yorkshire and the Humber, North East England, Scotland, East Anglia, and London Gatwick Airport. There were also numerous cross-country services, which were inter-city services that traversed several regions and usually avoided Greater London.

The UK's longest direct rail service is operated by CrossCountry from Aberdeen to Penzance, and takes 13 hours 23 minutes to complete.

Inter-city trains from London operate out of the following London terminals:

London Paddington — trains to Devon, Cornwall, Bristol, South Wales, Cheltenham, the Cotswolds, Oxford and the West Midlands;

London Euston — trains to North Wales, North West England, the West Midlands and Scotland;

London St Pancras — trains to the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, France and Belgium;

London King's Cross — trains to the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, North East England and Scotland;

London Liverpool Street — trains to Essex and East Anglia.The following train operating companies operate inter-city trains in Great Britain (operators marked with an asterisk are open-access operators):

Caledonian Sleeper


East Midlands Railway


Great Western Railway

Greater Anglia

Grand Central*

Hull Trains*

London North Eastern Railway

Virgin Trains West Coast

TransPennine Express

Multiple working

On the UK rail network, multiple working is where two or more traction units (locomotives, diesel multiple-units or electric multiple-units) are coupled together in such a way that they are all under the control of one driver (multiple-unit train control).

If the front locomotive of a pair in multiple has failed the driver can still control the rear locomotive for as long as air and electricity supplies are available on the failed locomotive.

In tandem is when more than one diesel or electric locomotive are hauling a single train and under the control of a driver on each locomotive.


ORCATS (Operational Research Computerised Allocation of Tickets to Services), is a large centralised legacy computer system used on passenger railways in Great Britain. It is used for real time reservation and revenue sharing on interavailable tickets between train operating companies (TOCs). The system is used to divide ticket revenue when a ticket or journey involves trains operated by multiple TOCs. The system was owned by British Rail, and is now managed by the Rail Delivery Group.


Plusbus is an add-on ticket, which can be purchased with National Rail train tickets in the United Kingdom. It allows unlimited travel on participating bus and tram operators' services in the whole urban area of rail-served towns and cities.

Railway Clearing House

The British Railway Clearing House (RCH) was an organisation set up to manage the allocation of revenue collected by pre-grouping railway companies of fares and charges paid for passengers and goods travelling over the lines of other companies.

Railway Correspondence and Travel Society

The Railway Correspondence and Travel Society (RCTS) is a national society founded in Cheltenham, UK in 1928 to bring together those interested in rail transport and locomotives.

Since 1929 the Society has published a regular journal The Railway Observer which records the current railway scene. It also has regional branches which organise meetings and trips to places of interest and a members’ library.It has published definitive multivolume locomotive histories of the Great Western, Southern and London and North Eastern Railways, and has in progress similar works on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and BR standard steam locomotives. It also has published many other historical railway books since the mid 1950s.

On 2 November 2016, the RCTS become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), registered number 11699995.

Railway Mania

Railway Mania was an instance of speculative frenzy in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1840s. It followed a common pattern: as the price of railway shares increased, more and more money was poured in by speculators until the inevitable collapse. It reached its zenith in 1846, when no fewer than 272 Acts of Parliament were passed, setting up new railway companies, with the proposed routes totalling 9,500 miles (15,300 km) of new railway. Around a third of the railways authorised were never built – the companies either collapsed due to poor financial planning, were bought out by larger competitors before they could build their line, or turned out to be fraudulent enterprises to channel investors' money into other businesses.

Railway Regulation Act 1844

The Railway Regulation Act 1844 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom providing a minimum standard for rail passenger travel. It provided compulsory services at a price affordable to poorer people to enable them to travel to find work. It is one of the Railway Regulation Acts 1840 to 1893.

Railway and Canal Historical Society

The Railway and Canal Historical Society was founded in the United Kingdom in 1954 to bring together all those interested in the history of transport, with particular reference to railways and waterways in Britain, its main objects being to promote historical research and to raise the standard of published history.


Sandite is a substance used on railways in the UK, Ireland, US, the Netherlands and Belgium to combat leaves on the line, which can cause train wheels to slip and become damaged with flat spots. Sandite consists of a mixture of sand, aluminium and a unique type of adhesive.

Leaf build up on the railhead can also cause signalling issues and 'disappearing trains' on the rail control systems (because of the electrically insulating effect of the leaves, which can prevent operation of track circuits).

British Rail conducted research, in 1976, to determine the suitability of Sandite for use as an adhesion improver.

Stephenson Locomotive Society

The Stephenson Locomotive Society (SLS) was founded in the UK in Autumn 1909 for the study of rail transport and locomotives. More recently, on 1 January 2017, the SLS became a private company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales 10471004 (Current Registered Office First Floor, Templeback, 10 Temple Back, BRISTOL, BS1 6FL).

The Society was originally named The Stephenson Society in honour of the Stephenson family of engineers and not solely George Stephenson as often, erroneously, stated. In late 1911 the professional engineers seceded from the Society to form the Junior Institution of Locomotive Engineers and the Society then took its present name. Despite this the SLS has since attracted professional locomotive engineers such as William Stanier, Oliver Bulleid and André Chapelon, as well as amateurs.

It also has local Centres which organise meetings and trips of railway interest.In 1927 the SLS organised the preservation of London, Brighton and South Coast Railway B1 Class steam locomotive Gladstone; the first locomotive to be preserved by private subscription. In due course it was donated to the UK National Collection and is now in the care of the National Railway Museum. The SLS are custodians of a historic miniature steam locomotive Orion constructed to run on 9½ in. (241 mm) gauge track, based on the London and North Western Railway Webb Compound design. As of February 2013 Orion is on long term loan and display at the Shildon Locomotion Museum.

Strategic Rail Authority

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) was a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom set up under the Transport Act 2000 to provide strategic direction for the railway industry. Its motto was 'Britain's railway, properly delivered'. It was abolished by the Railways (Abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority) Order 2006, its functions being absorbed by the Department for Transport or the Office of Rail Regulation (now the Office of Rail and Road).

Structure of the rail industry in the United Kingdom

There are effectively two separate mainline railway systems in the United Kingdom – the Great Britain system and the Northern Ireland system, which are regulated and operated separately, and are constituted under separate pieces of United Kingdom legislation.

Thomas Savin

Thomas Savin (1826 – 23 July 1889) was a British railway engineer who was the contractor who built many railways in Wales and the Welsh borders from 1857 to 1866. He also in some cases was an investor in such schemes.

Trafford Park Railway

The Trafford Park Railway System is a disused railway system that runs around the site of large Trafford Park Industrial Estate. Rail service stopped in 1998, although some of the infrastructure remains.

Major railway stations in Great Britain
Major railway stations in Northern Ireland
Sovereign states
States with limited
Dependencies and
other entities
Other entities


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