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Train operating companies

The British rail system is comprised of 29 different train operators that are collectively known as National Rail. Although some of these are just suburban rail operators, most of these companies operate mainline rail services.

These train companies include: Arriva Trains WalesChiltern RailwaysCrossCountryEast CoastEast Midlands TrainsFirst Capital ConnectFirst Great WesternFirst TransPennine ExpressHull TrainsLondon MidlandNational Express East AngliaNorthern RailScotRail,South West TrainsSouthernVirgin Trains and Wrexham & Shropshire.

In most cases it doesn’t matter which train company you use since the ticket office at the station will usually sell tickets for the next departure regardless of which company operates the train and all train operating companies accept the Britrail Pass. However the presence of competing train companies on some routes mean that one company may undercut another’s prices and offer a better deal. An example is how Chiltern Railways and London Midland run trains between London and Birmingham starting at £5 each way, while Virgin Trains charge up to £66 for essentially the same trip.

It is always a good idea to check your route on the National Rail website for times, prices and details of the train operating company and then check that company’s website for any specials.

Ticket types

The names of train tickets in the UK have been simplified so the whole process of buying tickets is more straightforward. For most travellers this is not big deal, but if you are returning to the UK after a few years out of the country, some fare types now have new names. For instance, a “cheap day return” is now called an “off-peak return”.

The ticket types are:

Advance
Advance tickets are good value for longer trips and must be purchased in advance with the ticket valid for a specific train departure.

Anytime
These are the most flexible, and most expensive, tickets. There are no time restrictions and you can travel during peak hours on the same day you buy the ticket.

Off-Peak
These are cheaper fares for travel outside peak hours. Where there are several off-peak fares for the same journey, the cheapest off-peak fare (with the most restrictions) is called Super Off-Peak.