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Unlike most countries in the world, public transport in the United Kingdom is mostly privatised. There is some funding from the government, but most companies operate individually. Of course, this brings great advantages such as good customer service, flexibility in timetabling and independence from the political party leading the country. However, this also brings its disadvantages with increasing ticket prices and an ever competitive environment of companies trying to take you in as a customer. In today’s blog we’ll look at how the public transport system works here so you can easily get around if you visit the UK.
The public transport system is vast in the UK and there is increasing investment in new transport projects. The most recent, although slightly controversial, project is HS2- a high-speed railway to connect northern cities to London. The most popular means of public transport in the UK is the train, but we also have an extensive bus and coach network, underground systems, trams, ferries, taxis and, of course, cars.
The UK has the oldest railway system in the world, with the first passenger steam train network opening on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. Since then, the network has evolved and lived through phases of being state-owned. But between 1996 and 1997, the entire British railway system was privatised and became known as National Rail.
National Rail is responsible for the ticketing, staffing and customer service of the railway system, but it is a different company, Network Rail, that actually owns the stations, signals, tracks and the network itself. Network Rail also creates and publishes the timetables.
However, the actual trains and rail services are provided by local train operating companies (TOCs). To date there are 28 TOCs and each one runs in a certain geographical area. For example, Gatwick Express exclusively runs in and out of Gatwick airport to local areas, London North Eastern Railway runs from London to the North East and South Western Railway runs in the South West of England.
These TOCs bid for routes and services from the UK Government’s Department of Transport and Network Rail, so you may find different companies providing different services each year depending on the success of their bid. These franchises are awarded to each TOC based on how much they’re willing to pay, how much they want in subsidy from the government and customer experience. This franchising process is audited and more recently has included public consultation too.
As you can see, it’s a pretty complicated system, so what does that mean when you visit the UK?
Most importantly, the sign of anything rail-related in Great Britain is the logo of the National Rail. Outside all train stations or offices, on most advertising material and also on printed tickets, you should see this symbol.
If you want to purchase a ticket, you can buy directly from each of the 28 TOCs on their website or from a ticket office, which you can find at most train stations. However, the most popular method for buying tickets in the UK is through Trainline, which is an independent train ticket retailer. Trainline shows all the services offered by all TOCs and they offer good prices too. You can download their app or use their website to purchase a ticket. Rail tickets are not cheap in the UK and even deciding which ticket you need can be complicated.
This is a ticket that goes in one direction (from A to B).
This is a ticket that goes in two directions (from A to B and back to A again) but your return journey must be scheduled.
This is a ticket that goes in two directions (from A to B and back to A again) but your return journey can be at any time.
This is an average ticket that provides you with a seat and normally an electrical socket too.
First-class service varies depending on which TOC you use, but you may be offered a free meal/snacks, a quiet zone, free WiFi and a lounge at the station.
These are tickets you buy in advance (i.e. any day before the date of travel). These are not normally flexible, so you cannot change the date or time of travel. If you miss this train, you will have to buy a new ticket.
You can choose to travel at any time on a specific day.
You can choose to travel at any time on any day in the time period you selected.
Peak times are the most popular times to travel and these vary in each city. For example, in London, peak times are Monday to Friday 6:30am-9:30am and 4pm-7pm. Tickets are more expensive in peak times. Most TOCs offer an “off-peak” ticket, which you can use at any time that is off-peak. In London, for example, this would be between 9:30am and 4pm and from 7pm to 6:30am.
This is a new addition to the ticket collection. This is similar to off-peak tickets, but offers even more restricted times of travel. In London, for example, super-off-peak times are 10am-3.30pm and from 7:15pm-midnight.
If you are in the UK for a long time, generally for work, there are season tickets, which offer a discounted price for regular travel every few months and groupsave tickets, which offer a discounted price if you travel in a small group.
Tips from a native for travelling by train
It’s really important that you purchase a ticket before you get on a train otherwise you can be fined heavily. In most stations nowadays there are electronic barriers, so you can’t access the platform without a ticket (either an e-ticket or a paper ticket).
A lot of trains require you to find a specific seat. Especially if you have booked in advance and with longer travels, you will see a seat number and carriage number on your ticket. Find this seat for your journey. In city-centres with high volumes of passengers, you can often just sit in any seat you want.
When you buy a ticket, it will normally be for only one TOC. This means if you miss your train or want to get another one, you must check it is with the same TOC. For example, if you purchase a ticket with South Western Railways to travel to London Waterloo but miss this train and the next train to London Waterloo is with Cross Country, you cannot travel with your ticket. You must either pay for a new ticket with Cross Country or wait until the next train with the TOC you have purchased with.
If you’re in the UK for quite a while, try buying the Railcard. There are different railcards depending on your age and travel type, but they offer discounts on all your train tickets. When my partner’s family came to visit the UK for Christmas last year, we all bought a Railcard and saved just over £100 in train travel.
There is also free transport for those with a disability and for the ederly, but this depends on the TOC, so read the information on the website carefully.
The bus network is also local in the UK, but there are five main bus companies that you will see around: Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead Group, National Express and Stagecoach. All of these companies have apps where you can purchase your tickets and scan them when you enter the bus. You can also pay cash on most buses to the bus driver and many buses now have contactless payment, so you simply scan your debit/credit card.
Getting tickets for the bus is a little bit simpler, it can either be a single ticket (in one direction) or a return ticket (in two directions). You can travel whenever you want and the timetables are displayed at the bus stop. On most apps, you have a live tracker of the buses, so you can see exactly when it will arrive.
If you’re travelling a long distance from one end of the country to another, the vehicle is called a coach. Coaches normally offer more comfortable travelling services, with space to store baggage, toilets and sockets. If you purchase a coach ticket, this is normally for a set time and there is no flexibility, so don’t miss it! The most common coach companies are National Express and Megabus.
Tips from a native for travelling by bus
Have a look at the season tickets on offer. Most companies offer a day ticket, a week ticket or a month ticket. If you’re visiting the UK for a week, it might be worth getting a week ticket with unlimited bus travel.
Similar to the rail network, each bus company operates individually. If you buy a ticket for Stagecoach, you cannot use this ticket on National Express, for example. So watch out for the company names on the front of the buses.
All buses are numbered in the UK. When you arrive at a bus stop, you will see a bus number and the route. Look out for that bus number on the screen on the front.
Not all the buses stop. If you’re waiting at a bus stop and don’t look like you want to get on the bus, it’s possible that the bus might drive right past you. So you need to be aware and watch out for your bus. Stand on the pavement and put your hand out to hail a bus to stop and pick you up.
You can normally only get on a bus from the front. In most European countries I’ve visited, you can get onto the bus using any of the doors. In the UK, you can only get on using the front door, where the driver is and you must have a ticket. If you don’t buy or show a ticket you won’t be allowed on. But you can get off any door.
Look out for our famous double-decker buses. It’s a great experience to sit on the top deck and look out during your bus journey!
Queueing is important in British culture. If you’re waiting at a bus stop, there will probably be a queue to get on the bus. If somebody is there before you, expect them to get on the bus first and wait for your turn. Don’t rush onto the bus, this is considered to be very rude.
Be patient when getting on the bus. Wait for all the people to get off the bus first before you get on. If you try to get on, it is also considered rude and the bus driver may ask you to step off.
Taxis are a common means of transport in the UK, but they can be very expensive. In London, you have the typical black cab and in the rest of the UK, individual private taxi companies will run in a geographical area. The newest self-service taxi is Uber, which is available in the big cities in the UK, but not normally in smaller areas. Although, their licence has been revoked a few times in London, so don’t always expect it to be easy to order an Uber.
Tips from a native for travelling by taxi
You can see if a taxi is taken or not with the light on the top of it. If the light is turned on, it means they are free and don’t have any passengers. If the light is turned off, they won’t pick you up as they already have another passenger.
To hail a taxi in the UK simply stand at the side of the pavement and stick your arm out. They will normally drive over to you (if it’s safe to do so) and you can get in.
Always check the taxi has a taxi license, sometimes visible in the front screen of the taxi. There has sadly been a rise in crime taking place from people using “fake taxis”, so be sure to check and always have your phone to hand just in case. On the Transport for London website, you can check any taxi licence.
Make sure the taxi driver shows you the fare and taxi meter on the screen at the front of the taxi. This way, you know how much your journey will cost.
It’s always worth asking the taxi driver how much a journey will cost before you get in. You might be able to negotiate the price down before you get in, or just have an idea of what you’ll have to pay.
There are usually big taxi ranks in the cities and if you wait long enough, a taxi will appear.
Driving is, by far, the most popular means of transport in the UK. British cities and villages and all connected by a system of motorways, controlled by Highways England in England and by other companies in the devolved countries.
To drive in the UK you must have a driving licence, which you can get when you turn 17. The process of learning how to drive is very structured in the UK. First, you must apply for a provisional driving licence. You can do this from the age of 15 years and 9 months old. With this provisional licence you can get inside a car and learn how to drive it. You must have an experienced driver (at least 21 years of age and have had their driving licence for 3 years) with you at all times. Having a trained driving instructor with you is the best way to learn, but this can be very expensive, so many people learn from their family, using their parents’ or siblings’ cars.
To get your driving licence, you must complete two tests. First is a theory exam which tests your knowledge of the highway code and second is the practical exam, driving with an instructor. Only when you have passed these tests can you actually drive by yourself. You may see a “P” sign on the back of cars whose drivers have only recently passed their test and are new to the road. Unlike many other countries, there are no regular tests for driving until you reach the age of 70. At 70, you must renew your driving licence and then every 2 years after this.
If you’re thinking about driving in the UK, remember that we drive on the left side of the road!
It’s very easy to rent a car in the UK if you’re travelling as a tourist and if you don’t want to spend so much money on public transport, it can be a great alternative. You can normally rent a car at airports and large train stations.
To rent a car in the UK you will need a valid driving licence. If you are an EU citizen, you can bring your own driving licence from your country, but if you are non-EU, you must have an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can only get this within 3 months of your travel and there are a few forms to fill out to apply for this. If you are non-EU, you should bring both your driving licence and the IDP.
Most rental companies will ask for your passport, which you probably would have needed anyway to get into the UK! A lot of car rental companies will ask for proof of your address, such as a bill or a bank statement, so remember to bring this along too. A lot of rental companies will also ask for your flight/travel details and hotel/accommodation information and they may ask for information about any previous travel to the UK.
Tips from a native for travelling by car
Insurance is obligatory in the UK. Even as a learner in a car, you must have an insurance policy. Check what the policies are for driving insurance as a tourist renting a car.
All our speed signs are in mph (miles per hour). The maximum speed you can go is 70mph on a motorway, country roads are 60mph and other areas, such as towns and villages, will have signs showing what the speed limit is. There are many speed cameras on the roads in the UK, so it’s very easy to be caught speeding. You can be fined heavily, have points added to your licence and even have your licence taken away from you for speeding.
Drink driving is taken very seriously in the UK, although there is not a zero-tolerance policy. The limit for driving is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood or 35 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. This limit is even lower in Scotland at 50mg/100ml of blood and 22mg/100ml breath.
It is illegal to use your mobile phone whilst driving. You can be fined heavily, given points, have your licence taken away from you and even go to prison for this.
Unlike a few other countries, it is mandatory to wear a seatbelt.
Tolls don’t really exist in the UK. In fact, there are 23 in total throughout the UK. 18 of these are river crossings on bridges that require a lot of upkeep. The others are in bigger cities to try and reduce congestion. The cost of these tolls varies from £0.40 up to £5.50, so if you’re travelling near a toll, remember to have the money available.
Of course, the transport will vary and this information could change at any moment, especially with political uncertainties such as Brexit, but I hope this gives you a useful insight into how to get around in the UK!
When it comes to London, it’s a whole other kettle of fish and we’ll release a new blog on Wednesday with more detailed information about how to make the most of public transport in London, so look out for this!
*The material and information provided in this post is for general information purposes only.