From stunning scenery to the fastest routes and finest carriages, Alex McWhirter picks some of the UK’s best train experiences
UK rail passenger numbers have more than doubled over the past 20 years, according to the Office of Rail and Road – that’s in contrast to mainland Europe, where growth has been moderate at best. The increase is down to factors including more modern trains, better pricing, a rising population, increased long-distance commuting and the fact that rail travel has become fashionable. In no particular order, here is a compilation of ten UK rail routes that are suitable for business and leisure travel alike and will find favour with many rail fans.
LONDON KING’S CROSS-EDINBURGH WAVERLEY VIRGIN TRAINS EAST COAST
This is considered the UK’s flagship route and doubtless that is why Virgin Trains East Coast pays a substantial government premium to operate the franchise. The finest scenery is north of York and between Newcastle and Edinburgh, where the line hugs the North Sea coast.
- Journey time: 4 hours 20 minutes
LONDON EUSTON-FORT WILLIAM/INVERNESS CALEDONIAN SLEEPER
Although the Caledonian Sleeper also covers Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, I recommend the route to Inverness or Fort William because of the views it allows of the Highlands in the early morning or evening during the summer. Although booking the single and double-berth compartments can be costly, you do save on a night’s hotel accommodation.
- Journey time: 11 hours
A scenic mainline. The section between Settle and Carlisle is reputed to be the most dramatic as it traverses the “roof” of England. By rights, this line shouldn’t exist today, as it was saved from closure only after a lengthy campaign. There is a problem – a landslip near Appleby means part of the line will be closed for months. But replacement buses are provided and the most scenic section remains unaffected. If heading for Glasgow, change to Virgin Trains at Carlisle.
- Journey time: 3 hours; 4 hours 15 minutes
LONDON MARYLEBONE-BIRMINGHAM CHILTERN RAILWAYS
Both Virgin Trains and Chiltern offer the route. Virgin is faster and more frequent but is more expensive. Chiltern’s Silver trains operate several times a day over a pleasant route using the finest ex-BR mainline rolling stock.
- Journey time: 1 hour 38 minutes
LONDON PADDINGTON-PLYMOUTH GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY
The most spectacular part of this line is at Dawlish, where it runs alongside the sea wall and the beach.
- Journey time: 3 hours
BIRMINGHAM-NEWCASTLE CROSS COUNTRY
What was once a Cinderella rail service has been transformed and many business people have since defected from flying. Trains are faster and more frequent than before, while air services are minimal.
- Journey time: 3 hours 15 minutes
LONDON WATERLOO-EXETER CENTRAL SOUTH WEST TRAINS
If you have time, this route makes an interesting alternative from the more recognised Great Western Railway service from Paddington. It features a switchback line west of Salisbury.
- Journey time: 3 hours 15 minutes
MANCHESTER PICCADILLY-LEEDS TRANSPENNINE EXPRESS
The shortest route through the Pennines linking these two northern cities. The government has great plans for this key line, with faster trains and electrification, so services can only improve.
- Journey time 49 minutes
LONDON EUSTON-MANCHESTER PICCADILLY VIRGIN TRAINS
The most efficient way to travel between the cities, as flying is now only convenient if you are transferring at Heathrow or live near the airport. Fast and frequent trains.
- Journey time: 2 hours 4 minutes
LONDON ST PANCRAS-LEICESTER EAST MIDLANDS TRAINS
With a regular service, this provides an escape from the horrors of the M1, proving to be the fastest, easiest way to reach the East Midlands city from the capital.
- Journey time: 1 hour 3 minutes