Train service within Scotland is generally run by ScotRail, one of the most efficient of Britain's service providers. Trains are modern, clean, and comfortable. Long-distance services carry buffet and refreshment cars. Scotland's rail network extends all the way to Thurso and Wick, the most northerly stations in the British Isles. Lowland services, most of which originate in Glasgow or Edinburgh, are generally fast and reliable. A shuttle makes the 50-minute trip between Glasgow and Edinburgh every 15 minutes. It's a scenic trip with plenty of rolling fields, livestock, and traditional houses along the way. Rail service throughout the country, especially the Highlands, is limited on Sunday.
Most trains have first-class and standard-class coaches. First-class coaches are always less crowded; they have wider seats and are often cleaner and newer than standard-class cars, and they're a lot more expensive. However, on weekends you can often upgrade from standard to first class for a fee (often £10 to £20)—ask when you book.
Fares and Schedules
The best way to find out which train to take, which station to catch it at, and what times trains travel to your destination is to call National Rail Enquiries. It's a helpful, comprehensive service that covers all Britain's rail lines. National Rail will help you choose the best train to take, and then connects you with the ticket office for that train company so that you can buy tickets. You can also check schedules and purchase tickets on its website.
Train fares vary according to class of ticket purchased, time (off-peak travel will be much cheaper), and distance traveled. Before you buy your ticket, stop at the Information Office/Travel Centre and request the lowest fare to your destination and information about any special offers. There's sometimes little difference between the cost of a one-way and round-trip ticket, and returns are valid for one month. So if you're planning on departing from and returning to the same destination, buy a round-trip fare upon your departure, rather than purchasing two separate one-way tickets.
It's often much cheaper to buy a ticket in advance than on the day of your trip (except for commuter services); the closer to the date of travel, the more expensive the ticket will be. Try to purchase tickets at least eight weeks in advance during peak-season summer travel to save money and reserve good seats. You must stick to the train you have booked (penalties can be the full price), and you need to keep the seat reservation ticket, which is part of the valid ticket.
Check train websites, especially ScotRail, for deals. You can also check the Trainline, which sells discounted advance-purchase tickets from all train companies to all destinations in Britain.
National Rail Enquiries. 03457/484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk.
ScotRail. 0344/811–0141; www.scotrail.co.uk.
The Trainline. 0333/202–2222; www.thetrainline.com.
All major credit cards are accepted for train fares paid in person, online, and by phone.
Reserving your ticket in advance is always recommended.
Tickets and rail passes do not guarantee seats on the trains. For that you need a seat reservation (essential for peak travel trains to and from Edinburgh during the summer festivals), which if made at the time of ticket purchase is usually included in the ticket price, or, if booked separately, must be paid for at a cost of £1 per train on your itinerary. You also need a reservation for the overnight sleeper trains.
Rail passes may save you money, especially if you're going to log a lot of miles. If you plan to travel by train in Scotland, consider purchasing a BritRail Pass, which also allows travel in England and Wales. All BritRail passes must be purchased in your home country; they're sold by travel agents as well as ACP, The Trainline, or Rail Europe. Rail passes do not guarantee seats on the trains, so be sure to reserve ahead. Remember that Eurail Passes aren't honored in Great Britain.
The cost of an unlimited BritRail adult pass for 4 days is $214/$323 (standard/first class); for 8 days, $384/$572; for 15 days, $572/$845; for 22 days, $715/$1,074; and for a month, $845/$1,271. The Youth Pass, for ages 16 to 25, costs $221/$325 for 4 days; $308/$458 for 8 days; $458/$676 for 15 days; $572/$859 for 22 days; and $676/$1,017 for one month. The Senior Pass, for those over 60, costs $265/$341 for 4 days; $384/$486 for 8 days; $572/$718 for 15 days; $715/$913 for 22 days; and $845/$1,081 for one month. The Scottish Freedom Pass allows transportation on all Caledonian MacBrayne and Strathclyde ferries in addition to major bus links and the Glasgow underground. You can travel any 4 days in an 8-day period for $229 or any 8 days in a 15-day period for $308.
ACP Rail International. 866/938–7245; www.acprail.com.
BritRail Travel. www.britrail.com.
Rail Europe. 0844/848–4078; 800/622–8600; www.raileurope.com.
There are two main rail routes to Scotland from the south of England. The first, the west-coast main line, runs from London Euston to Glasgow Central; it takes 5½ hours to make the 400-mile trip to central Scotland, and service is frequent and reliable. Useful for daytime travel to the Scottish Highlands is the direct train to Stirling and Aviemore, terminating at Inverness. For a restful route to the Scottish Highlands, take the overnight sleeper service, with sleeping carriages. It runs from London Euston, departing in late evening, to Perth, Stirling, Aviemore, and Inverness, where it arrives the following morning. The new Caledonian Sleeper operator as of 2015, Serco Abellio, has introduced some marginal improvements to the long-established service, although new trains, carriages and berths are not due until 2018.
The east-coast main line from London King's Cross to Edinburgh provides the quickest trip to the Scottish capital. Between 8 am and 6 pm there are 16 trains to Edinburgh, 3 of them through to Aberdeen. Limited-stop expresses like the Flying Scotsman make the 393-mile London–to–Edinburgh journey in around four hours. Connecting services to most parts of Scotland—particularly the Western Highlands—are often better from Edinburgh than from Glasgow.
Trains from elsewhere in England are good: regular service connects Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Bristol with Glasgow and Edinburgh. From Harwich (the port of call for ships from Holland, Germany, and Denmark), you can travel to Glasgow via Manchester. But it's faster to change at Peterborough for the east-coast main line to Edinburgh.
Although many routes in Scotland run through extremely attractive countryside, several stand out: from Glasgow to Oban via Loch Lomond; to Fort William and Mallaig via Rannoch (ferry connection to Skye); from Edinburgh to Inverness via the Forth Bridge and Perth; from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and to Wick; and from Inverness to Aberdeen.
A private train, the Royal Scotsman, does all-inclusive scenic tours, with banquets en route. This is a luxury experience: you choose itineraries from two nights (£2,420) to seven nights (£9,200) per person.
Caledonian Sleeper. To travel London-Edinburgh in a Standard Sleeper Seat starts at £50; for comfort consider a Sleeper Berth in a shared cabin, starting at £75. For cheapest tickets book 12 weeks in advance of travel. 0330/060–0500; 141/ 555–0888; www.sleeper.scot.
The Royal Scotsman. 0845/077–2222; 800/524–2420; www.royalscotsman.com.