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National Rail website - The Good and the Ugly

When planning a trip by rail across England, I was surprised to learn how many separate railway companies there are. For example, the cheapest and fastest way to travel from Leamington Spa to Liverpool James Street, a journey of less than a hundred miles, involves three separate railways!

What I like about the National Rail website is that it quickly sorts through the options, showing the time, cost, and stops along the way and seamlessly combines travel legs from different companies.

Unless you're looking to travel on a Saturday. Then, for some unexplainable reason, the website assumes you really wanted to travel on the prior Friday and shows trips on that day. I tested this on multiple different Saturdays in May, June and July, as I was trying to understand the train schedules. Are there strange British blue laws prohibiting Saturday travel? Did I accidentally enter Jewish sabbath mode? Finally, I figured out that if I kept hitting the "later trains" button, scrolling past all the Friday afternoon journeys, past the overnight trips, I could finally scroll my way into Saturday. Still, rather a Monty Python way to get to the info desired. It was a funny walk. "Keeping you on your toes!" could be the new National Rail motto.

Posted by
193 posts

Are there strange British blue laws prohibiting Saturday travel?

No. Heaven knows what you did to come to that conclusion.

Posted by
983 posts

Why on earth do you want to go to James St? That will inevitably lead to one change. Leamington to Liverpool Lime St will need another two companies. Leamington to Lime St with a change, probably at Birmingham New St, will get you there. Take a cab from there to wherever your accommodation is.

Posted by
6849 posts

I've noticed that as well with the National Rail site. I have a feeling it might be the same problem that Premier Inns have, in that it's using the dates and times that are current in the UK, and it's messing up the attempted booking (see https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/england/anyone-else-have-problems-booking-premier-inn-reservation-dates-potentially-off-by-one-day)

I don't know if that really is the case, but since it only seems to happen with NR, i guess it could be.

Posted by
907 posts

it isn't uncommon with websites outside the US to adjust to users' local time when queried from the US. I have had this happen on numerous occasions and from numerous countries when researching from the US.

My favorite was working with a private guide in Asia - I would send her my preferred timetable and she would confirm with a different day. We both quickly recognized what was going on - international dateline as well as time difference.

Posted by
6492 posts

Unlike in America all the railways work together as one system- with through ticketing (at least for full priced fares) between them all. It doesn't really matter to the average traveller which railway they are travelling on.

No idea why the NR website is doing that for you, but it is not doing the same for me, living in the UK.

In America there are a multitude of different passenger railroad companies with no through ticketing between any of them.

And no simple way at all to get an overall picture of who goes where- nothing even vaguely like the National Rail website.

The total lack of a system timetable (even timetables for individual lines) for Amtrak nowadays is utterly bizarre and maddening. How is anyone meant to know where Amtrak runs to, other by trial and error?

If you take the slower trains you should be able to travel with the same company all the way from Leamington Spa to Liverpool Lime Street.

Posted by
12 posts

Thanks to Mardee and ORDtraveler for suggesting a time zone cause for my disappearing Saturday schedules. That sounds suspiciously likely. I'd already figured out that I needed to set my VPN region to UK in order to create a TFL account. I'd flipped it back to US before looking at the National Rail website. Next time, I'll try leaving it at UK and see whether that makes a difference. [I never thought I'd write a sentence with that many acronyms. BTW, trigger warning... some posts contain mild humor, like inane references to blue laws. And, yeah... slag away at the American railroad non-system. A few people like Pete Buttigieg are trying to fix it, but it's an uphill battle. ]

Why James Street? The Liverpool docks are a fascinating place! The Maritime museum and archives look fantastic. I can't wait to visit. I specifically wanted to be in the docks area to soak up as much of that history as possible, so my hotel is right on the docks. James Street station is walking distance.

Posted by
2455 posts

In Britain, the government effectively own the tracks and have an organisation called Network Rail to run the infrastructure - such as renewing tracks and replacing bridges. The train companies are given rights to operate on the tracks with defined routes. So, for example, GWR (Great Western Railway) operate out of London Paddington to places west such as Bristol, south Wales, Oxford, Hereford, Devon & Cornwall. Out of London Euston, it is Avanti West Coast to Birmingham, Manchester, Holyhead, Liverpool and all the way to Glasgow. Another company called London North Western operate slower stopping service out of Euston and these are cheaper than the Avanti expresses.

On nationalrail.co.uk (& the other train websites) you can purchase a ticket form any station to any other station and it will work out the route, fare and changes. You will also find route maps for Britain. The USA & Canada seem to be hopeless at even producing decent websites for their train operations - which especially makes it difficult for foreigners.

Also note that in Britain, you can buy Rover Tickets if you are likely to benefit - https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/ticket-types/promotions/?promotionType=ranger-rover

Also check out if buying a Railcard works out in your favour for the amount of train travel you intend to do. Note that some Railcards do not allow the discounted travel before 9.30am on weekdays. If for example, you wish to catch a train at 9.10am, you will not be able to use the Railcard to get a third off the fare. The way around this is to find the first place that the train reaches after 9.30am and purchase ticket(s) to that place not using the Railcard. Then use the Railcard for the rest of the journey with the discount applied. (You can pre buy the tickets on the assumption you will have a Railcard. You must have the Railcard on you for any journey leg where the discount has been sought).

One odd thing about train travel in Britain is that it can sometimes be cheaper to split the tickets to lower the prices. These splits must be at a place(s) where your train stops - even though you don’t get off. Some websites have emerged that work out if journeys are cheaper by doing splits. These charge a commission on the amount that is saved. I have listed some below.
https://www.thetrainline.com
https://www.traintickets.com/?/
https://beta.trainsplit.com

Posted by
983 posts

Why James Street? The Liverpool docks are a fascinating place!

Indeed they are. But there is no need to change trains at Lime St to get another one to get out at James St. It's perfectly possible to walk from the main station at Lime St down to the docks, although with your bags and an unfamiliar city I would probably just take a cab for the short ride to accommodation. I'd probably recommend that from James St too for many of the hotels in the docks area.

Posted by
12 posts

Thanks, James, for the info about splits and the links to useful web sites. I'll check that out.

Johnew52, I'm beginning to suspect you moonlight as a cabbie, ha! ha!

Posted by
15573 posts

Quiet often, when I'm traveling from one city to another I will first look at the main stations.

Then I will see what it is like to travel to a secondary station that may be closer to where I am going.

If that seems to be long or complicated, I look at the local transportation in that city.

As an example, In a couple of weeks I am traveling from Helsinki to Turkuu in Finland. Because of construction on the line, they want to route me with a couple of changes along the way for a trip over 2.5 hours. However, I can take a train direct from Helsinki to Kupitta which is less than two hours. From Kupitta I can switch to a local bus for the 10 minute journey in Turkuu.

On the way back, I have to go to Helsinki Airport. If I use the train system, it would involve two changes. But if I take the train back to Helsinki, I can then catch a local train direct to the airport. Much easier.

Posted by
6492 posts

I haven't looked at the suggested routes, but if I was going to James Street I might be inclined to go Leamington Spa to Birmingham New Street, Birmingham New Street to Chester direct (routed via Shrewsbury), a bit of time in Chester, then a Merseyrail train from Chester every 15 minutes, rather than changing at Lime Street from High Level to Low Level.

If you're staying on the waterfront, and arriving at evening commuter time the fun way to arrive is to get off the train from Chester at Birkenhead Hamilton Square, then take the Mersey ferry in commuter (not cruise) mode across to Pier Head. I often do that, especially when arriving on the Stena ferry at morning commuter time from Belfast. Not the fastest way, but the iconic way to arrive.

Posted by
12 posts

Frank II - Yes, there are always a lot of options to mull over. As they say, anticipation of travel is half the fun.

Speaking of options, isn31c, I noticed the Merseyrail line that goes directly into LVJ. I haven't yet been able to connect it to a better route than the National Rail default (Leamington-Birmingham New Street-LIV-LVJ), but I'll tinker a bit more. There are some great advance purchase prices on LMS-BHM-LIV-LVJ. Is there anything particularly difficult or unpleasant about the LIV-LVJ transfer? The ride itself is 4 minutes and seems to add nothing to the advance purchase price of the NR route, so it seems like a no-brainer... yet it's the one part of the journey that has garnered unenthusiastic comments. I appreciate the creativity of the ferry commute option, and I intend to take the circular ferry cruise to appreciate Liverpool from the water (after downing copious amounts of Dramamine), but I don't do well on boats, so will only test my stomach the once.

I appreciate all the local experts weighing in with their comments. Thank you!

Posted by
6492 posts

Nothing really bad about the Lime Street High Level to Low Level transfer at all. I'm not at all averse to it.

Thousands of people do it every day.

Very straightforward. Personally I can't see the point of a taxi transfer instead, but that's me. Likewise from James Street to either Pier Head or Albert Dock in my personal opinion is walkable to most hotels- although those right at the south end of the Dock may be a bit too far.

You may not want to walk it James Street to Lime Street as it is uphill all the way. Nor would I recommend the walk from Lime Street downhill simply because I don't personally think it's that well sign posted. I know the city so don't need signs but am not sure how well a stranger would manage it.

You see apart from Scottish, Welsh and Manchester blood I have a very good helping of Wirral blood so will always favour coming in from the Wirral side if possible, and the ferry crossing to me is just utterly iconic and meaningful.

I also believe that sometimes a journey is about more than speed. The other benefit of via Chester is that it is on Transport for Wales and Merseyrail all the way from Birmingham- neither company is involved in the current rail strikes, so you know your trains will run.
.
Leamington Spa to Liverpool I believe you should get for about £20 on Advance Fares with West Midlands (split into 2 parts), The via Chester route I think is around £30 (split into 2 or 3 parts), both before railcard discounts.

Posted by
12 posts

That's an excellent point about rail strikes, isn31c. Thanks for bringing it up. I was vaguely aware there had been some recently, but understanding the details, which companies, etc., might be critical. And I totally agree about travel being about more than speed (or cost). I actually pondered doing this trip by bus (to better simulate the speed of early 19th century stage coach travel), but got so into understanding the rail system that I haven't looked into it yet.

Posted by
2455 posts

Most people would favour travel by train as it is usually much quicker.

Posted by
6492 posts

I looked recently at doing Wigan to Birmingham by local bus (for my arcane personal reasons) and there is a gap in the middle which is time consuming to bridge. That same gap would apply to this journey. Not to waste time pointlessly on what is only a muse I suspect it would take as long as a stagecoach- my estimate on a very quick walk through is 11 to 12 hours, on a total of around 8 buses, belonging to likely 5 different companies. An epic journey. In a way more epic than if I was to do Lake District to Chester by local bus- about 14 hours on 7 buses but all run by the same company, and there is one ticket for that whole trip.

Anyone who wanted to do it sensibly by bus would use a citybus to Coventry (or Birmingham via Coventry for a more frequent service) then National Express (or Flixbus or Megabus) to Liverpool- and National Express actually stop in LIverpool at Liverpool One (opposite Albert Dock, and closer than James Street station) but that is a very, very flimsy pretext to use the bus.

Yes I enjoy journeys like that, just for the sake of it, sometimes.

Posted by
12 posts

Thank you, isn31c, for going down that particular rabbit hole, so I don't have to. A tip of the hat to "arcane personal reasons"... I could say the same about much of my travel.

Posted by
76 posts

It's worth pointing out that while Liverpool is a large city, the city centre is quite compact and can be traversed on foot in 20 minutes. The main intercity station is Liverpool Lime Street. The nearby station called Liverpool Central is for local trains and often causes confusion.
The same applies to all our cities apart from London, whose "centre" is so large that you would need to use the excellent public transport system of buses or tube.