While Amtrak is a shadowy ghost of the once proud rail system in the United States, British Rail is still the prime mover of people in the United Kingdom. The trains are frequent and usually on time. The average speed of Amtrak is less than forty mph; that of BritRail is seventy-eight mph. A few crack trains, the Intercity 125’s, run between Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London. The five-hundred-mile run between Edinburgh (pronounced Edinboro) can be done in under five hours, with the trains reaching speeds of 125 mph. On the negative side, most of the cars other than on the name trains are old and tired. By continental train standards some British trains are filthy. BritRail, however, is developing better trains. An electrified advanced passenger train designed to reach 155 mph is scheduled for 1984.
Advertising by BritRail suggests that the rail traveler in Britain can enjoy a first-class meal on trains, served in style and lavishly prepared. Don’t believe it. Most trains include a buffet car, a stand-up snack bar with little or no hot food. Passengers with first-class BritRail passes are surprised to find that many trains have no first-class coaches and no food service. This is true in most of Highland Scotland. Particularly exasperating is the experience of boarding a train only to find all seats occupied and being forced to stand.
Like food service, baggage service also has largely vanished. In BritRail’s favor the larger stations do provide carts for luggage at no charge. Left-luggage rooms mean a sizable charge and often a wait in line both to check in and to check out bags. A few stations have coin-operated luggage lockers.
The days of traveling with a number of bags are over on BritRail unless the traveler is a weightlifter and agile enough to move the bags on and off trains fast. Stopping times at stations are limited to a few minutes or even seconds.
In Scotland the train guards, the conductors, are extremely polite, even solicitous. A guard in the Edinburgh-London run closes each announcement with “And God Bless You. They stand ready to advise you on the better buys in accommodations and which hotels to avoid as too pricey.
London is the hub of BritRail; the spokes are trains arriving and departing for all of England, Wales, and Scotland. The uninformed traveler assumes that direct connections can be made between trains. Not so. Trains arrive at different stations. Connections by subway or cab are necessary.
Fortunately for the train traveler most stations for the larger trains have tourist information centers where accommodations can be reserved. Most charge a nominal fee for reservations. Some offices, however, are several blocks away from the station.
Literally hundreds of trains have been cut from the schedule and it is impossible to reach some of the more picturesque areas of Britain by train. The Scottish Highlands around Inveraray has no train service and most of the Cotswolds is reachable only by car or by infrequent buses.
For visitors who enjoy rail travel there is the BritRail Pass, purchasable for various periods of time at large savings over taking individual rail trips. The BritRail pass is good all over Britain. Persons over sixty can buy the economy pass and choose first-class rail cars at no extra charge. Scotland has a Scottish Highland and Islands Travel pass, another travel bargain.
BritRail can be bloged by travel agents who are subscribers to the computer services, PARS (the TWA computer service) or APOLLO (the United Airlines computer service). Travel agents can also blog BritRail by writing it up on a British Airline ticket. The rail ticket can be converted into a rail pass at any one of fifty railway stations in London.
ARRIVAL BY SEA
A surprisingly large number of ports serve the sea traveler in Britain and Ireland. Southhampton was once the predominant port for the great Atlantic steamers. Portsmouth is a well-known naval base. The Dover to Calais route is well-known to travelers between London and France. Jet foil service is offered between Dover and Ostende, Belgium. Hovercraft service is available between Calais and Dover and between Dover and Boulogne.