Train service within Scotland is generally run by ScotRail, one of the most efficient of Britain's service providers. Trains are generally 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. Nevertheless, on weekends you can often upgrade from standard to first class for a fee (often £10 to £25)—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. All the operators now provide the option for a paperless ticket download that can be managed via a smartphone app.
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.
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. There are Scotland-specific passes, too, for the Highlands, central region, and countrywide travel. 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 Britain.
The cost of an unlimited BritRail adult pass for 4 days is $216/$328 (standard/first class); for 8 days, $314/$467; for 15 days, $467/$690; for 22 days, $584/$876; and for a month, $690/$1,038.
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, take the overnight sleeper service, with sleeping carriages that arrives the following morning. It runs from London Euston, departing in late evening, splitting into sections heading to different parts of Scotland: one portion stops at Perth, Stirling, Aviemore, and Inverness; another covers the east coast stations Leuchars (for St. Andrews), Dundee, and Aberdeen, while the West Highland route terminates at Fort William. The Caledonian Sleeper, now run by Serco, has a revamped service with new cozy sleeping berths, a stylish club car serving food and drink, and luxurious options with en-suite bathrooms and breakfast included.
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 usually trains every half hour to Edinburgh; three of them travel directly to Aberdeen. LNER East Coast's limited-stop expresses like the Flying Scotsman make the 393-mile London-to-Edinburgh journey in about 4½ 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.
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 (£3,600) to seven nights (£15,760) per person.