Urban rail in the United Kingdom

Urban rail in the United Kingdom
Urban rail in the UK.jpg

Urban rail, commuter rail, regional rail, or suburban rail, plays a key role in the public transport system of many of the United Kingdom's major cities. Urban rail is defined as a rail service between a central business district and suburbs or other locations that draw large numbers of people on a daily basis. The trains providing such services may be termed commuter trains.[1]

Unlike light rail, urban rail is classed as heavy rail, operating on lines shared with other passenger and freight trains with networks often larger than those of light rail.[citation needed] The infrastructure in Great Britain is owned by Network Rail,[2] and stations served by one urban rail network may be managed by different train companies. In Northern Ireland NI Railways have responsibility for both the infrastructure and the operation of train services.



As urban rail networks are part of the wider rail network, there is often easier interchange with mainline rail, rail cards are accepted, cycles can be taken on board in the majority of cases, and existing railways can be used, rather than new light railways being built.

Unlike light rail, only one ticket needs to be bought if a journey includes both mainline and urban rail. Also, urban rail usually has higher capacity than light rail because of longer trains (but often less frequency), and higher average speed because of fewer stops.


A few urban railways offer service during peak times only, and others operate less frequent trains during the evenings and on Sundays.

Networks often encompass a few major stations in a large city, with other stations being medium or minor. Services can be provided by one train operating company operating exclusively on a urban rail network, such as in Merseyside, or by a company that also operates regional and national services, like in Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow.



Commuter train for Belfast

In Northern Ireland's capital, the Belfast Suburban Rail, operated by Northern Ireland Railways network, serves Greater Belfast, Northern Ireland. Services run about every 20 minutes from 06:00 until 24:00 on:

  • Larne Line: Belfast Great Victoria Street - Belfast Central - Larne Harbour
  • Portadown Line: Belfast Central - Portadown - Newry
  • Bangor Line: Belfast Great Victoria Street - Belfast Central - Bangor

Some services incorporate both the Larne and Portadown lines calling at all stations between Larne and Portadown.


Commuter train in the West Midlands
The Network West Midlands network

Co-ordinated and subsidised by Centro, London Midland operates a network of 60 stations[3] in the West Midlands focused on Birmingham. The main stations within the three three city centres in the area (Birmingham New Street which is operated by Network Rail, with Coventry and Wolverhampton which are operated by Virgin Trains). One in five peak commuters into Birmingham use rail.[4]

The lines, branded as London Midland City to distinguish themselves from longer distance routes, are:

In addition to those services from inside the West Midlands county, urban lines into Wolverhampton and Coventry operate from outside the Centro supported area, most notably on the Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury Line and the Coventry to Nuneaton Line.

The West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (also known as Centro) was created in 1969 following the Transport Act 1968. The Transport Act 1985 deregulated and privatised bus services across the UK. From that date, WMPTE assumed its new role co-ordinating the services of all local private bus operators and adopted the name of Centro shortly afterwards to distinguish itself from its previous role as an operator.[5]


Commuter train in Bristol
Urban rail network in and around Bristol

There are 13 suburban and 2 mainline stations (Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway) in Bristol, all operated by First Great Western. The only commuter line is the 13.5 mile long Severn Beach Line with 11 stations and 374,000 journeys in 2005/6. The operator estimates that 57% of travellers on the line do so to commute, rather than for leisure[6] running every half an hour to Avonmouth and continuing every hour to Severn Beach.[7] Services also run from Gloucester - Westbury and Cardiff Central - Taunton via Bristol.

Other suburban stations lie on main lines, i.e. Bristol – Cardiff, Bristol – London and Bristol – Southampton.

Faster commuter services operate to and from nearby Bath.[8]


Cardiff commuter train
The network within Cardiff

The Valley Lines network of 8 lines (Cardiff Bay Line, City Line, Coryton Line, Maesteg Line, Merthyr Line, Rhondda Line, Rhymney Line and Vale of Glamorgan Line) incorporates 20 stations in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, and 61 in surrounding towns and villages. Its hubs are Cardiff Queen Street and Cardiff Central interchange. Train frequencies on the network are up to every 5 minutes.[9] The Ebbw Valley Railway also draws commuters to the capital.

Arriva Trains Wales operates the stations and the services on the network. In February 2008, the Ebbw Valley Railway re-opened after 45 years with a new hourly service to Cardiff Central.[10] Until the line's closure in 1962, passengers had had to change at Newport.

The Maesteg line is incorporated into the wider network in that trains continue to Cheltenham Spa from Cardiff Central. The Vale of Glamorgan Line serves Cardiff International Airport.

However, the network neglects large residential areas in the South-West and East of Cardiff.,[11] although the South Wales Main Line runs through these areas, albeit without any stations.

Between 1995 and 2001, the network (except the Maesteg Line) was operated by a separate company called Valley Lines, the trading name of the Cardiff Railway Company. It then became part of the Wales and Borders franchise before becoming a franchise of Arriva.


Edinburgh commuter train

First ScotRail operates on six lines in and around the Scottish capital: Edinburgh to Bathgate Line, Edinburgh Crossrail, Edinburgh to Dunblane Line, Fife Circle Line, Shotts Line and the North Berwick Line. Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket are the city's two major stations with connections to mainline services.

A project to open a rail link to Edinburgh Airport was cancelled in September 2007 by the Scottish Government in favour of construction of a station at nearby Gogar which will instead connect with the Edinburgh tram network to take passengers to the terminal.[12] A proposal to re-open the Edinburgh suburban railway line has been made by campaigning groups.[13]


Glasgow commuter train

The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) with First ScotRail operate urban rail services on 13 lines in Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, and the surrounding towns.[14] Glasgow Central and Glasgow Queen Street are the two hubs. The railway system has interchanges with the city's Underground at Partick and Queen Street. Glasgow Prestwick International Airport is served by two lines on the network.[14]

A combined rail / bus link to Glasgow International Airport operates via Paisley Gilmour Street station.[15]


Merseyrail map
Commuter train in Merseyside

The Merseyrail network consists of three lines, the Northern Line, Wirral Line and the City Line.

The Northern and Wirral Lines operate separately from the City Line. The local passenger transport executive, Merseytravel, brand all of the lines under the Merseyrail network and colloquially, Merseyrail is referred to as such.

The Northern and Wirral lines operate under the name Merseyrail, which is a train operating company as well as the suburban rail network. Commuter trains run on both lines which are entirely electrified.[16]

Liverpool city centre is the nucleus of the 75-mile network, running underground in Liverpool and Birkenhead centres. 100,000 people a day travel through 67 stations.[17]

The City Line on the other hand consists of a number of non-electrified lines heading eastwards from the city, and is operated by Northern Rail. Liverpool Lime Street is the main terminus with a connection to Lime Street low level on the Wirral Line. There is also a connection with the Northern Line at Liverpool South Parkway in the south of Liverpool.

The entire City Line is to be electrified from Liverpool to Wigan and the Manchester branches. Whether Merseyrail operates the trains, incorporating the City Line fully into the Merseyrail electric network or Northern Rail continues to operate on behalf of Merseytravel has not been announced.[18]


Metro commuter train
West Yorkshire MetroTrain network

The West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive oversees Northern Rail commuter trains on 11 lines connecting urban centres (such as Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and Huddersfield), as well as small commuter towns and villages in the Leeds city region, branded as Metro.[19] Services are up to every 15 minutes.[20]

The network incorporates the following lines which often continue to longer distance destinations:


Urban rail in TfGM area
Manchester commuter train

Commuting via rail by wealthy merchants living in North Cheshire and South Lancashire into the centre of Manchester was a fairly early phenomenon thanks to the opening of railways like the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway, Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway & Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, in the 1830s & 1840s.[21] All of which had a number of stations on the then outskirts of Manchester from where the wealthier citizens could easily take a train into the centre of the city. Sale, Alderley Edge and Wilmslow are classic examples of early settlements which had rail stations in the early-mid-19th century and grew into sizable commuter towns.

Urban rail services to Manchester nowadays form part of the wider Northern Rail network.

47,033,976 station entries and exits were made in Greater Manchester during the year 2007/8.[22] During 2009 there were 23m local train journeys compared to 20.3m Metrolink journeys,[23] 70% of journeys into the centre of Manchester were by public transport,[23] though 80% of journeys are still by bus.

The biggest point of entry to the city is Manchester Piccadilly which accommodates 13 lines [24] on which services are provided up to around every 15 minutes.[25]

These include lines go to/from Bolton, New Mills Central, Crewe, Liverpool Lime Street, Chester, Warrington Central, Hadfield / Glossop, Huddersfield and Southport.[24]

There are also 11 routes from Manchester Victoria, all operated by Northern Rail.

91 Stations are served by heavy rail within the Greater Manchester ticketing zone on 130 route miles. There are direct links to the Metrolink light rail system at Manchester Piccadilly, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Deansgate, Altrincham, Eccles (400m walk), Rochdale (from Spring 2011),Ashton-under-Lyne (from 2013), East Didbury (from 2016, 200m walk) and Manchester Airport (from 2016). Tickets bought for rail travel within Greater Manchester ticketing zone to the four city centre stations (Deansgate, Oxford Road, Victoria and Piccadilly) will show the destination "Manchester Ctrl Stations" allowing free tram travel within the Metrolink city fare zone (8 stops within the Piccadilly-Victoria-Deansgate station triangle).

The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive co-ordinates rail services within Greater Manchester. It was created in 1969 as the SELNEC PTE (South East Lancashire North East Cheshire) following the Transport Act 1968, and was renamed to GMPTE in 1974. An ongoing multi-stage consultation on future city transport governance after the award of Pilot City Region Status in December 2009 will recommend the transfer of GMITA strategic Transport decision making powers to the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee (TfGMC) and GMPTE operational powers to the Transport for Greater Manchester Executive (TfGME).[26]

Greater London

London Overground

London Overground train
London Overground network in 2007. East London line (light orange) opened in 2010

The London Overground is operated by LOROL under a concession let by Transport for London, which also owns the London Underground, and is operated on the Watford, North London, West London and Barking lines which total 53 miles. The network is integrated with the London Underground as shown on maps[27] and accepts the Oyster card.

The East London Line was converted from an Underground line to London Overground and services started in May 2010.[28] The South London Line has been proposed. The London Overground aims to connect 20 of London's 32 boroughs[29] and will play a key role in the transport network for the 2012 Olympics in the city.[30]


Crossrail is a new railway proposal for London and the South-East aiming to deliver a high frequency service across London from 2017, operating main line size trains, carrying more than 1500 passengers in each train. The route goes from Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west right across London into Essex and Kent in the east. It travels underground through the city centre between Paddington and east London. The system is expected to be integrated with the Tube and National Rail, and accept the Oyster card.

Preliminary works are scheduled to commence in early 2009 with main construction starting in 2010[31] The route would connect urban, mainline and London Underground stations.[32]

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, confirmed on 5 October 2007, that Crossrail has the funding to go ahead. On a visit to the Crossrail offices in central London, Mr Brown said that the construction of the line would be of "enormous importance, not just for London but for the whole country and would generate up to 30,000 new jobs.[33]


c2c train passing Upminster Bridge

c2c run trains through East London to Basildon, Southend, Shoeburyness, Tilbury and Grays from London Fenchurch Street. c2c serves eight stations regularly in Greater London.

First Capital Connect

First Capital Connect "Thameslink" service

The First Capital Connect network extends from Brighton to Norfolk and runs on 6 major lines (including Thameslink) calling at about 90 stations. Its major interchanges are London King's Cross, Blackfriars and St Pancras. The system links London with Luton Airport at Luton Airport Parkway railway station.[34]

Heathrow Connect & First Great Western

First Great Western at West Ealing

First Great Western operates services from London Paddington to Greenford, Slough, Reading and Oxford stopping at west London suburbs including Ealing, Southall and Hayes. First Great Western also operates Heathrow Connect jointly with BAA, with services starting/ending at Paddington and calling at all stations between Ealing Broadway and Heathrow Terminal 4 stations. First Great Western also operate services to South Wales and Western England.

National Express East Anglia

NXEA Train at Ilford

National Express East Anglia (NXEA) operates "metro style" service to stations on the 3 Lea Valley Lines (destinations including Cheshunt, Hertford East, Enfield Town and Chingford) and the Great Eastern Main Line (as far as Shenfield), with London Liverpool Street as a hub.


Southeastern commuter train

Southeastern operate in south-east London, Kent, and parts of East Sussex,[35] serving 176 stations and covering 741 km (460 mi) of railway. Southeastern carries approximately 143,000 people into London every weekday morning and 1,400 of the daily train journeys go into London, making about 156 million passenger journeys are made a year.[36] Its London termini are Charing Cross, Victoria, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge. Train frequency is up to 4 per hour and there are 23 lines from London.[37]


Southern commuter train

Southern provides services in South London and between Central London and the South Coast, through East and West Sussex and Surrey, and parts of Kent and Hampshire.[38] Southern manages 167 stations and operates up to every 15 minutes on 14 lines south from London Victoria and 10 from London Bridge.

South West Trains

South West service at Wimbledon

South West Trains operate 5 lines (Waterloo to Reading line, Hounslow Loop Line, Windsor Branch, Chertsey Branch and Ash Vale branch) south out of London Waterloo, the hub of the network, via Clapham Junction, with 160 million passenger journeys (on the wider network) each year.[39]

South West also operates longer distance services as far as Bristol and Exeter.[40]

Proposed Chiltern 'Metro' Service

Chiltern Railways trains

There is a proposal for a new Chiltern Metro Service between London Marylebone and West Ruislip, operated by Chiltern Railways. The service would operate 4+tph stopping at Wembley Stadium, Sudbury & Harrow Road, Sudbury Hill Harrow, Northolt Park, South Ruislip and West Ruislip. This would require a reversing facility at West Ruislip, passing loops at Sudbury Hill Harrow and a passing loop at Wembley Stadium (part of the old down fast line is in use as a central reversing siding, for stock movements and additionally for 8-car football shuttles to convey passengers to the stadium for events).[41]

See also


  1. ^ http://www.123exp-trains.com/t/18664055193/,commuter%20rail,Regional%20rail
  2. ^ "We own and operate Britain's rail infrastructure". Network Rail. http://www.networkrail.co.uk/. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  3. ^ [1][dead link]
  4. ^ [2][dead link]
  5. ^ [3][dead link]
  6. ^ "Microsoft Word - Severn Beach Line Development Plan.doc" (PDF). http://www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk/Documents/Custom/Severn%20Beach%20Line%20Development%20Plan.pdf. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  7. ^ "Layout 1" (PDF). http://www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk/Documents/Custom/Dec%2008%20BOOK%20E%20WEB%20(timetable%20only)%20.pdf. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  8. ^ http://www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk/Content.aspx?id=3396
  9. ^ "showcontent". Arrivatrainswales.co.uk. http://www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/WorkArea/showcontent.aspx?id=5482. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  10. ^ "South East Wales Ebbw Vale - Ebbw Valley Railway". BBC. 2008-06-02. http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southeast/sites/ebbwvale/pages/railway.shtml. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  11. ^ "showcontent". Arrivatrainswales.co.uk. http://www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk/WorkArea/showcontent.aspx?id=4776. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  12. ^ "It's £30m down the drain". The Scotsman. http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=607&id=1546642007. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  13. ^ Capital Rail Action Group website
  14. ^ a b http://www.spt.co.uk/wmslib/Maps/rail_network_2007.jpg
  15. ^ "BAA Glasgow: Trains". Glasgowairport.com. http://www.glasgowairport.com/portal/page/Glasgow%5EGeneral%5ETo+and+from+the+airport%5ETrains/dd5d1573befba110VgnVCM10000036821c0a____/448c6a4c7f1b0010VgnVCM200000357e120a____/. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  16. ^ [4][dead link]
  17. ^ [5][dead link]
  18. ^ Electrification of the Liverpool - Wigan Line
  19. ^ http://www.wymetro.com/NR/rdonlyres/6C36F2BD-0290-45A3-B281-B05D91BB4BE3/0/WestYorkshiresRailNetwork.jpg
  20. ^ Metro. "Metro | MetroTrain stations | Leeds railway station". Wymetro.com. http://www.wymetro.com/TrainTravel/MetroTrainStations/lds.htm. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  21. ^ "Cambridge Journals Online - Abstract". Journals.cambridge.org. 2001-01-23. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=490812601421239E5DE971329DEC78EB.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=64589. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  22. ^ "Station usage : Rail statistics : Publications & statistics : Office of Rail Regulation". Rail-reg.gov.uk. http://www.rail-reg.gov.uk/server/show/nav.1529. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  23. ^ a b http://www.gmpte.com/upload/library/momentum_issue2.pdf
  24. ^ a b "Travel Tools - Timetables - Manchester Piccadilly". Northern Rail. 2010-12-12. http://www.northernrail.org/travel/timetables/296800. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  25. ^ http://www.northernrail.org/pdfs/timetables/20081117/15.pdf
  26. ^ "Downloads". GMITA. 2010-02-12. http://www.gmita.gov.uk/downloads/file/2924/item_07_city_region_pilot_and_governance. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  27. ^ http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/standard-tube-map.gif
  28. ^ "London Overground | Transport for London". Tfl.gov.uk. http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/projectsandschemes/5011.aspx. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  29. ^ http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/projectsandschemes/networkandservices/6308.aspx
  30. ^ http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/projectsandschemes/networkandservices/6309.aspx
  31. ^ [6][dead link]
  32. ^ [7][dead link]
  33. ^ [8][dead link]
  34. ^ [9][dead link]
  35. ^ [10][dead link]
  36. ^ [11][dead link]
  37. ^ Southeastern (train operating company)
  38. ^ http://www.southernrailway.com/main.php?page_id=41
  39. ^ "About us". South West Trains. http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/SWtrains/_Aboutus/Corporate+Information/. Retrieved 2011-02-12. 
  40. ^ http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/NR/rdonlyres/1CCE490E-82E1-4F22-A39C-EE8A1A8A5682/0/SWTNetworkMar08.pdf
  41. ^ "There’s more to Chiltern than the Chilterns - The Case for a Chiltern Metro". www.londontravelwatch.org.uk. January 2001. http://www.londontravelwatch.org.uk/get_document.php?id=497. 

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