The term train operating company (often abbreviated to TOC) is used in the United Kingdom to describe the various businesses operating passenger trains on the railway system of mainland Great Britain under the collective National Rail brand. They have existed since the privatisation of the network under the Railways Act 1993.

There are two types of TOC: the majority hold franchises let by the government, following bids from various companies, to operate services on certain routes for a specified duration, while there are also a small number of "open-access" operators which hold licences to provide supplementary services on chosen routes. These operators can run services for the duration of the licence validity. The franchised operators have changed considerably since privatisation: previous franchises have been divided, merged, re-let to new operators, or renamed.


Franchises were initially let by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF). This was in turn replaced by the Strategic Rail Authority, which has since been abolished. For England and Wales, franchising is now the responsibility of the Department for Transport in the majority of cases. In Scotland, it is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. In two parts of England, local government agencies are responsible: in Merseyside, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive lets the Merseyrail franchise, while Transport for London oversees the new London Overground franchise.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) provides a commonality for the TOCs and provides some centralised co-ordination. Its activities include the provision of a national timetable and online journey planner facility, and the operation of the various Railcard discount schemes. Eurostar is also a member of ATOC, though it is not itself a TOC.


For historical and geographical reasons the railway network of the United Kingdom is split into two independent systems: one on the island of Great Britain (including the Isle of Wight), and one in Northern Ireland, which is closely linked to the railway system of the Republic of Ireland.

Great BritainEdit

In Great Britain, passenger train services are operated by a number of companies, referred to as Train Operating Companies or TOCs, normally on the basis of regional franchises awarded by the Department for Transport Rail Group, until 2005 this role was carried out by the Strategic Rail Authority. The infrastructure of the railways in England, Scotland, and Wales – including tracks, signalling, and stations – is owned and operated not by the train companies but by Network Rail, which took over responsibility from Railtrack in 2002. Most of the trains used to operate passenger services are owned by a small number of Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs) and are leased to the individual TOCs. However, a handful of TOCs own and maintain some of their own rolling stock.

All the passenger train operating companies in Great Britain are privately owned. The majority of these own franchises to operate rail services on specific parts of the railway and come under the auspices of National Rail. However, due to the private nature of the railways in Great Britain, companies are able to bid for "slots" (specific parts of the overall National Rail timetable) to operate their own services, which the franchises do not operate - these operators are classed as open-access operators and are not franchise holders. Currently in Great Britain, there are three open-access operators: Hull Trains, who run services between London and Hull, Grand Central, who operate between London and Sunderland, and Wrexham & Shropshire, who run between London and Wrexham. In addition, there are operators that fall outside the purview of National Rail, which operate specific services which are recent additions to Britain's railways. The main examples are Eurostar, which operates via the Channel Tunnel, and Heathrow Express, which runs fast services to Heathrow Airport.

A number of metropolitan railways on the network are operated by the local franchise holder in conjunction with the Passenger Transport Executive or other civic body responsible for administering public transport. One of these bodies, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive, is responsible for one of three National Rail franchises not awarded by central government, namely the Merseyrail franchise, while National Rail services in North London came entirely under the control of Transport for London in November 2007 as London Overground. Two other franchises, the Scottish domestic franchise, currently operated by First ScotRail, and Welsh domestic franchise, operated by Arriva Trains Wales, are awarded by the devolved executives of the two constituent nations.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) is the coordinating body of the train operating companies in Great Britain and owns the National Rail brand which uses the former British Rail double-arrow logo and organises the common ticketing structure. At first glance it may look as if a large number of companies are involved in the UK's rail system. However, many of the train operating companies are in fact parts of larger companies which operate multiple franchises. As of May 2010:


Upon privatisation in 1994, the three passenger-operating sectors of British Rail (InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways) were subdivided, and their existing operations were let as 23 franchises:



The privatisation process began when BR's passenger sectors were divided into 25 "shadow franchises"[2] - these were publicly owned TOCs operating in the planned franchise areas prior to the actual franchises being put to tender:

InterCityNetwork SouthEastRegional Railways
Cross CountryChiltern LinesAnglia Railways
East CoastIsland LineCardiff Railway Company
Gatwick ExpressLTS RailCentral Trains
Great EasternNorth London RailwaysMersey Rail Electrics
Great WesternNetwork SouthCentralNorth West Regional Railways
Midland Main LineSouthEasternRegional Railways North East
West CoastSouth West TrainsScot Rail
ThameslinkSouth Wales and West Railway
Thames Trains
West Anglia Great Northern

The opening of the Channel Tunnel saw operations by Eurostar begin from London Waterloo to Paris and Brussels.


The franchising process was implemented, with various private companies taking over the shadow franchises. Two shadow franchises, Chiltern Lines and Great Western Trains were purchased by their own management teams. Great Western's management also bought North West Regional Railways and renamed it North Western Trains. The remainder were divided between a handful of major transport operators:


In Northern Ireland, NIR stopped using its own branding on the Enterprise service between Belfast and Dublin when it purchased new rolling stock in conjunction with IÉ, instead launching Enterprise as a separate brand name.


Great Western Holdings, the owner of the original operator of inter-city services from London Paddington Great Western Trains was sold to FirstBus. The TOC North Western Trains was also owned by Great Western Holdings and this was included in the deal. After the takeover FirstBus was renamed FirstGroup and the TOCs renamed First Great Western and First North Western.

The completion of the rail link to Heathrow Airport led to Heathrow Express, an "open-access" operator outside the franchising system, beginning its services from London Paddington to Heathrow.



In 2001, Connex, who had operated two franchises in the south-east of England, were replaced as the operator of the South Central franchise by Govia, who began operating it under the name South Central. Also in 2001, a new franchise, the Wales and Borders Franchise was created by the amalgamation of the majority of services in Wales, along with connecting services on the English side of the England/Wales border. The new franchise was initially operated under the name Wales and Borders.


In 2002, the concept of the "open-access" on the railway network was implemented. Rather than operating the services on an area of the network, the idea of open access was to apply for specific slots in the national timetable to operate services which other operators did not run. The first of these, Hull Trains, began running its services between King's Cross and Hull.


Connex, having already lost the South Central franchise in 2001, was removed as franchisee of the South Eastern franchise in 2003 on the grounds of "poor financial management". It was replaced as the franchise holder of the South Eastern Franchise by South Eastern Trains, a company wholly owned by the Strategic Rail Authority, which would operate the franchise until it could be tendered again. New franchise holders Arriva Trains Wales and Merseyrail began operating.



A policy where the majority of services (both long-distance and commuter) from each London terminal would all be operated by the same franchise was partially enacted; since 2004, the Greater Anglia Franchise, operated by National Express Group initially as 'one', has covered nearly all services from Liverpool Street (as well as in East Anglia). The creation of 'one' split the former West Anglia Great Northern in two, with the remainder continuing to be operated as 'wagn'.

In the North of England, prior to 2004 there were two regional franchises, the North-East Regional Franchise and the North-West Regional Franchise. In 2004, these were altered into the TransPennine Franchise, for intercity services, and the Northern Franchise, for local services. The TransPennine Franchise was awarded to First TransPennine Express, while the Northern Franchise was awarded to Northern Rail.


A new operator, Heathrow Connect, jointly run by BAA and First Great Western, began operating stopping services between London Paddington and Heathrow Airport complementing the Heathrow Express.


In March 2006, a second open-access operator, Grand Central, was granted permission to operate services on the network between King's Cross and Sunderland. Grand Central began operating services in December 2007.

Three new integrated franchises began operating in April 2006:


Further integrations occurred in 2007. The first of these was the South-Western Franchise; this merged the original south-west England franchise with the Island Line franchise on the Isle of Wight and began operating in February 2007 under the name South West Trains, with Island Line retained as a separate brand.

In September, a third open access operator, Wrexham & Shropshire was granted access rights to run services between Marylebone and Wrexham. Wrexham & Shropshire are scheduled to start running in the spring of 2008.

In November 2007, three new integrated franchises began operating:

  • The East Midlands Franchise, under the name East Midlands Trains, replaced Midland Mainline and parts of Central Trains and encompasses inter-city services from London St Pancras as well as local services in the East Midlands
  • The West Midlands Franchise, using the name London Midland, replaced Silverlink County and parts of Central Trains and operates stopping services between London Euston and Northampton, in addition to local services in the West Midlands
  • The Cross-Country Franchise, using the name CrossCountry, took over from Virgin Cross Country and parts of Central Trains and operates regional inter-city services that bypass the major London terminals.

In addition to these three, a further new operator, London Overground, took control of the current routes operated by Silverlink in London, with a plan to combine them with the extended East London line in 2011. Services are controlled directly by Transport for London, with running of the trains themselves contracted to a private company as an operating concession. This is different from an ordinary franchise, as the train operator will not be given control the strategic aspects of the operation, such as pricing, timetabling and rolling stock procurement.

In December, National Express took over the running of the East Coast Main Line franchise from GNER, using the name National Express East Coast. Grand Central also began operating their services between London and Sunderland.


In February 2008, 'one' was re-branded by its owner National Express as National Express East Anglia to bring it into line with the East Coast franchise.

In April 2008, Wrexham & Shropshire began operating services between Wrexham, Shropshire and London Marylebone.

In June 2008, the Gatwick Express franchise was integrated with the South Central Franchise currently operated by Southern.


In February 2009, the Office of Rail Regulation gave permission for a new open-access operator, Grand Northern, part of the same group as Grand Central, to begin operating services between London King's Cross and Bradford.

Govia won a second term as the franchise holder of the South Central franchise, which continue under the name Southern.

The Government announced that National Express East Coast would have their franchise to operate intercity services along the ECML terminated, with the franchise passing into the hands of a newly formed public sector company. The DfT announced that the franchise would be retendered at the end of 2010. To this end, it set up a holding company, Directly Operated Railways, which will act as the parent for East Coast in the immediate term, but will also act in the same capacity for any other franchises taken back by the government.


The new open-access services from London to Bradford, intended to be operated as "Grand Northern", were announced instead to come under the Grand Central name. These began on 23 May.

A new open-access operator, Go! Cooperative, was launched with the intention of operating services between the Midlands and South-West. This main line operation would be combined with light rail operations using abandoned branch lines, to create an integrated transport network. Go's plans would see their services start in 2011.

Current TOCsEdit

File:Collection of TOCs.jpg
Main article: List of companies operating trains in the United Kingdom

As of 2008, there are a number of train operating companies, which are listed below.

Future TOCsEdit


The termination of NXEC's franchise will see a new tender process, due to begin in 2010.

Open access operatorsEdit

A number of proposals exist for future open-access services, from London and elsewhere.

First Hull Trains have proposed operating services from London to Harrogate as First Harrogate Trains; Grand Central's further proposals include services between Doncaster and Bradford as Grand Northern; Renaissance Trains have a number of proposals including Glasgow Trains, which will operate between Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham, and Humber Coast and City Railway, which plans services between London and Cleethorpes; Platinum Trains plan to operate express services between London and Aberdeen.

Go! Co-operative Ltd., formed in 2009, is aiming to be the first co-operatively owned train operating company in the UK, and is initially intending to provide enhanced cross country connections in Somerset and Wiltshire, integrating their rail services with light rail, bus links and car pools, enabling outlying communities to access these services.[3]


Main article: Railtour

The privatisation of British Rail allowed the introduction of open-access operators, in which companies, upon payment of a fee, could purchase individual slots on the mainline. This has led to the growth in companies offering charter trains, and to the railtour. Most railtour operators run services in part of the country; however, there are a handful that operate services nationwide. Usually, these will see a train made up of ex-BR rolling stock pulled by a hired locomotive from one of the freight companies. Occasionally, a preserved ex-BR locomotive that is certified to run on the mainline will be made available for such charters.

Sea linksEdit

A number of coastal railway stations in the United Kingdom serve to provide connections to ferry services to a number of destinations. Most of the ferry operators in these cases set their timetable to run in conjunction with the arrivals and departures of rail services from the stations serving the ferry terminals. A handful of these even offer integrated pricing for both rail and ferry travel - because the Island Line is part of the National Rail network, passengers can purchase tickets for travel to any of the stations on the Isle of Wight from any other station in Great Britain. This ticket also covers the cost of passage on the Wightlink catamaran from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde Pier Head.

International operatorsEdit

There are two main international services which operate on the railways in the United Kingdom:

A third service which is worth mentioning is Dutchflyer (GoLondon in the Netherlands). This is not a separate rail service in itself, as the others are, but a collaboration between National Express East Anglia, Stena Line and Nederlandse Spoorwegen to provide an integrated rail/sea/rail service between eastern England (London Liverpool Street, Cambridge, Norwich) and The Netherlands (Amsterdam Centraal) using a single ticket.

A further international service is provided by Venice Simplon Orient Express. Although this is primarily a railtour operator, with special trains to various locations in the United Kingdom, it also operates the scheduled Orient Express service to destinations in Europe. This involves two separate trains; the British Pullman departs from London Victoria and terminates at Folkestone West, where passengers transfer by coach through the Channel Tunnel to Calais; at Gare de Calais-Ville, they then join the Orient Express which then calls at various destinations including Paris, Vienna, Innsbruck, Venice and Rome.

See alsoEdit



  1. Hazel Tyldesley Arriva Agrees To £1.59bn German Takeover Sky News, 22 April 2010
  3. Go! Rail website, (retrieved 28 January 2010)

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