“ Transportation between UK and Ireland by way of rail and ferry travel service. „
* Prices may differ from that shown
When you think of international rail travel from the UK, you probably think of the Eurostar, and the burgeoning network of high speed rail connections possible from Lille, Brussels and Paris. The true maturity of the Eurostar has seen vital projects come online, notably the high speed line from St. Pancras station in London to the Channel Tunnel, and on a more prosaic level, the introduction of integrated ticketing that allows you to buy a ticket from Manchester to Marseille in one simple transaction.
But what is far too often overlooked are the superb range of train and ferry connections between Britain and Ireland. In the confusion of the privatised railway and under the phenomenal rise in popularity of the low cost airlines, many people have forgotten that in many cases travelling by land and sea is both cheaper and more enjoyable.
SailRail.co.uk sets out to correct that. It is a website and booking service that brings together the UK train companies Arriva Trains Wales, ScotRail & First Great Western; the ferry companies Stena Line & Irish Ferries; and the state owned Irish rail company Iarnród Éireann. Sadly, online booking is not yet available, but there is a fare finder on the website that helps you plan a journey from any British railway station to any Irish or Northern Irish station. To make a booking you can call SailRail and speak to staff who I have found to be consistently friendly, informed and helpful.
In principle, most staffed railway stations can sell through tickets to Irish and Northern Irish stations, but the SailRail booking line staff are invaluable in helping the unfamiliar traveller make their arrangements. The website is clear, relatively easy to navigate, and explains who the constituent partner companies are and which ferry routes are available. Currently, these are divided into three "corridors":
* The Northern Corridor: Stranraer to Belfast Port by Stena Line (in as little as 1hr 45m, thrice daily)
* The Central Corridor: either Holyhead to Dublin Ferry Port with Irish Ferries (in as a little as 2hrs, four times a day), or Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire (a short train ride south of Dublin) with Stena Line (in as little as 1hr 40m, twice a day).
* The Southern Corridor: Fishguard to Rosslare with Stena Line (in 3hrs 30m twice a day).
Note that there are other ferry lines connecting Britain and Ireland (such as Heysham in Liverpool or Troon near Glasgow) but they don't have railway stations in their ferry ports.
Fares are calculated by reasonably large geographic zones depending on how far you have to travel by train to reach one of the three ferry ports, and are either available in cheap restricted Apex form or basic "walk-up" fares. At the time of writing, the following fares were found: buy in advance and London - Dublin is as little as £23 each way (return fares are double the cost of single). Glasgow to Belfast is just £21 one way. These fares only increase marginally by zone, so longer distance journeys offer fantastic value: Norwich to Dublin is just £27 one way in advance.
There are some problems and words of warning. The website's fare finder has a pretty useless flash gizmo that presents a list of possible departure and arrival stations when you start entering the name in the text fields. This is very slow, and has some notable bugs. For instance it's not possible to search Glasgow to Belfast, because the short non-rail portion of the journey between the Port of Belfast and Belfast Central station only seems to compute if you then take a train from Belfast to somewhere else.
What makes the website's faults less excuseable is that the website of National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk) now includes Northern Irish and Irish destinations. Train times are actually easier to find on that website, even if they can't sell tickets.
A useful reference point when planning your trip is the excellent independent travel website Seat61.com - run and maintained with superb diligence and accuracy by a former British Rail employee. His passion for travel has brought him to create an excellent web page organised by country pages: every page tells you exactly how to travel from Britain to that country by train and ferry. Where SailRail's website lacks detail, he can help.
If you're planning a trip to the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland, don't immediately click to Ryanair's website. If you can spare just a few more hours (and in many cases, because of airport transfers, check-in times and security, the time savings by air aren't much) and want to enjoy a more leisurely land and sea voyage, consider the train and ferry. SailRail is not perfect, but along with the other websites listed here, things are getting easier for the independent traveller who wants to give the stress of short haul flying to Ireland the finger.