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Train operating company

A train operating company (TOC) is a business operating passenger trains on the railway system of Great Britain under the collective National Rail brand. TOCs have existed since the privatisation of the network under the Railways Act 1993.

There are two types of TOC: most hold franchises let by the government, following bids from various companies, to operate services on certain routes for a specified duration, while a small number of "open-access" operators 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.

The term is also sometimes used to describe companies operating passenger or freight rail services over tracks that are owned by another company or a national network owner.


  • Management 1
  • Organisation 2
    • Great Britain 2.1
    • Current operators 2.2
  • Changes 3
    • 1990s 3.1
      • 1994 3.1.1
      • 1996 3.1.2
      • 1997 3.1.3
      • 1998 3.1.4
    • 2001–2003 3.2
      • 2001 3.2.1
      • 2002 3.2.2
      • 2003 3.2.3
    • 2004–2006 3.3
      • 2004 3.3.1
      • 2005 3.3.2
      • 2006 3.3.3
    • 2007–2010 3.4
      • 2007 3.4.1
      • 2008 3.4.2
      • 2009 3.4.3
      • 2010 3.4.4
    • 2011–2015 3.5
      • 2011 3.5.1
      • 2012 3.5.2
      • 2013 3.5.3
      • 2014 3.5.4
      • 2015 3.5.5
  • Current TOCs 4
  • Future TOCs 5
    • Franchised 5.1
    • Open-access operators 5.2
  • Railtours 6
  • Sea links 7
  • International operators 8
  • In other countries 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11


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 Government. In two parts of England, local government agencies are responsible: in Merseyside, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive lets the Merseyrail franchise, while in London, Transport for London oversees the new London Overground and Crossrail 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 in 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 Britain

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 performed by the Strategic Rail Authority. The infrastructure of the railways in England, Scotland, and Wales – including tracks and signalling – is owned and operated not by the train companies but by Network Rail, which took over responsibility from Railtrack in 2002. Most passenger trains 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. Train operating companies also operate most of the network's stations, in their role as station facility owners (SFO), in which they lease the buildings and associated land from Network Rail.[1] Network Rail manages some major railway stations and several stations are operated by London Underground or other companies.

All passenger TOCs in Great Britain are privately owned. The majority of these hold franchises to operate rail services on specific parts of the railway and come under the auspices of the National Rail brand. In addition, companies are able to bid for "paths" (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 two open-access operators: First Hull Trains, which runs services between London and Hull, and Grand Central, which operates between London and Sunderland and between London and Bradford. A third, Wrexham & Shropshire, with services between London and Wrexham, no longer exists. 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 to the continent via the Channel Tunnel, and Heathrow Express, which runs fast services from London 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 certain National Rail services in North London came 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 the 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. Many of the train operating companies are in fact parts of larger companies which operate multiple franchises. As of 17 September 2014:

Current operators

Franchise holder Train Operating Company
Abellio (a subsidiary of Nederlandse Spoorwegen) Abellio Greater Anglia (GA) Abellio Scotrail (SR)
Arriva UK Trains (a subsidiary of Arriva, part of Deutsche Bahn) Arriva Trains Wales (AW), CrossCountry (XC), Chiltern Railways (CH), London Overground (LO) and Grand Central Railway (GC)
FirstGroup Great Western Railway (GW), First TransPennine Express (TP) and First Hull Trains (HT)
Govia (a joint venture between Go-Ahead and Keolis) Great Northern (GN), London Midland (LM), Southern (SN), Southeastern (SE) and Thameslink (TL)
National Express Group c2c (CC)
Serco Caledonian Sleeper (CS)
Serco-Abellio (a joint venture between Abellio and Serco) Merseyrail (ME) and Northern Rail (NT)
Stagecoach Group East Midlands Trains (EMT), South West Trains (SWT), 49% of Virgin Trains (West Coast) (VT), and 90% of Virgin Trains East Coast (GR)
Virgin Rail Group 51% of Virgin Trains (West Coast) (VT), 10% of Virgin Trains East Coast (GR)


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:

InterCity Network SouthEast Regional Railways
CrossCountry Chiltern Lines Anglia Railways
East Coast Island Line Cardiff Railway Company
Gatwick Express LTS Rail Central Trains
Great Eastern North London Railways Mersey Rail Electrics
Great Western Network SouthCentral North West Regional Railways
Midland Main Line SouthEastern Regional Railways North East
West Coast South West Trains ScotRail
Thameslink South Wales & 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:

Franchise holder Train Operating Company
National Express Group – 5 franchises in 1996, Midland Mainline, Gatwick Express;
later (in 1997) Silverlink (North London Railway), Central Trains, ScotRail.
Prism Rail – 4 franchises LTS Rail, WAGN, Valley Lines (Cardiff Railway Co), Wales & West (South Wales & West Railway).
Stagecoach Group – 2 franchises,
plus later shareholdings in two others
South West Trains, Island Line Trains
Connex – 2 franchises South Eastern, South Central.
MTL – 2 franchises Merseyrail Electrics, Northern Spirit (Regional Railways North East).
Virgin Rail Group – 2 franchises
(in which Stagecoach later bought shareholdings)
Virgin Trains (West Coast, CrossCountry).
Great Western Holdings –2 franchises Great Western Trains, North Western Trains (North West Regional Railways)
FirstBus – 1 franchise,
plus shareholdings in two others
Great Eastern
Chiltern management group – 1 franchise Chiltern Railways
Govia – 1 franchise Thameslink
Go Ahead Group – 1 franchise Thames Trains
GB Railways – 1 franchise Anglia Railways
Sea Containers – 1 franchise GNER (InterCity East Coast)


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, which 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 & Borders Franchise was created by the amalgamation of Valley Lines and the majority of services in Wales and the Borders held by Wales & West. The new franchise was initially operated under the name Wales & Borders. The remainder of Wales & West services in the west of England were renamed Wessex Trains.


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, First 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 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. Also combined were services from Paddington, run by Thames Trains and First Great Western, which were renamed First Great Western Link.

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.

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 encompassing 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 CrossCountry 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 routes operated by Silverlink in London, which were combined 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 is not given control of the strategic aspects of the operation, such as pricing, timetabling and rolling stock procurement.

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


In February 2008, one was re-branded by 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 2013.



Owing to financial pressures, Wrexham & Shropshire ceased operating on 28 January 2011.

The government announced in March the shortlists for two franchises that were to be re-let, the Intercity West Coast franchise and the Greater Anglia franchise. National Express, the then current operators of the Greater Anglia as National Express East Anglia, were not among those shortlisted for the new franchise. In May, Virgin Trains was given a nine-month extension to its existing franchise taking it to the end of 2012. Abellio Greater Anglia was announced as the new operator of the short Greater Anglia franchise, due to start in 2012 and run for 29 months.


Abellio Greater Anglia began operating the new Greater Anglia franchise on 5 February 2012.

The government announced in March the shortlists for three upcoming franchises, with four bidders each for the Greater Western and Essex Thameside franchises, and five for the Thameslink Southern & Great Northern franchise.[3]

In June, Transport Scotland announced details for the upcoming renewal of the ScotRail franchise – the majority of services would stay within the existing ScotRail framework as a ten-year franchise with a five-year break point, while the Caledonian Sleeper is intended to be split and operated as a separate franchise.[4]

FirstGroup was awarded the right to operate the West Coast franchise in September, which provoked a backlash from the then current operator Virgin Trains. As a result of the Department for Transport having provided incorrect information during the bid process, the offer was withdrawn in October 2012 and plans made for a new bid process.[5]


In March Transport for London announced details of its plan for the upcoming Crossrail concession. This will operate along broadly similar lines to London Overground, with TfL responsible for the strategic aspects of the operation, leaving the day-to-day running to the private operator. The Crossrail operation is planned to start in May 2015.[6]

In July, the DfT announced that a number of metro routes run by Abellio Greater Anglia from London Liverpool Street would be transferred to TfL to run as a concession similar to both London Overground and Crossrail. The routes to be transferred will be those to Enfield Town, Chingford and Cheshunt, which will see 23 of 25 stations also transferred to TfL management in 2015.[7]


In September, Govia Thameslink Railway took over services formerly operated by First Capital Connect as part of the Thameslink Southern & Great Northern franchise and branded them as Thameslink and Great Northern.


In late May, a number of metro routes run by Abellio Greater Anglia from London Liverpool Street transferred to TfL to run as a concession similar to both London Overground and Crossrail (under the name, TfL Rail). The routes to be transferred was those to Shenfield, Enfield Town, Chingford and Cheshunt.

Current TOCs

A collection of diagrams of many different TOCs in the United Kingdom

As of 2015, there are 26 train operating companies, which are listed below.

† Open-access operator

Future TOCs


Open-access operators

A number of proposals exist for future open-access services.

First Hull Trains has 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 has a number of proposals including Glasgow Trains, which would operate between Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham, and Humber Coast and City Railway, which plans services between London and Cleethorpes; Platinum Trains plans to operate express services between London and Aberdeen. Several of these ideas have already been rejected by the Department for Transport.

Go! Co-operative Ltd., formed in 2009, is aiming to be the first co-operatively owned train operating company in the UK, and intends to provide enhanced cross-country connections in Somerset and Wiltshire, integrating its rail services with light rail, bus links and car pools, enabling outlying communities to access these services.[8]


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 links

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. It is also possible to purchase ferry inclusive tickets from any station in Great Britain to Cowes or East Cowes on the Isle of Wight using Red Funnel ferries, although there are no rail connections from these towns.

International operators

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 Abellio Greater 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.

In other countries

The differentiation between train operating companies and railway infrastructure companies was enforced by European Union legislation and can be found in all EU member countries.

In Germany, train operating companies (Eisenbahnverkehrsunternehmen) are defined by General Railways Act 1993, s. 2(1) (Allgemeines Eisenbahngesetz (AEG), enacted 27 December 1993) as companies providing train services.

See also


  1. ^ Investment in stations: a guide for promoters and developers, Network Rail, May 2011
  2. ^
  3. ^ Tobin, Lucy (29 March 2012). "Global operators vying to run British train franchises". London Evening Standard. p. 50. 
  4. ^ "Future of Scottish rail services set out". Rail News. 22 June 2012. Retrieved 23 June 2012. 
  5. ^ "West Coast Main Line: Taxpayers 'at risk' in rail bid". BBC News. 9 October 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  6. ^ "TfL seeks Crossrail operator". Railway Gazette. 12 March 2013. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  7. ^ "TfL confirms West Anglia rail devolution details". Mayorwatch. 2 July 2013. Retrieved 14 July 2013. 
  8. ^ Go! Rail website. Retrieved 28 January 2010.
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