Travel: Railways - The golden age of the iron horse

Why not take advantage of the special deals being offered by competing private rail companies? Simon Calder shows how
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The Independent Online
Last weekend was the time to enjoy rail travel at its best. As the May sunshine dazzled from the bright steel rails, I lounged while the countryside raced energetically past. Early summer, I reflected, is ideal for using this most civilised form of transport - especially at fares that seem improbably low.

You won't be surprised to learn that this exercise in contentment took place not in Britain but in Italy, where an extensive, accessible rail system is regarded as a matter for national pride. But whatever your view on the wisdom or otherwise of rail privatisation, the arrival tomorrow of the summer timetable will give the traveller more options than at any time since the Sixties. Not only has the desecration of UK railways begun by Dr Beeching finally begun to be reversed, with places such as Blackpool, Ramsgate and Shrewsbury returning to the InterCity network; the train operators are also creating some imaginative fares for rail travellers.

Keep on the Independent track, and you can take a 1,000-mile grand tour of England and Scotland for less than pounds 80, subject to a bit of advance planning.

Start from Birmingham, where much of the rail action is taking place. You can travel from Birmingham to Edinburgh for pounds 30 return. Elegantly, this fare allows you to use two entirely distinct routes: north on the West Coast line, south on the East Coast.

After the northward rush through Staffordshire, Cheshire and Lancashire, the Lake District flashes past to the west. Later, the climb to Shap summit and the race through the borders from Carstairs are among the most dramatic stretches of track in Britain.

From Edinburgh you can plug into the ScotRail network which, from Monday, will offer a great day out. A special carriage is being attached to the West Highland Line sleeper at Edinburgh for a pounds 20 return ride. The departure time is a bright-and-early 5.05am, but it gets you to Fort William at 10.25am in time for a hearty nine-hour hike. This summer, too, bikes will travel free on all ScotRail services.

The trip south from Edinburgh arcs east in a neat counterpart to the westerly trip north, sweeping you close to the Northumberland coast and past the Angel of the North near Gateshead before swooping around Durham.

Don't travel back to Birmingham just yet; abandon your journey at York. Show your rail ticket at the tourist office first, and you get vouchers for half-price admission to the National Railway Museum and many other attractions.

York to Pontefract defeated me. I can see no alternative to a standard single costing pounds 4.90 for the 15-mile journey. But it gets you safely across the border into West Yorkshire, where suddenly fares fall to near- Italian levels.

A Day Ranger ticket costs pounds 4.40 and entitles up to three adults to travel anywhere in the county by train or bus (after 9.30am on weekdays, any time at weekends).

This dream ticket will ease you as quickly or slowly as you like between Pontefract and Wakefield, where you have a baffling choice of fares on the fast-track GNER train to London.

The range of tickets to King's Cross is more complicated than ever it was under British Rail. At the top end, the full one-way fare is pounds 52.50; next a SuperSaver single pounds 48; an Apex single pounds 28.50. Crafty one-way travellers will instead buy a day return, price pounds 22, and throw away the inbound half. Cheapest of all is the new evening ticket, which begins on 1 June. The "After Eight" ticket allows a single journey departing after 8pm for pounds 12 anywhere on the GNER network - which could be a journey as long as the 438 miles between Motherwell and King's Cross.

Once in London you find all kinds of special deals, such as the Thameslink offer, tomorrow only, allowing unlimited travel between Bedford and Brighton for pounds 1; to qualify, you must buy the ticket today.

Returning from the capital to Birmingham allows you to benefit from the most tangible piece of competition so far. Chiltern Trains, which runs from Marylebone via Banbury to Birmingham, and Silverlink (from Euston via Northampton) are both aggressively chasing Virgin's main line route. As a result, Richard Branson's company is offering a silly price for a 120-mile journey even at peak times: just pounds 7, if you book a Virgin Value ticket by 6pm the day before.

The best bargain of all cannot be found in England, Wales or Scotland: tomorrow, and on any other Sunday, rail travellers in Northern Ireland can roam the length and breadth of the province for just pounds 3.