UK boat trains – how to travel to Europe by train and ferry.

When I was 16 my mum put me on a train from Malvern to Weymouth. It was 1984, I had just completed my O’Level exams and was destined to get some work experience with Aunty Guernsey.

At Weymouth I was supposed to catch the boat train to Weymouth Harbour before getting on board the Guernsey ferry. All I needed to do was change platforms but when I arrived, the boat train wasn’t there.

In its place was a sign announcing strike action and a ferry cancellation.

The rest of that story has gone down in family history. I did eventually get to Guernsey but not before phoning (on a pay phone) my mum to tell her that, instead of being safely on my way across the sea, I was ‘fine’ and in a pub in Weymouth with ‘a man’.

But that was my last chance to enjoy a ride on the Weymouth boat train.

In 1987 the Weymouth Harbour Tramway ceased operation and I never did get to see the flag-waving railway worker precede the Boat Train through the town. I do however remember waiting at Weymouth Quay railway station, which used to bring passengers from London right alongside the ferry.

Check out my adventures by train ideas.

What were boat trains?

Woman sitting comfortably behind a large window on a cross-channel ferry. Clouds against a blue sky.
On board the 2024 P&O Dover to Calais ferry, Fi Darby

Until the 1980s boat trains were a popular method of travelling from the UK to continental Europe and beyond. They allowed people to take train-ferry-train routes, often from London and usually with through-ticketing.

Perhaps the most famous of these was the Night Ferry.

Running from 1936 to 1980 with a break for World War II, the Night Ferry departed London Victoria, rolled onto the boat in sections at Dover, then took passengers from Dunkirk to Paris Nord.

Special boat docks with sea locks were built at Dover and Dunkirk to make train loading possible.

The only European passenger train that still loads directly onto a ferry is the sleeper service from Milan to Sicily.

Other notable boat train routes once included:

  • London-Harwich-Hook of Holland-Amsterdam
  • London-Dover-Calais-Paris
  • London-Southampton-New York
  • London-Liverpool-New York

How to book Rail and Sail tickets

Woman in blue jumper and hat with windswept hair on ferry with sea behind.
Dover Calais Ferry 2024, Fi Darby

Because of the historic links between trains and ferries, the UK still has plenty of train stations near ferry ports but not all journeys are available with through ticketing (which of course makes booking easier).

And is great if you’re not a confident traveller.

This situation is changing and some ferry companies are once again offering Rail & Sail tickets that include your train and ferry tickets in one bundle.

These bookings usually work through a partner train ticketing company.

ScotRail Rail and Sail tickets

Flat calm water beneath a blue sky with a few white clouds. Small ferry in the middle of the loch.
Calmac Ferry Scotland, Fi Darby

ScotRail’s Rail and Sail tickets are really useful for day trips and holidays to Scotland’s islands and coast locations.

Stena Line Rail and Sail tickets

Stena Line offer Rail & Sail through-ticketing services on four routes.

Train and ferry to Belfast (2024)

  • Rail & Sail service – Belfast
  • Tickets – Through tickets available
  • UK station – Ayr (Scotland)
  • UK ferry port – Cairnryan (1.25 hr bus transfer included)
  • Sailing time – 2.5 hours (approx)
  • Booking – via Stena Line

Train and ferry to Dublin (2024)

  • Rail & Sail service – Dublin
  • Tickets – Through tickets available
  • UK station – Holyhead (Wales)
  • UK ferry port – Holyhead
  • Train to ferry transfer – 8 minutes walking
  • Sailing time – 4.5 hours (approx)
  • Booking – via Stena Line

Train and ferry to Rosslare (2024)

  • Rail & Sail service – Rosslare
  • Tickets – Through tickets available
  • UK train station – Fishguard Harbour
  • UK ferry port – Fishguard
  • Train to ferry transfer – 3 minutes walking
  • Sailing time – 4 hours (approx)
  • Booking – via Stena Line

Train and ferry to Hook of Holland (2024)

  • Rail & Sail service – Hook of Holland
  • Tickets – Through tickets (Greater Anglia stations only)
  • UK train station – Harwich International
  • UK ferry port – Harwich International
  • Train to ferry transfer – 4 minutes walking
  • Sailing time – 6.5 hours (approx)
  • Booking – via Stena Line

Irish Ferries Sail & Rail

Irish Ferries offer Sail & Rail tickets that include trains in the UK and Ireland but not onward connections such as the London Underground.

Are any UK ferry ports near train stations?

Modernist white building with Dover Priory Station in large letters above a canopy and door.
Dover Priory train station, Fi Darby
Dover Priory train station is a 45-minute walk from the P&O ferry terminal but there are plenty of taxis available.

Of course the concept of ‘near’ depends on how you like to travel but let’s say you don’t want to pay for a taxi or get on a bus, and you have a reasonably big rucksack to carry.

You’d probably like your ferry port to be less than 10-minutes walk away from your train station.

I may have missed some great train/ferry connections below. Do feel free to let me know, and I will do my best to add them to the list but only if the walk between station and ferry port is less than 10 minutes.

Train stations near ferry ports in Scotland

  • Mallaig – for Skye and the Small Isles – 2 minutes walking
  • Wemyss Bay – for Bute – right next door
  • Aberdeen – for Orkney and Shetland – 10 minutes walking
  • Largs – for Great Cumbrae – 4 minutes walking
  • Ardrossan Harbour – for Arran and Kintyre – right next door
  • Stranraer – for Belfast – right next door
  • Oban – for the Inner and Outer Hebrides – 4 minutes walking

Train stations near ferry ports in Wales

Wales has three main ferry ports, Fishguard (for Rosslare), Holyhead (for Dublin) and Pembroke Docks (for Rosslare). All three are within 30 minutes walking time from their nearest train station but none meet my 10-minute walk criteria.

Train stations near ferry ports in England

Tall modern tower in large harbour with car ferry behind.
Isle of Wight Ferry, Portsmouth
  • Harwich International – for Holland – 4 minutes walking
  • Newhaven – for northern France – 4 minutes walking
  • Liverpool – for Ireland and the Isle of Man – 6 minutes walking
  • Lymington Pier – for the Isle of Wight – 3 minutes walking
  • Portsmouth Harbour – for the Isle of Wight – same building (and it’s on a pier!)

Ferry ports near train stations in Northern Ireland

  • There are no train stations within easy walking distance of Belfast ferry port but buses and taxis are available.

Frequently asked train and ferry questions:

Red doors in a glass building with the words 'Ferry Terminal' above.
P&O Ferry Terminal Building, Fi Darby

Are Rail and Sail combined tickets cheaper than booking train and ferry tickets to Europe separately?

Ferry companies and train ticketing providers claim that Rail and Sail through-tickets are competitive when it comes to price but I suggest comparing their tickets with the price of separate train and ferry bookings before making your decision.

How much boarding time should I allow between my train and my ferry?

Now we are EU members, you’ll need to go through immigration (and sometimes security) checks before boarding your ferry.

This means most ferry companies require an early arrival at the port. For example to sail from Dover to Calais with P&O, I was asked to arrive at least 90 minutes before my sailing time. The terminals at both ends were pleasant so this wasn’t a problem but it’s worth understanding check-in times before you book your train tickets.

NB If you’re taking your pet onboard (see below) you may have a longer check in time requirement. 

Can I take my dog if I’m travelling as a foot passenger on a boat train route?

Although you can take your dog on most trains in the UK, the rules regarding foot passengers and pets on ferries varies from carrier to carrier. Assistance and guide dogs are permitted on all the routes I found.

It’s worth remembering that ‘pets’ can include dogs, cats or ferrets although not necessarily in pet lounges, which are generally exclusively for dogs.

None of the Brittany Ferries routes allow you to take a pet on board if you are travelling as a foot passenger.

Although you are allowed to bring a pet on board an Irish Ferries ferry, it must be comfortably crated and accommodated in the kennel area of the car deck. This would make a rail/sail trip difficult for most passengers.

Pets are allowed to travel with foot passengers but you will be required to book an onboard kennel or pet friendly cabin on some routes. Some routes have dedicated pet lounges.

P&O Ferries currently only allow pets to travel with foot passengers on their Hull to Rotterdam route. I’m hoping this will change because they have fantastic pet lounges on their new Dover to Calais ferries. 

Will I be entitled to compensation if my ferry is delayed?

As with any journey, ferry delays do occasionally happen. If you bought your ticket in the UK and the delay is over an hour, you are entitled to some compensation (usually 25% of your ticket price). With a longer delay, and depending on the circumstances (for example, not if your delay is due to bad weather), you might also be entitled to refreshments, overnight accommodation, a full refund or re-routing.

Delayed ferries can have an impact on onward train connections; for this reason, we recommend purchasing anytime train tickets that don’t restrict you to a specific train.

It’s always worth reading the small print before you book, checking your ferry provider is ABTA affiliated and taking out your own travel insurance.

Are there any UK walks from train stations that include a ferry ride?

Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how many local UK ferry/train connections there are. Especially down here in the Southwest.

Devon is a good example. In the summer months, my Marsh Barton to Starcross – station to station walk can connect via a ferry with my Topsham to Exmouth – station to station walk.

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