Background Infliximab and ciclosporin are of similar efficacy in treating acute severe ulcerative colitis, but there has been no comparative evaluation of their relative clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. Methods In this mixed methods, open-label, pragmatic randomised trial, we recruited consenting patients aged 18 years or older at 52 district general and teaching hospitals in England, Scotland, and Wales who had been admitted, unscheduled, with severe ulcerative colitis and failed to respond to intravenous hydrocortisone within about 5 days. Patients were randomly allocated (1:1) to receive either infliximab (5 mg/kg intravenous infusion given over 2 h at baseline, and again at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the first infusion) or ciclosporin (2 mg/kg per day by continuous infusion for up to 7 days, followed by twice-daily tablets delivering 5·5 mg/kg per day for 12 weeks). Randomisation used a web-based password-protected site, with a dynamic algorithm to generate allocations on request, thus protecting against investigator preference or other subversion, while ensuring that each trial group was balanced by centre, which was the only stratification used. Local investigators and participants were aware of the treatment allocated, but the chief investigator and analysts were masked. Analysis was by treatment allocated. The primary outcome was quality-adjusted survival—ie, the area under the curve (AUC) of scores from the Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis Questionnaire (CUCQ) completed by participants at baseline, 3 months, and 6 months, then every 6 months from 1 year to 3 years. This trial is registered with the ISRCTN Registry, number ISRCTN22663589. Findings Between June 17, 2010, and Feb 26, 2013, 270 patients were recruited. 135 patients were allocated to the infliximab group and 135 to the ciclosporin group. 121 (90%) patients in each group were included in the analysis of the primary outcome. There was no significant difference between groups in quality-adjusted survival (mean AUC 564·0 [SD 241·9] in the infliximab group vs 587·0 [226·2] in the ciclosporin group; mean adjusted difference 7·9 [95% CI −22·0 to 37·8]; p=0·603). Likewise, there were no significant differences between groups in the secondary outcomes of CUCQ scores, EQ-5D, or SF-6D scores; frequency of colectomy (55 [41%] of 135 patients in the infliximab group vs 65 [48%] of 135 patients in the ciclosporin group; p=0·223); or mean time to colectomy (811 [95% CI 707–912] days in the infliximab group vs 744 [638–850] days in the ciclosporin group; p=0·251). There were no differences in serious adverse reactions (16 reactions in 14 participants receiving infliximab vs ten in nine patients receiving ciclosporin); serious adverse events (21 in 16 patients vs 25 in 17 patients); or deaths (three in the infliximab group vs none in the ciclosporin group). Interpretation There was no significant difference between ciclosporin and infliximab in clinical effectiveness. Funding NIHR Health Technology Assessment programme.