So, how did this obsession with train travel begin?
I can think of several key triggers, some quite personal. Going way back we always took the train for our family holidays, taken in the UK’s West Country. This must have been from about the age of five or six. We would take a taxi up to Paddington Station in London, back when the place just seemed impossibly big and exciting to me, and open tin foil wrapped sandwiches at the midway point of the five or six hour journey to Cornwall or Devon. So on some level trains signify the excitement of holidaying to me and an escape or change of scenery.
Many years later trains signalled (you see what I did there? I do that a lot, sorry) a big moment in my life, as I first met my fiancee at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. It wasn’t quite a blind date, but it was our first (not so brief) encounter face to face. We then spent several months shuttling back and forth between Waverley and Kings Cross to visit each other before I moved up here. Then to symbolise this in a way, we got engaged on the Orient Express earlier this year.
The other big one was discovering the Man in Seat Sixty One website and realising just what scope there was to go on amazing, bespoke adventures across whole continents, and how easy planning it could be using that fantastic site.
I assume your blog, Trains on the Brain was inspired by these personal experiences: you’re obviously quite passionate about the subject and already have a nice collection of stories there. What do you hope to accomplish with this blog?
I hope to make it a comprehensive archive of inspirational train adventures all over the world. Seeing as I’m not that well travelled yet myself, I’m doing this gradually through guest posts supplementing my own. I’d also like it to be a space where we can reflect on, analyse and debate rail news and have a bit of fun in the process. I enjoy making pop culture allusions and stuff like that, so although it’s a narrow subject in one way, in another there are all sorts of crossovers to be explored. I haven’t found many blogs dedicated to the topic really, not sure if that’s good or bad just yet, but I wanted to do something different from the standard personal travelogue (‘here’s our two month long interrail trip report, and that’s it, over.’) I don’t want it to become all po-faced ‘we must all campaign against flying and save the planet’ stuff either. It would be great if a few more industry people got involved too.
I detect a thread of advocacy running through your project. You mentioned that more efforts to persuade people to take trains need to be made. Do you see this as a problem?
Yes, very much so. I think the problem lies in the economic realities behind comparing train travel with planes. I hate to say it, but [many] of the ecotourism travel companies and green-friendly media end up preaching to the converted with a lack of pragmatism behind their messages. Some people will happily travel vast distances overland, either because of their green principles or because they simply prefer to travel that way, but it’s not an attractive option for most. How likely are whole families going to take a cruise ship from England to New York rather than fly, for example?
That said, I don’t think many people enjoy flying, really. Rail prices just need to come down in most parts of the Western world before there is much chance of a bigger uptake and governments should prioritise high-speed rail projects to make international journeys more viable. Also train companies should get more competitive with their pricing and wake up to the fact that Easyjet or Ryanair owe their success entirely to being as cheap as chips.
What do you think it will take to make those things happen?
Tough question and I’m certainly no expert. A bit of political pressure and even-handed debate I suppose will help, and a lot of will from various governments to subsidise rail travel, or maybe just an enterprising company seeing the light and lowering their prices to compete. It’s a dread thought in a way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the budget airlines get in on the act and launch their own cut-price alternatives eventually. From a domestic perspective, the competition between Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn over potential high speed routes from the UK to mainland Europe is an exciting step in the right direction, I think. It doesn’t help that we’re an island physically (and often psychologically) adrift from Europe.
Do you think rail travel has advantages over other forms of transport?
Many over flying, certainly. Reduced carbon footprint, a better view of the scenery, it’s more communal, you’re not made to wait around for ages before you board and you’re generally not treated like an imbecile from the moment you arrive at the station. On a sleeper train from Paris to Venice a few years back I remember just one single announcement after departing the station during the whole 13-hour ride: compare that to your average two hour flight where you’re not given a moment’s rest! Plus they usually deliver you to the heart of the city and not into some desolate, motorway wilderness from where you have to get a shuttle bus to reach your destination. Coaches and buses are okay for short trips but they’re not much fun beyond that.
Are there any specific rail journeys that you’d like to take and why?
Oh too, too many to list! Next year I hope to cross the US with Amtrak from New York City to San Francisco via a stop in Chicago. Maybe we’ll make that our honeymoon! Also I’d love to cross Canada, the Ghan in Australia and the Flam Railway, which climbs up through some of Norway’s most spectacular fjords.
As an American, I’ve never heard anyone say they dream of train travel in the States! Have you travelled with Amtrak before?
No, but I plan to cross the States next year from New York City to San Francisco. It’s a shame that Amtrak’s network is in such decline and whole parts of the country are unserved by rail, as you have such a beautiful and diverse landscape, which is far better seen from the ground than from the air. Obama seems to be in support of High Speed Rail so far, let’s hope he shakes it up soon!
What are your top three train travel tips?
1. Buy a few physical maps of the countries or continents you’d like to see by train to start planning a trip. It will spark your imagination much better than using an online booking site.
2. Don’t bother with organised rail tours unless you’re loaded. Instead, use sites like Seat61, RailEurope, Amtrak, Quno – and of course, Trains on the Brain – when you know where you’re going to plan your journey and get tickets, it’s much cheaper and gives you greater flexibility to build your trip.
3. For the journey, pack a good book (maybe something by Paul Theroux?), a decent walkman or iPod loaded with Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express album and perhaps some tin foil wrapped sandwiches; marmalade ones you can keep under your hat.
As you can probably tell, Jools Stone has a severe case of Trains on the Brain. His blog of the same name aims to chart the joy and pain of travelling by train in this age of boring budget airlines. When he is not dreaming and scheming of rail adventures, Jools works as a journalist and copywriter in Edinburgh.
What are your thoughts on rail travel? We’d love to hear your comments, or questions for Jools, below.