International Train Travel: An Evangelist’s Rant

by Nora Dunn on September 30, 2010

train travel

I’ve started reading The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas by Paul Theroux, which I fear will make me even more evangelistic about train travel than I already am. In it, the author (a venerable travel writer to say the least) hops on a train in Boston and rides it (or at least, a series of trains) all the way to Patagonia.

He had me as a little pile of dedicated putty in his hands from page 11 when he discusses the pitfalls of travel writing:

…the convention is to telescope travel writing, to start – as so many novels do – in the middle of things, to beach the reader in a bizarre place without having first guided him there. ‘The white ants had made a meal of my hammock,’ the book might begin…

…my usual question, unanswered by these – by most – travel books, is: How did you get there?…we have become used to life being a series of arrivals or departures, triumphs and failures, with nothing noteworthy in between. Summits matter, but what of the lower slopes of Parnassus?

As a mountain-lover myself, the reference to summits is particularly interesting. I generally find that pictures from the summits of any of the mountains I’ve scaled pale in comparison to pictures taken along the way. These pictures tell a story of drama, excitement, fatigue, elation, and fear. Isn’t that way more interesting than a victorious pose atop a mountain? (Not to mention the fact that reaching the summit is only half the journey, but that’s another story).

But back to the travel theme, as Theroux is passionately eloquent about it (and how it relates to train travel):

…Travel, truly, is otherwise. From the second you wake up you are headed for the foreign place, and each step…brings you closer.

…The literature of travel has become measly, the standard opening that farcical nose-against-the-porthole view from the plane’s tilted fuselage… ‘we circled the airport and, as we came in low for the landing, I saw the stately palms, the harvest, the rooftops of the shabby houses’…I have never found this sort of guesswork very convincing. When I am landing in a place my heart is in my mouth; I wonder – doesn’t everyone? – if we are going to crash. My life flashes before me, a brief selection of sordid and pathetic trivialities. Then a voice tells me to stay in my seat until the plane comes to a complete stop; and when we land the loud-speakers break into an orchestral version of Moon River. I suppose if I had the nerve to look around I might see a travel writer scribbling, ‘Below us lay the tropical green –’

And then, of air travel in general:

(Bear with me. These eloquent quotes have a purpose).

…the aeroplane passenger is a time-traveller. He crawls into a carpeted tube that is reeking of disinfectant; he is strapped in to go home, or away. Time is truncated, or in any case warped: he leaves in one time-zone and emerges in another…

I could go on (boy could I ever!), but I won’t. I think you get the idea.

Having set the scene and pleaded the case for train travel (or at least against air travel), Theroux goes on to describe his train journey from Boston to Patagonia in great detail. The passing conversations he has on the train, the delays, the characters he meets, the curious thoughts that pass through his mind, and the fascinating change of seasons that takes place hour-by-hour as he travels from a particularly cruel Bostonian winter into the summer climes of the south.

I must admit, I’m only 100 pages in at the writing of this article, but it’s enough to have me sold on not only Theroux as an author, but on train travel in general. Having grown up taking long distance train trips to the United States to visit my grandparents each summer, I always loved the long journey and the passing scenery. And when my full-time travels began, the first thing I did was to buy a train pass and travel from Toronto west – by train.

I’ve now racked up a laundry list of countries that I’ve traveled to and through by train: Canada, United States, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Spain, France, Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland.

And I hope this is only the beginning.

In Europe (and many places for that matter), a common objection to train travel is cost. With so many budget airlines, you can hop on a plane for an incredibly (almost unbelievably) low fee and arrive a mere hour or two later to your destination, swollen and dizzied by the surrealistic pace of it all.

But what of the journey? What does the countryside between destination A and B look like? What kinds of houses do people live in? How populated are the areas between big cities? How far does urban sprawl go? And what kinds of people travel on the train?

I must admit, I’ve succumbed to lure of the cheap-and-dirty airline a few times during my European travels this summer. So I’m no angel on this front. But curiously, I’ve also felt guilty for doing so. My aim with travel is not to conquer each country I visit; racing from one attraction-packed destination to another and ticking cathedrals and museums off my pre-determined list. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…I could probably stand to make a few lists myself.

But physically, emotionally, environmentally, even spiritually, train travel is so much more satisfying for me. And cost doesn’t have to be an issue if you do your research. For a mere ₤25, I took two trains and a ferry from Edinburgh, Scotland to Belfast, Ireland. And for little more, you could take a series of trains and ferries from Dublin to just about anywhere in the UK.

Train travel in Asia is even more reasonable, especially if you choose an overnight sleeper, saving you the cost of accommodation as well as getting you to your destination.

The cost-conscious might sing the praises of bus travel in lieu of trains. Yes, buses are often cheaper and they give you a better sense of the journey, but really. You can’t get up and walk around. They’re incredibly cramped. They’re stuffy. And you never see anything other than the motorway. Having said that, I’ll admit to having taken some fascinating bus journeys (including a recent trip from York to Whitby over the heather-filled moors), but if there had been a train traveling the same route, I’d surely have chosen it instead.

Like I warned from the first paragraph, I’m feeling a touch evangelistic about train travel these days. If you have done some long-distance travel by train, I’ll bet you agree with my observations. And if you don’t agree, that’s okay too. Travel is subjective (that’s why I started my week-in-the-life series); to celebrate the different methodologies and ideologies of travelers.

So what’s your take? What is your favourite method of travel?

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Reisen Tipps September 30, 2010 at 9:55 am

I mainly travel by car or plane, trains just isn`t my style

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Johanna Voss October 1, 2010 at 3:18 am

TRAINS!! I love this post and now you have me wanting to read the whole book. My boyfriend and I just completed a RTW trip and trains were by far the best way of travel, especially thru Asia when they are quite comfy, super social and entertaining, hot water on board as well as sinks (gross as they might have been after all those people used it during an overnight but still.) You can ride between cars or hanging out the door watching the scenery fly by.

Love love love trains!

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flip October 1, 2010 at 6:33 am

took the train once in india and fell in love with the idead of train travelling… now im thinking about the transiberian…

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theprofessionalhobo October 2, 2010 at 7:01 pm

@Reisen – trains aren’t for everybody! They’re often slow, delayed, and can be quite unreliable. Once a train lover, always a train lover though!

@Johanna – I hear you! The freedom of roaming about trains in Asia is great, and I quite like sleeping on trains as well. There’s something relaxing about the rocking motion.

@Flip – The Transiberian is a world-class ride! I’m shooting for the Ghan and Indian Pacific over here in Australia. Hopefully I’ll be riding the rails in the next month!

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Argento Wine October 26, 2010 at 11:04 am

Great article, and love your blog. There’s nothing more romantic than travelling by train across Patagonia… We just posted a blog about it too: http://www.therealargentina.com/tren-patagonico-train-travel-in-patagonia/

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theprofessionalhobo October 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm

@Argento – What a great looking train in Patagonia! That’s high on my list of places to experience train travel. Some day! (I just got back from a 4-day train trip from Darwin to Adelaide, then through to Melbourne. Got another epic train trip coming up next week. Love it!

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Jo October 30, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Hi Nora,
I love train travel and am hoping to do some in the States next year.
A few years ago I took the train from LA to Seattle and discovered thr Freight Companies own the lines so we had to give way to all the freight trains which meant we were MANY hours late!!!
Not wanting to arrive in Seattle at midnight I alighted in Portland Oregon, got a taxi to the Conference area and told the driver I couldn’t remember the name of the Hotel but would recognise it if I saw it!! Someone on the train had let me read their book on Portland! Found the hotel, did some sightseeing the next morning and then boarded the train for Seattle. Gosh I was sooo pleased I had done that as I would have missed all the Mountains in the dark. A wonderful trip meeting all sorts of interesting people.
My son lived in Seattle so on the bus the driver asked where was I from etc and when she found my phone didn’t work in the US lent me hers so I could ring him!! It was rush hour and every one heard me….a lady said to me as she got off “tell your son to take you to the Kangaroo and Kiwi Pub”! He did!! All great fun. Back to reading your blogs about trains now!!

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theprofessionalhobo October 31, 2010 at 5:29 pm

@Jo – What a great experience of meeting people you had on the train; I’m so thrilled for you!
You do also bring up a very valid point about train travel: depending on what country you’re in and what line you’re traveling on, train travel can be far from punctual. I’ve taken 4-hour train journeys that have turned into 7.5 hour ones, but then again I’ve also taken 54 hour journeys that were right on time.
But if you have somewhere important to be, I still suggest taking the train – just a day early! (smiles)

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Brigitte @ Bostonian Online October 31, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Hi, just doing some research for my Bostonian site. Amazing the amount of information on the web. Wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but nice site. Cya later.

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Train Diva November 13, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Nora I found you through the article in the Globe, what a find! I started a blog dedicated to train travel so it is great to find another train lover. I certainly don’t have the number of notches that you do but it will be fun to collect them.

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theprofessionalhobo November 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm

@Diva – I’m so glad you found me, and thanks for leaving a comment! If you haven’t already tapped into The Man from Seat 61, then you’ll absolutely LOVE this resource on train travel around the world to help you plan your itineraries: http://www.seat61.com/index.html

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David DeWitt November 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Wow! I love the Seat61 fella’s site! So much great information over there! Nora, you are an ever expanding source of great information! :)

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theprofessionalhobo December 1, 2012 at 11:02 am

David – Seat61 is my all-time favourite most useful travel planning resource (for overland travel, anyway). Love it!

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Diego December 27, 2010 at 6:40 am

First of all, congrats for your blog and all your adventures. Very useful advises indeed!
Regarding trains, I had a beautiful experience with the Trans-Mongolian, and I would say trains are normally cheaper than driving (not the Oriental Express though). I am checking now the Reunification Express in Vietnam and the Indian Pacific itself – I will be down there in a couple of days but not enough time for the train.
Amazing resource http://www.seat61.com! I love it!
Keep going,
Diego

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theprofessionalhobo December 27, 2010 at 6:10 pm

@Diego – Thanks! The Trans-Mongolian is on my definite to-ride list, and I’ve just finished 8 days aboard the Indian Pacific…the first part in the series was just posted.
As for Seat 61 – I absolutely love it too! It’s the first place I go when researching overland travel of any kind.

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Steve May 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Great blog!!!

I live in London and travel across Europe frequently using the trains. Not only is it better for the environment compared to flying and using a car, it adds a great sense of adventure!!!

As a train enthusiast I always use http://www.raileurope.co.uk, as it offers the most extensive range of train tickets throughout Europe, and you can plan your journey starting here in England.

Thanks,
Steve

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theprofessionalhobo May 30, 2011 at 11:20 pm

@Steve – I quite enjoyed using raileurope for my European train travels as well….it’s great for comparing prices and booking tickets. Between that and Seat61, taking the train in Europe is a breeze!

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Baron's January 8, 2012 at 3:22 am

Well done Nora…Paul Theroux is my favorite writer of all times…another interesting book of his is “The great railway bazzare” an absolute delight to read….
I also love train travel…My first long train ride occured when I was 14 or thereabouts…my mom, sister and I took a train ride from Cairo to Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbul…and I remember it was a slow ride in those days with many in between stops …(To pick up or drop off passengers) at many stations and local drabby looking vendors came on board hawking all kinds of food and merchandise from newspapers to cigarettes to candies to ammenities and drinks…I remember buying a newspaper wrapped lot of delicious chechi beans and to this day I love Chechi beans…it’s a miracle I didn’t get sick from that because come to think of it, it was not what I would call a very sanitary meal or snack…..I remember the lady who sold it to me was wearing a shabby looking old green dress , had a head scarf partially wrapped around her head and neck, was bare footed, had dirty finger nails and looked meek and weak. I do not remember how we managed to communicate or transact but we did….on another stop, I hopped off the train and grabbed two cups of tea..(Chai) one for mom and one for myself…my 13 year old sister was asleep and didn’t much care for tea anyways….it was quite an experience that remains engraved in my brains and endeared in my heart for ever….Oui C’ete la belle vie sur le Train en Egypte et en Afrique.
Keep well Nora and keep writing

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theprofessionalhobo January 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

@Baron’s – What an amazing train adventure! Wow. And yes, you learned an early lesson in life: hygiene in other parts of the world follows quite a different set of acceptable “rules” than we may be used to!
http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2011/11/vietnam-food-culture-coffee-street-food-and-hygiene/

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Jerry Lutkenhaus March 10, 2012 at 10:37 am

I just read your article about Paul Theroux and traveling on trains. He is my favorite travel writer. As another commentator pointed out his book The Great Railway Bazaar is a wonderful read. He took this train through India 30 years ago I believe and then redid it 30 years later and did a new book. Theroux’s quote about arriving by plane is exactly how I always feel. My wife’s father worked for CSX railroad so as a young girl her family was able to travel anywhere in this US by rail at no costs!

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theprofessionalhobo March 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm

@Jerry – I remain a train travel (and overland travel) enthusiast, but I must say if you have to get somewhere in a hurry, it’s not always the best way! What was supposed to be a 14 hour bus ride (in Florida) just morphed into a 24 hour one! Ah well….sigh…..it brings new meaning to being “along for the ride”, and I must admit I enjoy sitting back and watching human dynamics in situations like these.

Enjoy the ride!

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Beth May 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I love train travel,as a child, our family went to visit my moms family in England, the Seanes rolling by, the hypnotic hums of the rails more train travel is defitnately on my bucket list

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theprofessionalhobo May 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Hey Beth,
I think it was my long-distance train trips in childhood that clinched my love of trains!

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