International Train Travel – I could think of no better way to get from A to B. Here’s why.
This post was originally published in 2010, and has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
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 international 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.
UPDATE: It sure was! I later did some epic train adventures that ended up in a book: Tales of Trains – Where the Journey is the Destination.
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?
Interested in international train travel? Here’s an armchair-traveler’s delight about my own adventures through 11 countries in 44 days, all by train:
Tales of Trains: Where the Journey is the Destination