From Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited to Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, the train has always been an object of romance and mystery in popular culture. Whether it's a sleeper train rattling through the Transiberian wilderness or a steam train snaking its way through the valleys of Salamanca, it is a mode of transport that is deeply imbued with a sense of adventure and wonder. A train journey, after all, is to experience the world at ground level.
Mark Smith is a man who has dedicated his life to championing train travel. Via his award-winning website Seat 61, he’s turned many a would-be flyer into a life-long train aficionado. When we speak, he’s in Eastern Java, having crossed there from Bali via ferry for just 45p. In a few days, he’ll get his next train to Jakarta for £25; always travelling, he assures me, in an air conditioned carriage.
I ask him what in his eyes makes train travel such a special experience? “I was at a dinner party once, and discussion turned to travel,” he begins. “It soon degenerated into whether such-and-such an airline offered bigger seats or more leg room. Is that all travel means to people now? It used to be so much more than this! Mountains, lakes, scenery, sights, and socialising can all be a factor of the travelling experience. Journeys should be part of your adventure, not an interruption to it.”
From London St Pancras – which can be reached by train in two hours from Manchester, and less than that from Birmingham – it’s quite incredible how mainland Europe can open up. After a relatively short Eurostar journey to Paris one can find connections to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Eastern Europe. You can have breakfast in London and lunch in Paris (preferably at the highly rated Le Train Bleu restaurant in Gare de Lyon), without worrying about booking fees or baggage fees. And because you’re always travelling city centre to city centre, you can forget about waiting for those airport transfers.
Much of this can be done by first boarding the Eurostar, which offers routes across Europe on high-speed trains, meaning you can get from London to a beach in the south of France within seven hours, or even to a ski slope in the Alps within nine hours (ask us about trips to Bourg St Maurice). All aboard a comfortable mode of transport where you can wine, dine, unwind and wander freely — and, if they want to, find companionship.
It’s this return to simplicity and adventure among travellers – over convenience and speed – that has sparked a renaissance in train travel. In fact, speed is often a common misconception around using flight over rail. An analysis from Go Euro found that 14 of Europe’s most popular flights were actually far quicker by train, including routes such as London to Brussels, Paris to Amsterdam and Munich to Vienna.
In response to all this, more and more clients want to see Europe, and indeed beyond, by rail, like an eight-day retreat to Lake Lucerne or a ten-day exploration of the Swiss Alps.
Then there is a special adventure through the Belgian Ardennes: heading to the picturesque city of Namur in Southern Belgium, travellers will use it as a base as they embark on excursions to Luxembourg City and the historical city of Maastricht, and even take a ride on the heritage South Limburg steam train.
There are longer journeys, too for those with the time. Why not board a14-day grand tour of Italy that gets under the skin of Italian culture as it guides travellers on an escorted tour through almost every major city in the country: Milan, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Venice and Pisa. Not to mention the eye-catching landscapes of rural Italy you’ll see from your carriage window each day, and the four-star hotels you’ll be staying in each night.
For Smith, the limits of train travel are boundless. “How about London this morning, Morocco tomorrow night?” he explains. “It’s easy: London, Paris, Barcelona, Algeciras by train, then a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier. No airports! No flights! It's safe, comfortable, and eminently doable.”
His sentiment is shared by many others.The United Nations has made sure that sustainable tourism is firmly on the agenda, placing a keen emphasis on encouraging more and more people to take advantage of Europe’s fantastic train links, largely because of how much better it is for the environment. Train travel is the green way to travel; it accounts for just 1.2% of transport CO2 emissions, compared to 12.3% for aviation.
But the key thing is still simply the fun of it, especially for those travelling alone. “On trains and ships there's room to move, interact, and meet people,” says Smith. “That's why all those filmmakers and novelists often set romances and mysteries on trains, but the only things set on planes seems to be disaster movies.”