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Try a Train

Trains seduce me.  The gentle pull as they glide out of the station, the smooth roll along the track, the efficient warning of the whistle and the possibility of being able to put your head out of the window for a mouthful of rushing air, like a dog in a car on the M1.  Stations are enticing and full of destinations, the curve of a vaulted roof elegantly splattered with bird muck at Pars’ Gare du Nord and the stern gate separating travellers from those left behind are part of the romanticism of train travel: tearful good-byes on the platform as friends and family slide out of view, settling down, free to enjoy the pleasure of movement, the anticipation of arrival, thankful that one is not on a bus, for none of this is possible on a coach, nor do their terminals stimulate the imagination in the same way.  I tried to while away some time at a National Express station once, but was forced to give up after being asked for change twice and moved on by a policeman for loitering.  The final straw came when I was presented with a dusty 10 pence piece from the sulphurous depths of a tramp’s pocket.  I knew it was time to leave.  Train stations mark the beginnings and ends of journeys; bus terminals are places to catch a coach.

Heaven forbid that trains should ever become a mere form of transport, stripped of any travelling pleasure, yet Britain has an abysmal excuse for a rail network.  Commuters accept the daily routine of delays, cancellations and extortionately over-priced tickets as part of the inept way the railways are run.  The popularity of domestic travel has plummeted in recent years, as any last shreds of faith the travelling public had in British trains fly away on a low-cost flight to Paris, considerably cheaper and easier than taking the train to spend a Bank Holiday weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon.  But it does not have to be like this.  There are other countries, where the sun always shines and all the people smile and say hello to each other.  Countries where trains are comfortable, clean and run on time.  It seems for a British person, that any enjoyable train travel must be done abroad, preferably on mainland Europe where they are very good at trains and one can find all the essential elements of the perfect Fantasy Train Journey, against which all subsequent journeys will be measured.

For many, a compartmentalised carriage is important, as close to those described by Agatha Christie in “Murder on the Orient Express” as possible.  Foetal complexes aside, the idea of being cocooned and separated from the world outside is intensely appealing.  It is infuriating to be jolted out of one’s inner monologue by somebody clambering about in a small space trying to reach their seat.  Unless you have prebooked, you can often tour the train to pick the best compartment with the most appealing occupants, arrive early and you may even get the strawberry cream of the chocolate box, a compartment between the buffet car and the toilet.  The inward-facing layout of most compartments makes it easy to strike up a conversation with your fellow passengers, who can often be interesting and informative.  If they turn out to be more of the latter and do not leave you alone, then your knowledge of their language can always peter out- a book is a useful tool for deflecting any conversation at all, if you are feeling really antisocial.  Older trains tend to have compartments with dainty narrow corridors for stretching the legs, which you can wander at your leisure, peeping into other people’s compartments to see how they are passing the time and feeling thankful that you are not in the one with the screaming baby. 

If you are especially lucky you may get a compartment which converts into a sleeper with a swift, satisfying tug.  Should this be in Italy, you will wake to the scents of handcream and hairspray as the Italian women banish any trace of a night spent on a train.  Sleeping compartments are the ultimate dream for anyone who takes any pleasure in train travel.  The quality of sleep offered by something which is on average 6ft long and 2ft wide, is surprisingly good when you are being quietly rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the train, but the most comfortable night’s sleep for the budget traveller is to be found onboard the Train Bleu, which runs between Paris and Nice.  Sheets and pillowcases are cotton and there is a comfort pack to rival even Virgin Atlantic, so one can happily watch a slowly darkening Province drift by as you fall asleep.  Another favourite is the overnight train from Rome to Vienna, where you are gently woken up with Kafe und Kuchen to a glorious view of rural Austria.  The crew are so obliging that they will even yodel, if requested politely.

Pleasant scenery is extremely important.  The fact that the train is taking you somewhere foreign and hopefully new is stimulation in itself: a miserable grey border city in Andorra is transformed into a quaint mountain town, and a peeling Eastern European capital becomes the essence of faded grandeur with enough imagination, but real views are incomparable.  Trains leaving Venice seem to roll on water as they cross the lagoon to the mainland and slow local Scandinavian trains wind easily through fjords and forests.  A window seat on a train is one of the few remaining places where you can do absolutely nothing without any accompanying feelings of guilt, it is thoroughly enjoyable to watch a country unfold from a train window, whether it be voluptuous hills rolling into the distance in Northern England, the Stara Planina mountains stretching up to the sky in Bulgaria or dusty valleys resting beneath a heavy sky in Andalucia.  None can claim superiority; beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, especially from a moving vehicle.

The whole experience can only approach relaxation if the train has actually left on time.  If it has, one can rest safe in the knowledge that there will be no mad dash from one end a foreign station to the other whilst carrying your own weight in luggage, or an expensive midnight taxi to a shut hotel.  Many Western European countries lose out here to Morocco, where the trains are few but punctual, arriving on time more often than expensive high-speed options like Spain’s Talgo.  Whilst you can always expect punctuality and cleanliness in countries like Germany and Sweden, this is not the same across the continent.  Baby wipes may come in handy in several other countries, especially in the toilets, which get worse the further South you go.  Toilets which turn out to be a hole straight onto the tracks can often be some of the cleanest around, while high-tech pods with sliding doors and automatic taps are only open to abuse.  Unless in Tokyo train toilets are never going to have heated seats and fragrant toilet paper.  Be prepared for the worst.

The right food is essential, be it your own picnic or the train buffet, which completes the cultural experience: sugary churros in Spain, pastries in Belgium glazed to perfection and an assortment of dried sausages throughout Eastern Europe.  Hopefully there will be a tempting array of snacks, meals and the hot and cold beverages of your choice, but to avoid paying inflated prices for small sandwiches on the Eurostar between London and Brussels, or for when the selection of food on offer turns out to be some dehydrated meat between two dry bits of bread and a dusty chocolate bar, it is best to bring your own.  Further south, hawkers board the train at the main city stops, selling juicy melons or bananas along with other essentials for train travel, like tea towels and clothes pegs.  Dot not ignore them this time, some of the most delicious fruit ever tasted has been bought from people on trains or in the street.

The British grow up with the impression that trains are an archaic and outmoded means of transport, something to be taken on a Sunday between Keighley and Haworth in Yorkshire as a treat, or used by people who do not have cars to get around.  In other places however, they are still seen as integral and fully-functioning members of  transport society.  Environmentally-minded Europeans recognise the benefits of encouraging their people to take the train, and pump money into their networks to create a reliable service that their customers actually want to use.  At the end of a day’s work, it is far preferable to sit back and be taken home rather than to have to actually drive oneself.  The London commuter who drives and hour and a half twice a day would much rather be able to step on the train and relax his way home, and the Grandmother who regularly visits her grandchildren would like to be able to rely on a service that gets her there on time and not three hours later than advertised.  Sadly, this is not possible and it is a sad irony that the country which invented the railway has one of the worst services in the world, but until operators are able to provide at least some of the elements of the Fantasy Journey, then travellers will have to go to the Continent for their kicks.  Just not by coach.

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