The train is probably my favorite mode of transportation. I just love the clicking along the rails and the gentle sway as you speed through the countryside. Watching the world go by through big windows is mesmerizing and ignites my adventurous spirit. This feeling might be influenced by the romance and nostalgia of train travel, however, rather than the realities. Are trains really a practical and cost-effective mode of transportation these days? I think, like most things, it depends.
When I say the “romance” of train travel, I don’t mean the hearts and flowers and cuddling with your partner type of romance. Rather, I’m talking about the majestic, heroic pageantry and spirit of bygone eras. Doesn’t the train just embody that? It can be mentally transporting in addition to physically transporting.
The Nostalgia Factor
The historic significance of trains and the role they played in quickening and popularizing travel, in general, is certainly a part of their appeal. The heyday of the railroad lives on in modern passengers’ nostalgic feelings.
Plus, there are those fantastic “Great Train Journeys” around the world that are certainly on my travel bucket list, and probably those of many travelers. The Trans-Siberian in Russia, the Glacier or Orient Express in Europe, the Ghan or Indian Pacific in Australia, the Darjeeling Toy Train or Palace on Wheels in India – there are so many classic rail journeys on all continents.
I also have a personal nostalgic factor, having been introduced to train travel at a young age by my parents. We went EuRailing as a family around Europe when I was 11 years old. I was hooked and ventured out again on a rail pass with friends two more summers as a high school student. So, beyond being a piece of global history, train travel is personally nostalgic for me from my childhood and adolescence.
The Geek Factor
I’m a total geek, so another huge selling point for train travel on the “romantic” end of the spectrum for me is its prevalence in pop culture. I love me some Agatha Christie, and Murder on the Orient Express might just be the most famous mystery novel of all time. Classy and gripping, it makes me want to take that journey for myself – the train, not the death or the murder…
Another famous literary train (in a totally different genre…) that I actually have traveled on is the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter series. Known to muggles as the Jacobite in Scotland, I totally geeked out in glee on that ride!
There are plenty of movies that feature trains you can actually ride, from The Darjeeling Limited to Before Sunrise to any number of Westerns featuring train heists in the American West. Their presence in some of our favorite entertainment gives trains that special fandom boost.
The gloss and romance of train travel that come with the history and cultural relevance I went into above don’t always match up to the reality.
Especially during peak season and on popular routes, trains can be extremely crowded. You may have trouble finding a seat, be required to make a reservation, or even find your desired route and timing fully booked. When I took an overnight train in India, for example, I was amazed at how many people were standing in aisles and doorways or packing into seats designed for far fewer passengers.
In the summer in Europe, despite there being a lot of connectivity and multiple trains per day on popular routes, I often find myself wandering many cars for a seat, sitting on my bag, or just standing wherever I can find space. This is one of the reasons I much prefer to travel in the offseason!
On the other hand, on less common routes or in non-peak times, trains may be fairly empty. I took the train clear across Australia from Perth to Sydney and there were plenty of empty seats so I could hop across the aisle to get the best photos if anything came into view in the vast Nullarbor.
The comfort factor can be related to crowds. Having to stand or sit on your bag, or be crowded with packed in passengers can be brutal. On the other hand, I think an average or uncrowded train is probably the most comfortable mode of transport. You can spread out more easily on a train than a plane or bus. With no seatbelts, you are free to lay across a seat, get up and walk around, stretch your legs, go to the restaurant car for a sit-down meal or to grab a snack. The train I took across Australia even had showers at the end of each car!
Overnight travel also plays into the comfort level of trains. I’ve spent many a night on the train – it’s a great way to cut down accommodation costs and I love being lulled by the gentle rocking and rhythm. I always say trains are favorite places to sleep! This assumes you get a couchette/sleeping cabin or bunk on a train, however. Sleeping in a seat isn’t always as comfortable. If you can spread out, it might not be too bad, but if all the seats are taken, you have to stay upright. But it’s probably cheaper!
Frugal fanny that I am, I opted for just a seat on the 2.5-day cross-Australia train journey I mentioned. I even extended my travel time by going from Perth to Sydney (where I was flying out of after a semester studying in Perth), dropping my large bag at a storage facility, and getting on the train back to Alice Springs within an hour! No one sat next to me, so I could spread out, but I hadn’t considered the temperature. I was quite chilly at night and glad to have a pashmina to use as a travel blanket. On the other end of the spectrum, I spent a miserable night on the train from Prague to Budapest in old, uncomfortable bench seats and over 100*F (38*C) temps! So comfort really depends on the route, season, and crowds.
Again, this is very location and route dependent. In some parts of the world, the train is definitely the cheapest way to get anywhere. In others, with the rise of cheap international buses and flights, you actually spend more to take the train. You really have to research the options in the region you are traveling. If the train is more expensive, you have to consider the comfort level. If it’s better on the train, it might be worth a slightly higher cost. If you are going for the absolute cheapest option, these days it might not be the train.
Another factor in train travel is speed. This one is definitely location dependent. The bullet train in Japan travels at up to 320 miles per hour, versus your average American train does about 80mph. The age and style of various trains make a big difference in their speed.
Plus, there is the punctuality factor. Switzerland and Japan, for example, are known for their punctuality and are rarely even a minute late. In places like China or Mexico, on the other hand, don’t expect to stick to a strict timetable. This can affect the “speed” of your train journey beyond the speed of the train itself.
So, as you can see, the realities of train travel are highly varied and depend on so many factors. Your personal considerations make an impact as well. I’m a romantic, geeky person who avoids traveling at crowded times and doesn’t mind a less than ideal comfort situation if it saves me money. Thus, trains appeal to me immensely, except if there’s a cheaper bus ;-P For travelers who have more strict travel itineraries and value fast, comfortable travel, the train may not be their go-to option. Though these preferences are always colored by the location you are traveling in, the options available, and the level of comfort and speed provided by trains on that particular route. Weigh your options and decide for yourself the romance or reality of train travel.
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