Railways offer worry-free transport through EuropeWritten by Roger Holliday Claudia Fischer | | email@example.com
This is about train travel, European-style. And an epiphany.
And while, in our biased view, trains are a fascinating topic at any time, today’s ruminations were prompted by a series of seemingly disparate events.
Like the fact that “Slumdog Millionaire” won an Oscar for Best Picture in the Feb. 22 award ceremony. Having actually been to this movie (the only one we saw all year, in fact!), we know that the triumphal Bollywood finale takes place in a railway station in Mumbai.
We also know that its enthusiastic director, Danny Boyle, another Oscar recipient, directed the 1996 movie “Trainspotting,” which has teenagers collecting railway engine numbers at major British railheads like Clapham Junction and Crewe.
Spotting trains and collecting engine numbers was indeed an immensely popular hobby in Britain back in the 1950s and ‘60s, along with cigarette cards and stamps and such, and while we never personally stood on drafty railway platforms waiting for trains to chug through, the subject does have relevance here because in about three weeks we’ll be on a train stopping at Crewe on our way between Glasgow and London.
But no, we won’t be collecting train numbers.
Rather, we’ll probably be remembering how, a long time ago, we came to be seduced by the railway.
The year was 1983. Or maybe 1984. And we had decided, for journalistic purposes, to deviate from our usual two-week driving tour around Europe, staying at inns, bashing relentlessly across France or Germany en route to Spain, meandering the castles of the Rhine and the Danube.
Instead, that year we planned our trip by rail using Eurail passes, a Thomas Cook’s European Timetable, small carry-on bags and focusing on a few base cities.
Frankly, we didn’t hold out much hope for the idea, recalling the rather slow, smelly and even smoky trains of our respective youths. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. And whatever the outcome, it would certainly make for good copy, especially if the results were as disastrous as we expected.
As it turned out, they weren’t. Au contraire, we loved every single minute of our trip. Rode effortlessly and comfortably between cities. Were able to relax. Eat. Read. Nap. Watch scenery. All from the comfort of our own carriage. And then make connections, however tight, to the remotest of outposts, via other meticulously coordinated trains, trams, buses or boats.
Also, we had absolutely no responsibilities. No worries about traffic jams. Or racing drivers. No fretting about bad weather. Or trucks up our tailpipes. Or finding parking places. Or paying for high-priced fuel. Or locating a hotel in the confusing maze of a major metropolis. And best of all, we didn’t fight. About anything. Maps. Directions. Driving techniques. Nothing. And we reached our destinations still good friends, fresh and ready to explore.
It was indeed an epiphany.
Since then, we’ve taken hundreds more rail journeys to every corner of the continent and beyond. And the initial seduction has continued as we’ve seen the steady improvement and expansion of the European rail system. From the gentrification of its railway stations. The upgrading of equipment. The development of high-speed rail, 200 mph and more. And the boring of tunnels under oceans (The Chunnel) and through tall mountains.
We’ve seen modern technology such as the Internet, video players, built-in board games and swivel chairs come to ever more comfy carriages, and watched as increasing speed, smoother tracks, reliable timetables and a proliferation of rail passes make train travel a real bargain even in the face of fierce competition from budget airlines.
Sure, there are occasional problems. Like strikes. And mechanical failures. And some rather grotty trains are still being used on suburban commuter routes. But overall, and especially in Western Europe, the system works seamlessly from Scotland to Sicily, as millions of train miles are ticked off every day with speed, comfort and style.
We can only hope that one day efficient, frequent and regular train travel will come to this part of the world. Some references to highspeed rail in the recent stimulus package seem to offer hope. In the meantime, however, we’ll just have to go elsewhere for our rail fix.e
E-mail travel columnists Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at RogerHolliday@wcnet.org.