When we imagine the future of travel, we likely picture robot concierges at hotels, contactless checkpoints at airports, and flying taxis. Train travel, however, probably isn’t top of mind. Traveling by train, especially in the US, feels more like a nod to the past loaded with novelty and nostalgia, but not necessarily efficiency, beauty, or luxury. That’s all changing.
Sure, trains are a classic example of the old cliche: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” But they’re more than just a scenic alternative to airplanes. As travelers become increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint, train journeys remain the leading option for a more sustainable trip. The emergence of more sleeper trains in Europe, and the expanding US rail network, also points to a revival of train travel.
The state of train travel is so exciting, in fact, that some choose to make a living by riding the rails.
The Man in Seat 61 has turned train travel into his way of life. A former station manager for London’s Charing Cross, London Bridge, and Cannon Street stations, and various other jobs in the rail industry, he now travels the world by train and runs a popular blog detailing his journeys. His blog, The Man in Seat 61, aims to inspire people to forego the cold, uninspiring airport experience for a more scenic and sustainable trip. We spoke to the Man himself to get his insights on the best train rides in the world, and what the future of train travel looks like from his expert point of view.
Matador: So, why do you like trains so much?
Travel isn’t just about a destination, it’s about the journey. When you travel by train and ship you see where you’re going, you’re a participant in the country you’re visiting rather than a mere spectator. [The railway companies] treat you like a human being, with room to move and stretch out, sleep in a bed in your own room, eat in a restaurant.
Do you still fly, or do you stick to trains?
I don’t fly at all within Europe, or once I reach a long-haul destination. I fly long-haul if I have to, maybe every few years from the UK when visiting places such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, or Indonesia.
What do you look for in a good train ride, and what separates a good experience from a bad experience?
Sometimes, a great journey is about the train itself, the comfort of the sleepers, dining facilities, and in some cases even lounges. Sometimes, it’s about the landscape and scenery through which you pass. Sometimes, it’s about the things that happen and people you meet along the way. And sometimes, even a superficially bad experience can be good, like travelling on a third-class slow train from Aswan to Luxor, delayed, hot, dirty and dusty with broken seats and windows. Talking with the locals and helping some school kids with their English homework is something I’ve never forgotten. What a ride!
The real enemy of travel isn’t the possibility of bad experiences, it’s the temptation to forego all and any experience because flying is superficially cheap and easy.
What’s the most scenic route you’ve ever traveled?
Tough one! How does one compare a seven-hour journey through the Swiss Alps on the wonderful narrow-gauge panoramic Bernina Express with the day-long ride through Serbia to the mountains of Montenegro on the spectacular Belgrade-Bar line? Or a 48-hour journey from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, across the Nebraska flatlands, over the Mississippi, up into the Rockies, along those Colorado canyons, and into the Sierra Nevada via the infamous Donner Pass? There are so many train rides that are scenic in their own unique way.
What’s the most luxurious train you’ve ever been on?
I got engaged (without planning to, what can I say, that train weaved its very special magic) on board the Venice Simplon Orient Express from London to Venice. But that’s classic 1920s luxury, meaning washbasins in each compartment (there were no en suite toilets and showers in carriages built back then). So, my best, most luxurious train ride has to be South Africa’s superb Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria, with windows tinted with real gold to keep down the glare, and even complimentary Montecristo cigars in the bar car. It’s the only train on which I’ve ever had a bath (as opposed to shower) in my private bathroom. Surprisingly, at 50 mph on 3’6″ gauge track the water slopped about much less than you’d think.
Train travel for leisure trips is far more ubiquitous in Europe than in the US. Why do you think this is?
Back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, America had modern diesels and gleaming stainless steel streamliners with vista-domes while we here in Europe were still building steam engines. What went wrong? The US became the land of the airliner and automobile, and rail was almost abandoned other than (by European standards) a skeleton network. But Amtrak still covers the whole country, and for visitors it’s a godsend. We can travel coast to coast at ground level seeing America up close and personal, without flying over it all and missing everything, or having to drive thousands of miles.
How do you envision sustainability impacting the future of train travel vs. flying?
I’ve seen a real change over the last few years leading up to the pandemic. I first started the blog in 2001, and back then, if someone told me why they were traveling by rail instead of flying from, say, London to Italy, they’d typically say they were afraid of flying, medically restricted from flying, or just knew they particularly liked trains. Now, they say two things in the same breath: They are fed up with the stress of airports and flights and they want to cut their carbon footprint. This has come from the grass roots, certainly not from train operators. It’s now been picked up by the media, and finally politicians are beginning to notice.
In Europe at least, people are starting to avoid flights and switch to rail for increasingly long distances. It’s even led to a resurgence in sleeper trains, where rail can provide a realistic alternative to a flight even for 500-700-mile trips. I expect this will continue. My message, of course, is that in taking a train instead of flying you’re not just doing the planet a favor, you’re doing yourself one!
What’s the best train ride you recommend everyone take at least once in their life?
If you live in the States, ride Amtrak’s California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco. Indeed, if you book ahead as little as $200 will get you coast to coast, one of the world’s greatest train trips and one of the world’s greatest travel bargains. Over the years I’ve crossed the US six times by rail, once by road, and this is the most scenic of all Amtrak’s trans-continental routes.
In Europe, ride the Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano. It’s the most scenic of all the Alpine rail routes, and with a train connection from Tirano to Milan it’s the scenic slow route to Italy, too.
When it comes to the future of train travel, what are you most excited about?
The resurgence of sleeper trains. It’s like watching your favourite team seriously down at halftime, then fight back and win in the second half! Paris-Vienna and Amsterdam-Switzerland were restored a couple of weeks ago. A new company, European Sleeper, will start a sleeper train from Brussels and Amsterdam to Berlin and Prague this summer. I hope to ride their first one. Austrian Railways (OBB) has new sleeper trains under construction – all sleepers with en suite toilets and showers. Their biggest innovation, however, is private capsules called “minisuites” providing a bed and a private space at economy prices. I hope OBB will let me visit Austria later this year to see them being built.