There was a time when travel by train and steamship was the cat’s meow. First class travelers dined at linen-covered tables as the outside world sped by, while the less fortunate made do with unpredictable sailing schedules—sometimes lying becalmed for days on end—and endured the slow, bumpy pace of stagecoach travel on rudimentary roads.
Trains and steamships kept actual schedules, didn’t deviate from their courses, and came outfitted with luxuries like running water, beds and dining compartments. Almost like a moving hotel!
Now trains are the slow horses, with airplanes largely taking over the long-distance people-moving task, at least in Africa and the Americas. In Asia and to an extent in Europe, it’s a different story. There’s no more economical way to move great hordes of people than by train.
Rise of the trains
Happily for some, train travel has been working its way back into the travel portfolio, and not just for reasons of economy. Heck, we even have dedicated rail journey itineraries! Gone are the days of Pan Am, when air travel was a privilege and passengers received the white glove treatment. The way we’re treated now often reminds me more of a stockyard than something we’ve paid good money for!
As air travel has taken over and airport authorities need to mitigate risks, there’s no question that we’ve lost a lot of the glamour of travel. That’s why the pendulum is swinging back to the train. First of all, there’s no massive screening process to get on one. You wheel your suitcase aboard and take your seat or sleeper. Once you’re under way, there’s no need to wait for the fasten seatbelt sign to turn off. You can walk up and down through the cars to your heart’s content. And on many trains you can stretch out full length in a dedicated or shared compartment.
On longer journeys you don’t have to stick your elbows out and eat off a plastic tray with your belt buckled; you can get up and stroll to the dining car, order from a menu, eat off china on linen and choose from a selection of wines. Flashing by your table are the magnificent sights of the land through which you travel.
The scenery is better from a train than from any other form of mechanized travel over land. You’re sitting up high, looking out on towns and countryside, with unobstructed views from bridges. If you’re in Mongolia, Canada or parts of China, you’ll also travel through otherwise virgin wilderness and inspiring mountain ranges. Sometimes the gleaming rails you follow are the only sign of civilization for hundreds of miles around.
Overnight trains a great time-saver
One thing that I really enjoy is overnight train journeys—provided I’m in a sleeper car, that is! I remember well one trip from Harare to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. After a nice dinner, banter with other passengers and some reading, I slept all night in a proper (if skinny) bed, rocked gently to sleep to a clickety-clack lullaby. In the morning, breakfast was ready and soon after I stepped out into a place I had never been before. No bus trip taking up most of my day, just get off the train and explore!
When vacation time is limited, sleeping on a train is a great time-saver. Jump on at dusk in Beijing, wake up in Ulaanbaatar. Explore for days, then climb aboard and overnight to Irkutsk. Sleep while you travel—what a concept! Try doing that on a plane.
Click here for a selection of dedicated rail journeys. Keep in mind that we have many other trips that involve significant rail travel—the best thing to do is call an Adventure Center experts—they truly are experts—and ask them if you can build train travel into your destination of choice!