What is it about trains? In truth it would not have been surprising if they had gone the way of the horse and cart and the stagecoach. The railways were a 19th-century invention that were lucky to survive the 20th given the ubiquity of cars and coaches and the readiness of the likes of Beeching and his fellow thinkers to wield the axe.
Yet here we are celebrating the fact that thanks to a new section of high-speed line in Laos, the longest possible journey by train has now been extended and ends in Singapore rather than Vietnam, having started on the southern tip of Portugal. Of course this 21-day journey is somewhat theoretical. The trip requires numerous changes, not least because several different gauges are required for the trains, and would be undertaken only by the keenest of rail buffs.
But the very fact that this epic journey has caught the attention of the public demonstrates the resilience of rail and the fact that the prospect of a long trip on a train is welcomed by many. Train travel attracts the imagination in a way that other modes of travel do not. Agatha Christie would not have written a murder mystery set on a National Express coach to Birmingham, nor would Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard have had their brief encounter if they had been in their motor cars.
The love of railways has very deep roots which have been sustained by the ubiquitous tales of train travel in literature and the arts. Before the advent of railways, which in two short decades had extended from the single line between Liverpool and Manchester opened in 1830 to a network covering much of the UK, travel was slow and difficult. Stagecoaches took days to cross the country and journeys on unmade roads were bumpy and subject to the whims of the weather. Passengers were at constant risk of injury or death as accidents were frequent. The railways changed all this and this has not been forgotten.
Almost overnight, it became possible to travel in relative comfort and safety as the network stretched to more than 5,000 miles by 1850. Train travel therefore became the great enabler, not just for business people and the growing number of commuters but for everyone. Rather than having to marry one of the girls or boys in the village, people were able to travel to the nearest town or city where the opportunities for romance were far greater. Soon the railways created possibilities that were unimaginable before. And soon the journey became part of the fun and the longer the better. As facilities such as dining cars and upholstered seats – not to mention toilets – began to be introduced on trains the journey became something to be looked forward to rather than endured, a part of the holiday. Or indeed, they were the holiday. By the last two decades of the 19th century, tours around the country were organised by the likes of Thomas Cook, and soon the company was offering 10-day trips round Britain or three-week journeys through Europe. The rich could simply hire a whole train and make up the schedule they wanted.
Trains provided a constantly changing vision on the world, an ever-running film through the window. Sometimes almost literally. In the 1900 Paris exhibition, visitors could sit in a Trans-Siberian railway coach and dine as a series of moving screens on a continuous spool were reeled past them with scenes of the Russian countryside giving the illusion of travel.
While much of this has been forgotten as railway travel has become more prosaic and functional, we are constantly reminded of the romance of rail by its portrayal in books and films. Barely a period piece does not have people jumping off trains into each other’s arms or cosying up in a private compartment. So much happens on station platforms, in waiting rooms and on board. The version of the railways portrayed in The Railway Children is etched into the popular imagination. There is a connection between the mode of travel and the family that is not replicated elsewhere.
Part of the pleasure of railway travel is its perfect pace. The right train journey is just fast enough to avoid the tiresome longueur of a car or bus trip but not so rapid, like air travel, as to do away with the need for adaptation from a familiar location to a new one. Ideally, there will be a few stops long enough to buy food off the station stalls and pick up a newspaper which can then be read at leisure back on the train.
The popularity of long rail trips, with many companies offering lengthy tours through Europe or beyond, is definitely a reaction to today’s all too fast moving world. It could be likened to the travel equivalent of the slow food movement where the banal function of eating is transformed into an enjoyment of the process. The new train route represents its apotheosis: why spend 12 hours cooped up in a plane when you can take 21 days to do the journey by rail instead?
The renaissance of long-distance rail travel can be seen as a reaction to the advent of high-speed trains which remove much of the traditional enjoyment of rail travel. They are too functional, with service that often mirrors the worst aspects of air travel — such as security checks at station — and their very speed removes part of the pleasure of watching the world go by slowly enough to enjoy imagining who lives in that little cottage or why those cows are all grouped together at the far end of that field.
There is, though, good news. Quite wonderfully, night trains are coming back. They are one of the best forms of long journeys especially if there is a dining car providing a heavy meal and a nice bottle of wine to send you happily to bed. They were almost wiped out in the rationalisations and cutbacks of the first two decades of this century but now new possibilities are opening up across Europe. For example, a night service between Paris and Vienna has just been reintroduced. This, of course, used to be the western leg of the Orient Express but it was killed off by a combination of high-speed trains running between Paris and Strasbourg and low-cost airlines.
I travelled on the route just before it was scrapped in 2009 and it was a sad experience, offering dismal sandwiches as catering. Now the Austrian rail operator ÖBB has relaunched the service under its NightJet brand and the trip is deliberately timed out of Paris to enable travellers to enjoy a proper dinner while the train trundles along the Marne Valley. This is part of a trend of new overnight services across Europe including Amsterdam–Zurich and Malmo–Berlin — romantic train rides that are still available to the discerning traveller. And hopefully, customs officers will refrain from waking up sleeping passengers at the frontiers.
Three incredible long-journey train trips
Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow (see picture – Vladivostok station)
My favourite journey may be a rather obvious one as it is the longest single train ride in the world. Travel westwards on the 5,750-mile Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow, taking a six-and-a-half day journey and hopping off at two or three of the intermediate stops. Fewer tourists do this journey in a westerly direction and the first two days take one through absolutely barren land, the absence of habitation outside the carriage window impressing on one the sheer scale of the world in which we live.
Most of the food on the train is basic but the borscht is excellent. There is a premium service, the Rossya, running every other day and offering a slightly improved level of comfort which is more expensive but in reality the ordinary service trains carrying Russians going about their daily business are more fun. The locals are always delighted to meet foreigners and keen to share their food and chat. Or if nothing else, the samovar at the end of each carriage is always available to make up one of the endless varieties of Pot Noodles on sale at every station — and tea, of course. The pace of the train is perfect, never running faster than 60 mph, and stopping often enough to allow people to stretch their legs and buy provisions from the station stalls. And if travelling in winter, the best time because of the snowy landscape, do not fear the Siberian cold. The trains are if anything overheated and the locals are quick to strip off their outdoor wear, unabashed about wandering around all day in pyjama bottoms and slippers.
America on Amtrak
In contrast, the journey around America on an Amtrak train is very much a tourist experience, taken almost solely by retired folk and flying phobes. Nevertheless there is no better way of touring around the nation that still, strangely, has the biggest rail network in the world, 100,000 miles surviving out of what was once a 250,000-mile system. There are trains with traditional names like the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans and the California Zephyr running between Chicago and San Francisco, which run around the whole country, covering every state, and they have a homely feel, with friendly staff who deliberately seat you next to strangers in the dining cars. You will meet more Americans than you would on any road trip.
I toured the whole of America in 10 days, but really you need longer to hop on and off, and wait for the next train which tends, at best, to be daily. My favourite was the Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle, crossing the vastness of Montana before climbing through the Rockies and offering spectacular views.
India on a budget
India is a totally different proposition and the most exciting. There are many long-distance trains which trundle slowly across this vast country, sometimes more than a day and a night, as speed is not a feature of Indian railways. The best journey I made was from a small town in the tribal state of Odisha to Kolkata, taking 24 hours and costing a couple of pounds. There was no first class so we travelled in a coach with 50 or more local people and ate the cheap but tasty food from sellers at the stations. On the other trains, we were in first class A/C with meals brought to us in our little double room. Every station and every train is packed with people, but it is the endless views of the Indian countryside with countless villages that is ever entertaining. Best thing to do is open the door and sit on the steps watching the world go by at 50mph, since health and safety is an alien concept in India.
Real Russia (0207 100 4981; realrussia.co.uk) are experts when it comes to navigating their own country, as is Amtrak (00 1 800 872 7245; amtrak.com). For India, you can buy directly from Indian Railways (00 91 1800 180 1295; irctc.co.in).