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European Union: Glen Mutel

The golden age of rail travel is a distant memory. But looking to Europe for inspiration — where trains are everything they’re not here — could usher in a bright new era

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Admitting a fondness for trains is a risky business. It’s an admission that can cause people to make panicky assumptions about you.

Some will immediately picture you stood, notebook in hand, at the windy extremes of Crewe station, waiting for a glimpse of the 4:43 to Warrington. Others may imagine you in the driver’s seat of a restored steam engine, wearing the expression of a delighted simpleton.

Well, when I say I’m fond of trains, all I mean is that I often enjoy taking the train. Clear enough? Flights, coach trips and long drives are just hurdles before the good times can begin. But at its best, a train journey at the start of a holiday can feel like a great opening sequence to a film — both enjoyable in itself and the perfect prelude to the main event.

These days, whenever taking the train is a feasible option, I choose it over other forms of transport. And in many cases, catching the train is just as quick as a short-haul flight, once transfers and waiting-around time are factored in. Yet it’s so much more enjoyable — especially with a good book, a decent bottle of red and enough daylight with which to see the unfurling countryside.

Not that I’m not blind to rail’s shortcomings. I know we’re no longer in a golden age of train travel — I’ve sat in too many depressing station cafes, munching on rancid chicken pasties to entertain that delusion. The UK rail experience can be a disappointment. Fares keep on rising, the catering is often lacklustre and train announcers really don’t know when to button it.

What makes matters worse is the British public — who don’t make particularly good passengers. Perhaps our expectations have just dipped too low, but we tend to just see rail as little more than a turgid means to an end. Stroll down the aisle of your average domestic train and you’re unlikely to find a relaxed, happy crowd. We seldom seem at ease as we sit, sour-faced, rustling our crisps, fiddling with our phones, and silently willing the announcer to stop talking.

Which is sad, because once, back in the days of Brief Encounter, we were so in love with the railways. This was the age of steam and luxury, when it seemed there was always a chance you might find Hercule Poirot solving mysteries in the restaurant car.

Every now and then, someone will try to reopen our eyes to the magic of the train — most recently Michael Portillo, whose amiable adventures on Europe’s railways were a staple of the BBC’s Christmas schedule. Of course, the sight of an awkward-looking former MP in a salmon blazer bumbling his way around Europe is unlikely to be enough to turn everyone back on to rail. But by focusing on Europe this time around, Portillo backed the right horse. We may not be in a golden age of rail in the UK, but decades of investment have bequeathed mainland Europe a wonderful network of high-speed services.

Continental trains are a joy to use. In many ways, they’re all that British trains aren’t — fast, punctual and comfortable, and some even serve beer on tap. Then there are the joys of the sleeper trains connecting many of the Continent’s brightest cities. And if the thought of boarding in Paris as the sun’s going down, then waking up in Venice does nothing to stir your soul… well, you’re beyond help, and I suggest you put this magazine down.

But what’s really exciting is the fact that — in rail terms, at least — the UK and the rest of Europe are forging an ever-closer union. London to Paris was just the start. This summer, holidaymakers will be able to take direct services from St Pancras to the charming French cities of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Lyon. And then, in 2016, new high-speed trains will be able to whisk us direct to Amsterdam or Cologne in just four hours.

As more of Europe’s greatest cities become easier and easier to access, I’m hoping some of that Continental zeal for rail will finally rub off on the British and we’ll once again become a nation of train lovers. But please note: salmon blazers will
be optional.

 

Published in March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)