‘It may cost you £500 to get to Istanbul by train, but it’s a 3,000 mile adventure with three nights of accommodation factored in.’
With a couple of quick clicks you can book a budget flight to Bologna online. It’s more tricky to book tickets if you want to get there by train. Corfu by plane takes a couple of hours.
Overland it’ll take you several days. Which is why, when it comes to travelling to Europe and beyond, travel by train and ferry is generally considered the ‘alternative’ route for those either afraid to fly, environmentally conscious or young and adventurous with time to spare. Yes, it’s easy enough to get to Paris or Brussels by Eurostar, but beyond that most travellers, whether for business or pleasure, prefer a quick ’n’ easy flight. Getting from London to Sofia (via Paris, Munich, Vienna and Belgrade) by train is daunting; it requires more research, more effort. Then there’s cost and time – surely it’ll be more expensive than going by plane and will take longer to get there?
It’s well known that planes have the heavier carbon footprint. Aircraft emissions from a London to Paris return flight range from 110kg to 172kg CO2 per passenger trip. A return on the Eurostar cuts the emissions down to just 17kg CO2 per passenger. But in terms of ease, directness and popularity, planes appear to hold all the aces. Or do they?
Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that overland travel has its fair share of winning attributes; and thanks to the valiant efforts of one man, travelling across Europe and beyond by train and ferry is now easier to navigate and easier to book. Mark Smith, aka the Man in Seat 61, is a former railwayman and self-confessed ‘travel fanatic’ based in Buckinghamshire.
He is, if you like, the guru of train travel, and, having travelled all around the world by rail and sea, is passionate about sharing the joys of it.
His website, www.seat61.com is a one-stop source of information. Whether it’s Italy, Malta, Morocco or Russia you want to get to, the site shows you how. It will save hours on Google, fumbling around foreign rail network routes and timetables. In fact, if you type in something like ‘train London Italy’, the chances are, the Seat 61 site will be pop up at the top of the page. Named after his favourite seat on the Eurostar, the site is a labour of love. It started in 2001 as a hobby, run from Smith’s laptop on his hour-long train journey to work. Since last year it’s been a full-time job.
‘One of the reasons I started up the site was to correct the imbalance between how easy it is to book flights and how difficult it is to book a train ticket,’ says Smith. This he puts down to two market failures. The first is that government subsidised railways such as Thai Railways and Malay Railways don’t have the funds to market internationally with the big billboards that you’d see on the tube. The second involves train travel in Europe, which is ‘all so fragmented. There is a lack of focus; a lack of integration. So it’s very hard if you want to get to Greece by Eurostar, sleeper train and ferry.’ Before he started Seat 61 up there was no website at all like this. He hopes now to correct this ‘disinformation.’
The site currently gets approximately 500,000 visitors a month. It’s been featured extensively in the media and has won five awards, including ‘best travel website’ in the 2008 Guardian & Observer Travel Awards.
Interestingly, Smith says that the website’s clientele has changed. When he started it up he immediately tapped into a vein of people afraid to fly: ‘Now it’s become much more mainstream. People who say they are “fed up with the hassle” of flying – and from people who want to reduce their carbon footprint.’
Judging by the many complimentary comments posted in the guestbook (‘extremely helpful’; ‘amazing site’; ‘hugely comprehensive’) it’s doing a thoroughly useful job.
In terms of booking, Seat 61 has certainly made it easier for trains to compete with planes, but what about other concerns, such as cost? ‘For most destinations in western Europe, it’s not that much more than flying,’ he assures me. ‘By the time your cheap airline fare of £12.99 has £40 tax added on, baggage fees, transport to and from the airport, you’re looking at £120 return.’ Good point. A train ticket, on the other hand, will take you from city centre to city centre, with no extra taxes or fees for baggage on top. Sleeper trains may even save you a hotel bill. And, with Eurostar London to Paris tickets starting at £59 return, it is possible to travel on a budget. Admittedly, the further away you are from London the more the daisy chain of rail tickets adds up. ‘But look at it this way,’ says Smith. ‘It may cost you £500 to get to Istanbul by train, but it’s a 3,000 mile adventure with three nights of accommodation factored in.’
The return of the journey
In a time-pressed world, though, isn’t it just quicker to take a plane? What if I just have to get to Barcelona and I don’t have several days to spare in getting there?
Smith runs me through the timings. There’s not much difference in it. By plane you leave London at 3pm. By the time you’ve got to the airport, checked in, waited around a few hours, you’ll reach Barcelona at 10pm. By train you can leave central London at 3.30pm, arrive in Paris in the early evening, take the sleeper to Barcelona and be there at 8.30am the next morning. ‘Who’s in such a rush anyway? Life’s too short to fly everywhere,’ says Smith. ‘There’s more to travel than the destination. It used to be called a journey.’
This element of the ‘journey’ – and making it part of your holiday – sums up the Seat 61 travel creed. By taking the train, you get more of an experience out of your travel and improve the quality of your journey. This, Smith reckons, is its most compelling trait.
Why? Because a train journey is not ‘dead time’: it’s quality time; productive time. ‘Only since becoming a dad have I realised that it’s a great way of spending quality time with your family. You’re sat at a table, facing each other, away from the usual distractions you have at home,’ Smith says.
Compared with planes, when you’re ‘strapped in, in limbo and nothing can really happen,’ all kinds of things can happen on train journeys. There’s room for people to interact. ‘That’s why film-makers use them as the settings for romances, mysteries, thrillers. Plane movies are usually disaster movies.’
So far, Smith has presented a convincing case. Travelling overland is, quite simply, more interesting, adventurous, romantic, scenic, historic and exciting than flying. In this way, rail and sea journeys have a competitive and enticing edge over planes. He even has the weekend minibreak covered thanks to a good ‘short breaks’ section in his book, The Man in Seat 61 (see box below).
But what about business travel? Can trains compete with planes on that front? They can, says Smith, and have several advantages. High-speed trains are 92-93 per cent on time, domestic flights 65 per cent on time. Added to this, train time can be ‘so much more relaxing – and productive. Wifi means you can be online and get some work done’.
Opened in 2007, the new high-speed lines from King’s Cross reduced journey times from London to Paris to two hours 15 minutes, and one hour 51 minutes to Brussels, though track repairs mean it’s slower at the moment. The next big route to watch (when the highspeed link opens) is London to Amsterdam via Brussels. ‘It’ll take just four hours six minutes, changing in Brussels on to Thalys high-speed trains,’ says Smith. ‘Let’s hope they get the pricing right.’
So why are flights the default option for businesses? ‘The problem is, businesses usually employ a business travel operator who can book flights very easily. There is an information gap. Rail companies have to get wise to that.’
Still, if more people started travelling by Eurostar instead of from one of the UK’s 30 airports, would the networks be able to cope? Smith seems to think so. ‘They have a huge capacity. Each Eurostar train is the equivalent of two jumbo jets.’ Every weekday, 26 trains, each with 750 seats, depart King’s Cross St Pancras to Paris, Brussels and Lille. And it’s becoming more popular: in the first nine months of 2008, Eurostar carried seven million travellers (up 13.9 per cent on the previous year). Moving to the new station at King’s Cross St Pancras has increased traveller numbers from regions north of London thanks to the introduction of through fares for more than 130 towns and cities.
Yes, airlines offer a larger number of destinations and the Eurostar, at first, seems limited in comparison, but the sheer size of the European rail network and ferrylink options means you can reach thousands of places. It may be trickier to get to know and more complex to navigate, but once discovered and explored it can enrich the quality of your travels.
So, some final words of encouragement for uninitiated or inexperienced long-distance rail travellers: forget your commuter train to work; think more along the lines of a private sleeper across Europe. The real key is to see the journey as part of the holiday. It’s all in the mind. Dispel any ideas about getting from A to B as quickly and directly as possible. Check out of the airport mentality of checking in, waiting around, strapping yourself into a seat and simply arriving at your destination. Prepare for more things to happen. Prepare for an adventure.
Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor
The fast track to taking the train
Where do I start?
Go to www.seat61.com for train times, routes, prices, advice and ticket information. Or buy the book: The Man in Seat 61: A Guide to Taking the Train through Europe by Mark Smith (Bantam Press, £12.99).
On a budget?
Budget train travel has arrived. London-Paris Eurostar tickets start at £59 return. Paris-Switzerland by highspeed TGV start at as little as £22 each way, and from Paris to Rome, Florence or Venice at £30 each way with a couchette. Paris-Barcelona start at £59 each way in a four-bed sleeper.
Top tips for the best deals
Book online: there’s no booking fee and you can see for yourself if any cheap deals are available.
Use the relevant train operator’s website where possible: it’s usually the cheapest. Almost all have Englishlanguage versions. The Seat 61 website will link you through to them while the book has a list on page 473.
Book early: you can usually find cheap deals a month or two ahead.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009