By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Just finished reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and am planning an upcoming European trip, so trains – particularly those that rumble along at night – are currently much on my mind.
Yesterday’s New York Times featured a piece on how environmental concerns about flying are reviving interest in night trains, Once Threatened, Europe’s Night Trains Rebound:
“Public opinion is changing compared to a few years ago, when night trains were considered old-fashioned and nostalgic, something from the past,” [Nicolas Forien, a member of both Back on Track and the French group Oui au Train de Nuit (“Yes to the Night Train”)] said. “Now it’s considered a serious alternative to flying which should be redeveloped.”
“The most important thing for me these days is the climate discussion, because they are really climate-friendly alternatives to middle-distance flying,” Bernhard Knierim, an activist with Back on Track, said of trains. For Mr. Knierim, the optimal distance for overnight rail travel is “anything up to 1,000 kilometers,” or about 620 miles.
Trains vs. Planes: the Advantages
The advantages of taking the train – especially for many European and Asian services that I’ve had first-hand experience with – extend well beyond the environmental. For many years, I’ve opted for trains over flights, whenever possible.
Less Security Theater. For starters, when it comes to travel, airports are ground zero for security theater. This is still not the case for most train travel. While it’s often necessary to step through a metal detector or get wanded in order to enter a station or board a train, rail passengers aren’t subject to the delays and indignities inflicted on air travellers.
Convenience, Time, Expense. The speed, convenience, reliability and amenities offered on Japanese trains, such as the Shinkansen service, are well-known. If I lived or spent more time in Japan, I doubt whether I’d ever take a domestic flight ever again.
But Japan’s not just the only place that offers attractive high-speed service. My most recent high-speed train trip was in January, when I took Morocco’s newly-launched high speed service from Tangier to Casablanca. Fast, reliable, pleasant – and not costly.
And benefits aren’t limited to high-speed trains alone; even ordinary train services offer many advantages compared to flying. Unlike airports, central train stations are usually located in city centers. That means once your train arrives, you’re likely much closer to where you want to be than if a ‘plane had dumped you at an airport somewhere on the outskirts. The total time in transit, city center to city center, is less than the more differential between air time and train time suggests.
European train tickets costs more than budget carriers. But adding the cost of getting to and from out-of-town airports increases the total travel cost.
In Asia, the price difference is not as great and certain train tickets even cost less than cut price airfares. And for budget travellers, night trains – e.g., Bangok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore; or Vietnam’s Reunification Express, which goes from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (and can be broken into legs); or India’s express services – Rajdhani, Duronto, Shatabdi – between Kolkata and Delhi, or Delhi and Mumbai – allow those of us lucky enough to be able to sleep on trains to shave a night’s hotel costs off the budget for every night train taken.
Pack What You Can Carry: Never Lose Control over Baggage, No Excess Charges
I travel with a laptop, camera equipment (digital SLR, and two telephoto lenses), and my birding binoculars. Carrying these necessary but costly, fragile items that cannot be checked means my carry-on often exceeds the maximum of 7 or 8 kilos of allowed hand baggage. About half the time, despite being a a couple of kilos over the limit on the carry-on , I’m waved through. But the rest of the time, the great negotiation commences over what should be checked. I’m polite and have always been allowed to bring these items on board with me – albeit rarely but sometimes after being required to take things out of my carry on and sling them around my neck to be cleared to proceed to the gate. The whole unpleasant exercise is completely avoided when one jumps onto a train.
There’s a second baggage risk with air travel. As I was reminded two years ago when flying to Vietnam via Hong Kong, airlines do still lose luggage. Even though my baggage was properly barcoded, it took nearly two weeks – and multiple calls – before one bag finally caught up with me (see The Crapification of Air Travel, And Don’t Expect AMEX to Help, Either).When it did arrive, the bag was trashed and I had to throw it away. The contents were intact – including several precious notebooks. So I celebrated our reunion.
By contrast, when one boards a train, the bags travel nearby. Now, sometimes heavy suitcases must be stowed away from one’s seat but still elsewhere in the same carriage. Often, it’s possible to secure the bags to the luggage holder so that no one can walk off with another’s luggage. Locks are sometimes not available, in which case, one must remain aware of what’s going on with one’s luggage. But it’s never necessary to surrender luggage entirely to the tender mercies of airport baggage handlers and the conveyor delivery systems that have damaged so many of my bags – wheels or handles ripped off, cases cracked , sides torn away.
Another further advantage of train travel is one can more or less bring aboard what one can carry, without paying excess baggage fees. My textile travels often find me collecting and porting textile samples, and the weight of these quickly adds up. Taking the train means I don’t get socked with exorbitant excess baggage charges.
I’m not going to go all Tom Friedman on you here. Far be it for me to suggest that my occasional brief encounters on trains yield the same deep knowledge and insights as have his conversations with taxi drivers.
But with that weak disclaimer, I’ll still say: during the many hours I’ve spent travelling on trains, I’ve enjoyed many interesting conversations. Now, the clientele on high speed trains often includes many business travellers, who are often insulated in their personal travel bubbles. But on the slower services, the balance tends be toward people travelling for leisure or personal reasons, rather than business. And they often can spare some time for conversation.
The Bottom Line
For those with summer travel plans, consider taking the (night) train.
Alas, I realize most of NC’s US readers don’t have many good train options for domestic travel.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way – there was a time when US train travel was something to sing about.