Where a train journey is packed with excitement
It might sound terribly sentimental, foolish even, to gush about railways in the age of budget airlines and cheap flights. Who, one might wonder, would like to spend a day, a night and then some to cover 1,000 km, when it just takes a couple of hours to fly the distance?
But, apparently, millions do; millions who find train-travel perfectly charming, soothing, and an experience by itself; and who simply, adamantly, won’t trade their window seat in a locomotive, zipping across the countryside, for a cramped, hard seat in an aerodynamically perfect flying machine! And this is especially true when travelling over mainland Europe.
Trains have, for ages, been an institution in Europe — they link hick-towns and Lilliputian villages to major, bustling cities; their punctuality is legendary; and the landscape they pass through, simply exquisite.
For where else would you find the sort of scenery that typically feature in every mega-budget desi film song — crinkled, tall mountain ranges cloaked in powdery white snow; fat, woolly sheep and placid cows meditatively chewing the fresh green summer grass; the soaring church spires of sleepy little villages, whose endearingly small stations are nonchalantly ignored by the snooty fast trains.
Travelling by one of the popular high-speed trains (Thalys) is quite exciting; for starters, the train looks kind of cute, with its sloping, red snout! The sleek body that follows, of course, is impressively modern; the décor is stylish, yet muted, the crowd, a cheerful mix of businessmen and backpackers.
Chomping on a passably tasty pre-packaged sandwich, sipping a watery but thankfully steaming, fresh coffee, stretching back luxuriantly on a seat that would put any economy-airline to shame, you can’t help but purr contentedly as the train pulls-up into a crowded platform in a different country. Imagine! All you now have to do is pick your (as-heavy-as-you-please) luggage and waltz out into the city centre! No long immigration queues, no baggage-hall nightmares, no long commutes (typically costing a small fortune if you were to take a taxi!) to reach the actual city from the airport…it’s really, incredibly simple…why, you might wonder, would anybody choose to fly?
Unfortunately, the comfort and the charm don’t exactly come cheap; a “retour” ticket between major European cities costs as much as a three-course dinner in a swish hotel, while a “cheap” flight will set you back by just 20 bucks! If you were to opt for a “nightline” (overnight, long haul train), the fares start at around 100 bucks for shared cabins and scales up. Besides, the economy bunk beds aren’t exactly luxurious — being pretty similar to those of an average Third AC coach (in India) — quite restrictive space-wise.
And, if your journey involved several “legs”, you risk losing your connection if the incoming train is even a few minutes late. Yet, train companies aren’t shutting shop and running, they’re certainly thriving, introducing faster trains that promise to dramatically cut end-to-end travel time, convenient connections, and significant savings if one were to plan and book tickets well in advance. Several major European companies have, recently, joined forces and introduced the “railteam” network — a sort of one-stop-shop for tickets across Europe, saving you the trouble of trawling different websites/agents to do the same (more details available at www.railteam.eu).