It seems like a truism that everybody likes trains. Maybe not commuter type trains but long distance ones that take you on a journey. For some reason people don’t really like buses; maybe it’s because buses get stuck in traffic.
This probably explains why we get books about train journeys, I’ve read several excellent ones by Paul Theroux, and why Michael Portillo’s series on the TV keep coming back, I’m a great fan of these too.
I don’t have quite the history of rail travel that these guys have but I have recorded some memorable journeys over the years. Here’s my list of five.
1 the overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi
This dates back to 1982 when Clare was just turned one and we picked up a discounted late holiday offer for two weeks in Mombasa. We took the opportunity whilst we were there to check out Nairobi and that involved an overnight train journey (we flew back).
I’m sure it’s changed now but in 1982 I felt that it was no different from the service in pre-independence days. We had dinner on the train and that’s what made the impression.
It was hot and there was no air-conditioning so we traveled with the windows open and the train rattled. Despite the heat the waiters wore starched white gear. The menu was classic: pea soup served from a tureen at the table then roast lamb, potatoes and veg. I don’t remember what the desert was but would guess that it was apple pie or sherry trifle or something similarly English. And it was all washed down with big bottles of Tusker beer.
It was a sleeper train and we had our own carriage with two bunks. I don’t recall sleeping very well but surprisingly I don’t remember the breakfast.
2 breakfast on British Rail, Chester General to London Euston
In the early 70s I worked in London but still had family back in North Wales near Chester and often a weekend trip would involve a return to London on the Monday morning which would get be into work by about 10 o’clock.
I didn’t travel first class of course but in those days there was a restaurant car which gave you first class space and a meal at the same time. The meals weren’t always great but they had style and breakfast was iconic. It was often a part of my treat as I returned to London.
It was done properly. Starched white linen tablecloths and heavy cutlery. Tea or coffee (probably pretty dreadful) poured for you by a liveried waiter swaying with the train as he stood in the aisle. Toast upstanding in a toast rack. The breakfast itself was what we now call ‘full English’ fried eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread and more and served again by the waiter from a gigantic platter. As you waited for your turn your gastric juices became uncontrollable.
3 across the Alps: Zurich to Milan
I lived and worked near Zurich from 1979 to 1992 and business frequently took me south to Milan. You could fly of course, this was pre-terrorism days so you could check in just 30 minutes before departure with no long security checks, or you could drive, it was an easy enough 4 hour drive but that of course depended on where exactly you were going to.
I preferred the train journey which was breathtaking. Not too fast at times but you got great views of the alps including the village of Wassen and its church which you saw 3 times as the track twisted and turned to gain or lose altitude.
My typical schedule involved an evening trip down and that meant dinner. Not quite the same grandeur as British Rail but maybe more lasting. The menu would have been predictable: Eglifilet or Zurcher Geschnetzelltes washed down with Dole or Fendant. But sat at the window it was a great experience.
4 Japan the bullet train Tokyo to Osaka
I first experienced the bullet train (Shinkansen) in the early 70s and my last experience was maybe 15 years ago. It hasn’t changed much. It’s highly efficient technology and it works. The trains always seem to be full and the passengers are either eating or sleeping. They’re eating not because there’s a fancy restaurant car, there isn’t, and only partly because there’s a constant flow through the train of vendors selling snacks and drinks. The main source of food is the infrastructure at the station where you can stock up on bento boxes and beer.
This journey gets the award for the most iconic view. On the right hand side if you’re leaving Tokyo, the left if your heading towards it, you get to see Mount Fuji. You need a bit of luck of course because the weather, aided and abetted by pollution, can get in the way. But if you are fortunate the view is memorable.
5 Classy stations: Washington via Philadelphia to New York
Trains are about journeys of course and journeys have starts and ends and that’s where stations come in. I’ve travelled just a couple of times between New York and stations south and I’ve experienced the stations which the railway pioneers built in the early 1900s.
Both Washington (Union) and Philadelphia (30th Street) stations are impressive. They stand proud with an uninterrupted view as you approach them. And inside they are vast and cavernous with all the services you need. There’s a bustle but at the same time a stilllness. Truly impressive and they add value to the journey.
Sadly Penn Central in New York is all underground and doesn’t compare to its sister stations to the south. However if you want to see a real station in New York go to Grand Central which is a classy station on steroids.
There’s a lesson here and it’s repeated in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Our railway pioneers gave us similarly proud and elegant buildings and we can nurture them or lose them. King’s Cross/St Pancras is a fine example of the former. Euston is what happens when the barbarians of the 60s got control.
I’ve got a second list of journeys from the past and I’m looking forward to others going forward including Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific. Watch this space.