An unexpected romance - with railways
I never intended to become a trainspotter. In all my fantasies of globe-trotting and journalism, I never aspired to be the next Michael Palin (as one editor sniggeringly called me) or establish myself in the world’s least-sexy niche. I fell into rail travel out of sheer laziness - because I couldn’t be bothered to take my driving test. So perhaps no-one was more shocked than me to discover I was ahead of a trend, when a trip I took on the Trans-Siberian Railway last winter went viral online. On Twitter, pictures I posted of my journey attracted 2.5 million viewers and 13.6 thousand ‘likes’.
Perhaps the popularity of my thread was because I crossed Siberia in winter at -30oC, wearing 70s Moonboots. Perhaps because it was Christmas, people were bored. Or inspired by how much vodka I drank. Mostly I think people followed my journey because, like me, they’ve fallen for the romance of trains.
Train travel leans into a trend. It suits lazy adventurers who like comfort. On my next train trip around Peru, our train has a spa, so I can enjoy a facial while climbing Machu Picchu.
Now, as 2020 begins and I’m packing for my latest train trip (across Peru with Belmond) the often-derided geekiest mode of transport is having a “moment.” Kate Moss has posted pictures of herself on Instagram chugging to Venice wearing leopard print pyjamas aboard the Orient Express. Condé Nast have seen a surge in readers searching for stories of train trips. At the Trans-Siberian Travel Company, Chris (the man who organised my trip) tells me the route is now so busy he struggles to get tickets for high-season trips.
When I made my first epic rail journey in 2013, travelling Amtrak’s Sunset Limited across the US, it certainly wasn’t trendy. I travelled from New Orleans to L.A with students, ex-cons and cowboys – anyone who didn’t have a license or preferred to drink. After two weeks gliding through the States - munching ribs as we crossed Louisiana’s bayous, drinking Lone Star beer watching Texas eat dust, traversing New Mexico to emerge at the sparkling Pacific Ocean - I was hooked.
It makes sense that now, in 2020, train travel’s taken off – it draws together a host of contemporary threads. Of course, there’s the Greta Thunberg effect. As eco-warriors bully us out of taking cheap-flights, train journeys provide a smug alternative – a way of seeing the world while still doing your bit for the planet.
The sheer inconvenience of train travel signals it’s luxurious. Cars are ubiquitous, the hoi polloi take easyJet, only the truly spoilt can afford a mode of transport that takes twice as long and costs twice as much. (On no route is this truer than the outrageously-priced Caledonian Sleeper).
Trains are more appealing than faffing at airports. Who doesn’t prefer taking the Eurostar to Paris? Or wouldn’t opt for China’s new high-speed bullet trains over a dull internal flight – the one running from Xian (Terracotta warriors) to Chengdu (Pandas), now only takes three hours vs a 90-minute flight.
Train travel leans into a trend for “slow travel.” It’s also great for Instagram. It suits lazy adventurers who like comfort, a theme I plan to take to extremes on my next train trip around Peru where our train has a spa, so I can enjoy a facial while climbing Machu Picchu.
Train trips are romantic. And sexy. I’ve never had so much action as on a long-distance ride. I’ve also never drunk or eaten so much. When I took the Trans-Siberian with my friend “Judge” Rob Rinder (a self-confessed body fascist) he worried so much about our over-indulgence he created a prison work-out to do in our cabin: pull-ups from the luggage rack, burpees between beds. When I followed the Silk Road through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, I found a yoga teacher doing downward dog every morning in the aisle of our carriage.
Ultimately, trains appeal because they feel like the last great voyages. No matter how luxurious, trains are never slick. The soup shakes at dinner, leaves stop the track, you lie in bed rattling over (ironically named) sleepers. For every posh Orient Express trip to Vienna, there’s an extreme rail adventure to be had - like the Mauritania Iron Ore Train that crosses the Sahara, with passengers perched in open carriages on the goods. Later this year I’m taking a trip from Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam that cuts right through wild game reserves.
Train trips are romantic. And sexy. I’ve never had so much action as on a long-distance ride. I’ve also never drunk or eaten so much.
Now technology can render travelling impersonal, trains are still a human experience. You cannot share a cabin for a week with someone and not connect. In Siberia, I chatted to Russian soldiers smoking on the platform, wearing shorts at -26oC. In Texas, an ex-con offered me his moonshine in the viewing carriage. On the Silk Road, I drank wine over long dinners with the ladies from the next cabin, as if we were on a posh cruise.
There are so many train trips I still want to do. Vietnam’s Reunification railway, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer, the Black Sea Express. The appeal of train journeys is that there are so many, each as different as the people you meet on them.