Trains are wonderful…. To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life.Agatha Christie
I think I have always liked travelling by train. As a child I lived and grew up in London, so journeys on the Underground were regular occurrences. My childhood bedroom looked out across a playing field to Ruislip Gardens station in the depths of so-called Metro-Land.
Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.John Betjeman, Middlesex
Except in my case it was my father who would alight from the train, every evening on his way home from work. I would watch for him crossing the field; and my sister and I would persuade our mother to let us run to meet him there. For me those trains led to another, grown-up world. I dreamed of taking the train to work each day as Dad did (when very young I would say I wanted to work in the same place as him, just to be able to take those trains!) Of course when as an adult I later found myself commuting by Tube each day I found the journey anything but magical. The sardine can crush of a London rush hour is nothing to envy, it turned out!
Of course there were also childhood journeys on ‘real’ trains. Before my father learned to drive and bought our first car we would take an annual trip to the seaside by train, usually to Westgate on Sea in Kent.
My only real memory of those trips was one year when there were major delays to the trains. The journey took hours longer than it should have done. I was tired and I’m sure fractious; but a friendly lady in our compartment gave me a ginger nut biscuit to cheer me up. It’s funny how little things like that stick in your head!
Memorable train journeys
As an adult I’ve travelled by train a lot, mainly in my home country and mainly for work. Those journeys were pleasant enough; the only memorable ones are those few that went wrong! But train journeys while travelling are far more fun. Looking out at a foreign country from a train is a great way to observe daily life there and to appreciate the changing landscapes. There is a definite romance to it. And however scruffy the train and slow the journey, something in me responds to that; maybe my inner Michael Palin coming out!
So here for Amanda’s Friendly Friday Challenge on the topic of Trains, Tales and Tall Stories are a few especially memorable train journeys from my travels.
Train journeys to and from Delhi
This is actually about two journeys, one near the start of our Rajasthan tour and one at the end. After spending our first two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city.
The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn’t really an option however; the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot a short video.
We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by ‘Meals on Wheels’; but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.
Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section. However we only used the lower one for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.
I enjoyed taking my last long looks (we were leaving India the following day) at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.
For part of the time we shared our section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday. And she pointed out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
Travelling by train in India is a wonderful experience and one I hope to repeat some day!
Krakow to Lviv
In 2010 I travelled to Lviv by train from Krakow with a group of Virtual Tourist friends, and it was quite an adventure; an adventure that some of us enjoyed more than others! I have to say that I fell into the first group. Of course this was well before the current war; I’ve been very conscious watching the news coverage that many of the Ukrainian refugees are following the route we took as they flee their country for safety in Poland. My description below is adapted from what I wrote for VT immediately after the trip; the journey may well be very different now, even in peacetime.
I really enjoyed the journey, but it had its drawbacks. The main one was time; this isn’t a fast way to travel, and the journey took over nine hours each way. We were travelling on quite elderly trains which consequently moved slowly.
But the main causes of the long journey times were the border formalities (especially clearing Ukrainian immigration) and the need to change the whole undercarriage (the bogey) to accommodate the different gauges used in Poland and Ukraine. This was a major operation. A few carriages at a time were shunted into a siding where huge jacks raised them to a height which allowed the engineers to get underneath, detach and slide out one set of wheels, and slide in and make secure the others. We stayed on the train throughout (the doors were locked) and watched from the windows. It was entertaining for a while; but all but the keenest train enthusiast will find the novelty wearing off long before the operation is complete!
All of the above also meant lots of interruptions to our journey. These were welcome mini-events when travelling by day; but (as I gathered from other VTers who travelled overnight) a major irritation if trying to sleep. Whether travelling by day or night you are in compartments, which can be converted from seating to bunks. We travelled in a second-class compartment, with three people sharing, and managed to arrange things so we shared only with VTers.
However the corridor was a great meeting place for everyone from the carriage. On the outward journey we had fun chatting (as far as language limitations would allow) to some of our neighbours: a mining engineer returning from a conference to his home near Kiev; and a young Russian guy who had just said goodbye to his new Polish wife, as they had to wait several months for her to get permission to come to live in Russia with him.
We also found the carriage attendants to be friendly and helpful. They happily brewed up coffee or tea (the first cup was free); sold small snacks such as chocolate bars or peanuts; dished out free, and tasty, croissants which they described as ‘souvenirs’; and helped us on and off the train with our bags. A bottle of water was also provided for each passenger; but if you ever get to travel this route I recommend supplementing the on-board catering with your own supplies; a bottle of wine will help the long journey go faster for sure!
Lviv’s grand (if rather rundown) station lies some distance to the west of the town centre, so we piled into taxis on arrival. It was late and we were very tired; some excuse perhaps making the silly mistake of not checking the cost before setting off. Nor had we quite familiarised ourselves with the exchange rates; we only realised after the taxi had dropped us off and departed that we had been well and truly ripped off. Despite that I have many happy memories of these long journeys shared with my VT friends.
Puno to Cusco, Peru
The train was a great option for our journey from Puno to Cusco. You had a choice of two classes of ticket: the backpacker or first class. There was a big difference in the price between the two so if you’re on a budget you can save a lot of money by choosing backpacker; you probably also get a better experience of Peru as you’re not isolated from the local people as you are in first class. But I must confess we went first class and it was an amazing experience and a real treat!
Imagine a sort of faded Orient Express, with a Latin American twist. We sat in real old-fashioned armchairs sipping pisco sours while watching the Andes go past the window. And we had a second drink later in the bar, with musicians to entertain us. We also spent a lot of time in the observation car at the back, where we got the best views of all.
As we left Puno there was an interesting stretch of track right through the middle of the market, and then some lovely views of Lake Titicaca. But for most of the trip we were seeing mountains; not so much the high Andes, but lower ones, with some agriculture on the slopes and a few villages. Nearer Cusco we followed a river and the land was greener. The journey took ten hours altogether. At the highest point the train stopped for long enough for us to get off and visit the market that locals had set up on the station platform, with a selection of textile goods at relatively low prices. At other, shorter, stops women clustered around the train windows and doors in the hopes of a sale.
A good lunch was served during the journey; although I have to say I was ill that evening so maybe the lunch wasn’t as good as it tasted! But overall this was a fantastic experience and well worth the splurge.
By train in Japan
I was thrilled that our Inside Japan tour of Honshu some years ago included several journeys by train. In fact the whole tour was by public transport, not one of those ‘tourists in a bubble’ tours in a luxury coach!
Most of these journeys were on the famous bullet train or Shinkansen as it is properly known. The Shinkansen is not a single train or single line but a whole network of lines. The first of these, from Tokyo to Osaka, opened in 1964 and is known as the Tōkaidō line in reference to the ancient Tōkaidō Way. We travelled on this line a few times: from Tokyo to Odawara; Odawara to Osaka; and Osaka to Kyoto. Other lines have since been added to the network, one of which we also used. This was the Sanyō Shinkansen which we took from Osaka to Hiroshima and back.
I was so impressed with these trains and services. They ran absolutely to time, were clean and comfortable. I was amazed to read their safety record too; according to Wikipedia,
‘Over the Shinkansen’s 49 year history, carrying nearly 7 billion passengers, there have been no passenger fatalities due to derailments or collisions, despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons. Injuries and a single fatality have been caused by doors closing on passengers or their belongings.’
The punctuality record is also impressive – an average 36 seconds in 2012, which includes delays caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms and snow. One way this is achieved is that the Shinkansen trains run on completely separate lines, so they are never held up by slower trains ahead of them.
One highlight of our longer journeys was tucking into our bento boxes. These may be simply described as a take-away meal, but this being Japan, they are beautifully presented. Small portions of fish, seafood, meat, pickles, vegetables etc . each have their own section in the box, and there will also be rice, naturally, perhaps in the form of onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed.
Every station has several shops and counters where a selection of bento boxes can be bought. There are usually plastic versions displayed for you to choose by number. Many have fish but some are vegetables only and some meat. Most of the boxes are nicely wrapped too and are a delight to eat not only for their variety of flavours but also this beautiful presentation.
Possibly my favourite train journey in Japan was the one from Kyoto to Takayama via Nagoya. The second leg of the journey was on the JR Hida Limited Express, a diesel train. This was considerably slower than the bullet train and much shorter in length; but it had comfortable seats with lots of leg room. I enjoyed travelling more slowly, able to appreciate the countryside we were passing through, especially as the route runs through a mountainous area with scenic gorges, forested hillsides and some lovely views. There were tourist-focused announcements from time to time, in English as well as Japanese, pointing out places of interest, features of the landscape and so on.
We also travelled to Nikko on slower lines: the Limited Express service to Shimo Imaichi. From there we took the local Tōbu Nikko line for the short (eight minute) ride to the town.
London to Paris by Eurostar
I’ll finish with a brief mention of one of my favourite train journeys which we take quite often, from London to Paris on the Eurostar. These days we tend to pay a little extra for the premier seats with more space and a light meal and drink included. Those carriages are quieter and make for a pleasanter experience. Fairly soon after leaving London we disappear into the tunnel and emerge in a different country, which still feels like a real novelty! The French countryside whizzes past; and in around two and a half hours (less time than it takes to travel from London to Newcastle!) we are in one of our favourite cities again.
I visited Rajasthan in 2015, Lviv in 2010 and Peru in 2005. I visit Paris regularly; these photos were taken in 2017.