People crossing train tracks as a train approaches a station
Friendly Friday,  Travel in general

The charms of travelling by train

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!

Old black and white photo of woman and two small girls paddling
Westgate on Sea, 1961

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.

Train track through forested countryside
From the train to Takayama

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.

47 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    I think I can count on my one hand of the times I were on a train here in SA 😞 … we just never really had the opportunity to travel this way … such a pity! Oh, I would love that train journey in Peru! And I remember how friends told us about the astonishing train rides they had while watching the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019. I think we should plan a train holiday … 🚂.

  • rkrontheroad

    I have been on that blue train from Cusco, and many bullet trains and locals in Japan. The photos in this gallery show so many different cultures.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s an interesting point Ruth – a train in one country may work pretty much the same way as a train in another, but travelling on them can be a very different experience because of the different cultures of the countries 😀

  • leightontravels

    Enjoyed this love letter to my favourite mode of travel. Particularly digging some of the older photos and experiences. Sometimes, when we go to sleep at night, we put on a background soundscape from our Calm app. My favourite, by far, is ‘train ride’.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you enjoyed this Leighton 🙂 I’ve heard of Calm but not tried it. I’m not sure the sound of a train would help me sleep, I prefer total silence if I can get it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      There is something special about travelling by train, but when you do it a lot in your own country, as I have done for work as well as pleasure, the edge goes off it domestically at least. Maybe you love them all the more because you don’t get to use them at home?

  • Anne Sandler

    You’ve taken some great train trips Sarah. What impressed me was the difference in the trains from old style to shiny and sleek. We used to take the train from Florida to New York. Mom would pack food for us. My only recent train trip was from Paris to Frankfurt. That was a beautiful ride.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Anne 🙂 Yes, there’s a great variety in the age and condition of trains around the world and even within one country, as the Japanese ones illustrate. Florida to New York must have been a long ride!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Oh Sarah now you really are on one of my subjects. I love train travel so much that I get as excited as a kid just standing on a platform looking down the tracks. Growing up in Derby (very much a railway town – city now), all of my family worked for the railway, BR as it was then. As a child, our family holidays were in the Costa Brava from the early 1960s, courtesy of Dad’s subsided travel through his job, travelling all the way from Derby to Palamos by train, including a 5-hour stop in Paris and a sleeper train from Paris Austerlitz to the Spanish border. The unbridled joy I felt back then, 60 years ago, has never left me one tiny bit. Even a trip to London still has feelgood. I’ve now used trains in 26 different countries having just added Egypt & Tunisia, and it remains a highlight whenever it happens. All of us who love trains have a love of Eurostar, it’s special somehow.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad to have evoked some good memories for you Phil 🙂 I must do the same as you and count up the number of countries where I’ve travelled by train. It won’t rival your list but I could certainly add Egypt. We travelled overnight from Cairo to Luxor and I still remember the views from the window in the early morning of the Nile and local people in the fields of the green strip of land that edges it.

  • rosalieann37

    My first visit to Europe in 1950 we traveled almost exclusively by train – the exceptions being in Germany when we stayed with a friend of my mothers who had a car and going to Scotland when we rented a car. We didn’t fly at all – we got to Europe on a ship. Then in 1964, I flew to Cologne, but the rest of the trip was all by train except in Marseille when we rented a Citroen 2CV. I decided that a couchette on the train was cheaper than a hotel, so was in Paris for two days, but each day I came in by train and left in the evening on another train.

    On my riverboat cruise in 2019, we had three trips by train – two the French 200 mph trains and one on an old steam train

    I’ve traveled by train in the USA too but it is no longer as easy or nice an option.

  • Lesley

    Love these tales of your train travels, Sarah. My enthusiasm for train travel began with a trip across Australia – west to east – Perth to Melbourne, aged 15, when a friend and I travelled (without our parents) to stay with aunts on the other side of the country. 3 nights on 4 different trains. A real adventure – and I was hooked. Now I’m set to cross Australia again. North to south this time, right through the centre, Darwin to Adelaide. Another 3 night trip, just one train though – The Ghan, named for the Afghan cameleers who plied the way before the train line was built. Another adventure.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Lesley 🙂 I’ve heard about The Ghan and always thought it sounded like a wonderful journey to take! I hope you’ll be sharing some photos on Facebook as you go?

  • Sue

    Oh, I have always loved train travel! InterRailing gave me a taste for travelling by train in Europe, and I have seen quite a few countries that way

  • Forestwood

    Wonderful memories of travelling by train. Particularly interesting was the change of bogey. What effort they have gone to in making that happen. Elsewhere they would just transfer you to another train – and that happens here or have a dedicated line in the other state just for the interstate train.
    I enjoyed seeing the sights through India and recognized that smoggy mist that you see in the Nepalese and Indian valleys. Is the Peruvian train the one that Alejandro mentioned in the comments on the Friendly friday challenge post?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda – this was a great idea for a challenge theme and I’m glad you enjoyed my response 🙂 I did wonder if this was the train Alejandro mentioned. The route fits, but I don’t think you can sit on the roof of this one. There’s one in Ecuador that people famously do that on (but dangerously!) and I wonder if he’s mixed the two?

  • 100 Country Trek

    This brings back memories of our time traveling by train. We took a train across Canada 20 years ago. But we also travel to
    Hiroshima which was very interesting.

  • Sandy

    That’s quite a round-up of train trips Sarah! Almost like taking a vacation 🙂 Of them all, I’ve only tried the Shinkansen myself and what a delight it was.

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    Sarah, you have touched upon my most favorite mode of travel – trains! London to Paris on the Eurostar is a familiar experience and one I can’t wait to enjoy once again. We have traveled Germany, Belgium, Chech Republic and Italy, by train, to name a few, but by far, our most memorable experience was across the US. We traveled Amtrak from California to Illinois (typically a 4 day trip) that we completed in twelve days, with occasional hop offs and extended excursions along the way. We had accommodations which ranged from 1st class to basic, and met a great variety of people along the way. I fondly remember the dancing troupe in route to a competition, the Mennonite couple that needed to borrow a cell phone (ironic) to contact their relative at the pick up destination and the young adults indulging in ‘gummy bears’ of the illicit kind. The Conductor erroneously put us in charge of the noise level. In my opinion, you haven’t traveled if you have not traveled by train. Excellent post, amazing photos and just all around good read.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Suzanne 😊 It’s great to hear about your train travel experiences, especially that trip on Amtrak. I would love to do something like that one day!

  • sustainabilitea

    Sarah, you’ve had some fascinating and diverse train trips. When I was a child, we traveled several times by train from Omaha, Nebraska to California to visit my grandparents. I have some good memories, particularly of the dome car, while my parents remember the AC going out, etc. 😉. I traveled extensively on trains in Europe on the mid-seventies with student rail passes during my almost year there and then more recently on trains in France, mostly to and from Paris to and from Avignon. Those trains can fly! In Illinois, I sometimes took the train into Chicago from Naperviile, always being sure to get there early enough to take the fast train, not the one that made a stop at every station between Naperviile and the city! The time difference was worth the effort!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Sounds like you’ve had some great train travel experiences too 😀 I’d love to try the US train network some time – I’m going to be in Chicago next September and am considering travelling on from there by train to somewhere further west perhaps.

  • Tanja

    Great train travel memories.when I visited Paris I contemplated of going to London by Eurostar but we didnt have time for that.I like train travel too. I travelled across Italy a lot by train but my longest train journey was from Croatia to Turkey

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