Rail Love – Around the world in 100 trains and other stories

In the last 24 hours, Iain has touched 14,088 kms on the rails. Bharath has spent a day at work managing over a 5000-strong, train-mad railfanning community (and takes off on a National Geographic expedition). And Paul reports for the BBC how the video comparing the London to Brighton train journey between 1953, 1983 and 2013 has crossed over 500,000 views.

To these men, the article on New York Times that I found myself reading today morning (How to Spend 47 Hours on a Train and Not Go Crazy) would come across as totally absurd – no matter how convincingly Mark Peterson writes it.

Rail Love is part of a series exploring immersive and authentic travel stories told from across the world. Read the rest of the series here and you may signup for updates too.

Rail Love: Around the world in 100 trains and more stories
Rail Love: Around the world in 100 trains and more stories

This is an long and immersive story, and I am writing it as new aspects of it rolls in. Continue reading to gather the context around it, or skip to the following sections to read individual tales.

How Iain who’s traveling the world on rails, picks the best trains to hop on

The most amazing experiences of traveling round the world on tracks

People, trains and more – a perspective of the story teller – with Paul Clifton of BBC

About Railfanning on the most traveled train network in the world – with Bharath Moro

The Sunshine Express – around the world in 100 trains (or more)

I first spoke to Iain about three months ago. His website, 100trains.com, reflected the infectious planning that was going on at that time. Over a few words, Iain laid out the original plan – he would be covering over 50,000 kms on rails across the world, and in 100 trains or more.

Iain’s Sunshine Express rolled out of Glasgow on Monday, the 12th of August, and the zigzag journey started off eastwards through Europe. The route will take him through the legendary Trans-Siberian Railways, through India, rest of Asia, the Pacific Ocean and then some more.

The Ghan Alice Springs to Darwin
The Ghan Alice Springs to Darwin

Perhaps the most common question that is always asked is, “Why do this?” More often than not, the answers are simple. For Iain, “the main reason I love train travel. And meeting people.” The best experiences are simple ones:

On the very first day of this journey, on train number two, I met “Jennie and Anders” a couple from Sweden who were travelling around Scotland. We were sat at the same table on the train, and as we were facing each other, there was nothing to stop a conversation from starting. It turned out that the reason behind their trip was that it was to celebrate Jennie’s birthday. Which probably explains why they were both drinking from a bottle of Champagne.

With all the distractions and faster modes of moving around, there’s something about trains (let’s give the high-speed variants a rest for a while) and slow travel in general that still take us places few others can. In Norway, along the Sorland Railway system, Iain’s train ran through some “stunningly beautiful, and remote countryside. There wasn’t a road or even a house in sight for mile after glorious mile.”

The Sørland Railway: From Stavanger, the city where narrow fjords, wild mountains, open sea and soft coastlines converge, there are varied and contrasting experiences to be enjoyed as the line makes its way towards Oslo.
The Sørland Railway: From Stavanger, the city where narrow fjords, wild mountains, open sea and soft coastlines converge, there are varied and contrasting experiences to be enjoyed as the line makes its way towards Oslo.

Picking the best trains is easy enough

I assumed that with over a hundred trains already under the belt, it would not be easy to pick memmorable experiences. It turns out, however, that the choice is not all that difficult after all. All is not perfect in the train world. Being from the UK himself, Iain does not have the best news to share:

In the UK, the railways are, comparatively, ruinously expensive, and offer a terrible service. The trains are run for profit you see, and it is more profitable to squeeze as many “customers” into a carriage as possible, even to the extent that they have to stand for hours, and offer a laughable service.

The NSB Family car rmweb.co.uk
The NSB Family car rmweb.co.uk

Norway, on the other hand, invests huge amounts of public money in their publicly-owned railway. And it shows! On long distance trains, there is even a safety-glass-walled area for children (called NSB Familie – NSB is the state-operator of trains in Norway). These play areas are equipped with games and, more popularly with Norwegian children it would seem, a huge TV screen showing cartoons which keeps the little monsters amused during long trips. Comfort before profit.

It’s all about the experiences

Meanwhile on the Sunshine Express, it was Slovakia when I last spoke to him (a couple of days ago) and the 14th country so far. Iain reflected that “there are HUGE differences in how trains are operated between countries. And most of these differences come down to the same thing: money.” We talked of those priceless experiences. Iain picks his top five:

The moon on the Arctic Circle

As the journey neared the end of a leg on the Inlandsbanan in Sweden, deep inside the Arctic Circle, it was late evening. 

“The sun had been trying to set for hours (it got there eventually), and was just above the horizon – so it looked absolutely enormous. The sky was a beautiful blazing red/orange/pink – and it lit up the interior of the train carriage.”

Out of the opposite window, in the same blazing sky, a full moon was rising (a “Blue Moon”). And as it too was just above the horizon, it also appeared to be larger than usual. So there I was, in a dazzlingly glowing carriage, with a huge sun viewed from the left window, and an enormous full Moon viewed from the right window. Magical.”

The following morning, Iain woke up along the same route, on a boat this time, sailing on the wonderfully calm and flat waters of the Ostersund marina.

The train on a ferry, meeting people and couchsurfing

Taking the train (EuroCity 36) between Germany and Denmark. Normally, the trains take the longer, but quicker, land route. However, this particular train takes the more direct route. Which means the entir 4-carriage train has to be loaded on to a ferry! While you sit on board.

As well as taking a few trains (!), this journey is also about meeting people. So, for the first

Jacobite Steam Train aka Hogwarts Express) crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland
Jacobite Steam Train aka Hogwarts Express) crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland

time in my life, I’ve taken to “couch surfing”. Between train trips. And I’ve met some truly wonderful people this way. None more so than Fatie in Nīmes, France. As well as giving me a bed for the night, she also took me to the local “artisan” brewer the following day.

This also involves “couch surfing”. Of the deluxe variety. Just a few days ago, I stayed overnight near St.Moritz in Switzerland, with a  guy who works on the UNESCO-listed Bernina Line. Our one evening was spent eating deliciously simple “raclette”, drinking locally-brewed beer and listening to 60s and 70s music. All in a house that was built in 1605! Life is about experiences – and this is one experience that I’ll never forget. 

I am no stranger to the compulsion that is often placed on travelers to document every single moment of awe (read the post on Last Eatery on Indian Soil for a glimpse on that). Iain similarly finds himself “guilty of not taking photographs of stunning situations (the sunset on the Inlandsbanan being a notable example. I was too busy just enjoying the sensation to even think about taking a photograph”.

Tim (right) and Iain (left)
Tim (right) and Iain (left)

The central idea behind this journey is for it to be a collaborative effort. Iain claims to be no writer although he very much can, and does, put pen to paper when needed. Tim White, an Australian blogger, who is pretty handy with pen and camera, joined Iain on one of the early legs. In fact, there is an engaging story in slowroaming.com about a chatty old lady on the train platform in Kyle of Lochalsh – a small town just over a bridge from the east coast of the Isle of Skye – who Tim and Iain had the chance to meet.

People, trains and more – with Paul Clifton of BBC

There is always a great story to tell. While Iain travels the world on trains and Tim pitches in with his own story, there’s something about the story-tellers themselves. Paul has been a BBC transport correspondent covering southern England for more than twenty years. He is, in his own words, a “rare person: a round peg in a round hole, someone who genuinely enjoys his job. I get paid to do things I want to do anyway.”

At Waterloo to see £300m plans to ease congestion.
At Waterloo to see £300m plans to ease congestion.

The BBC filmed the journey between London and Brighton on trains in 1953, 1983 and again in 2013. The visuals are an extraordinary comparison, and this is how I chanced upon Paul as the narrator of the story.


I tried to take a peek inside the life of a person who sends across all those immersive stories that we read every now and then. Paul has filmed on every continent. But as budget becomes tighter, and the trips get shorter, Paul’s work is getting increasingly lonesome.

When I started, television was always a team sport. I would travel with a cameraman and a sound recordist. Back at base, a wizard would hide in a darkened room with a mixing desk and a bank of tv screens. Somehow he would turn my ramblings into a coherent news story.

Paul Clifton and his crew
Paul Clifton and his crew

Technology changed all that. I could hold a microphone, so the sound man disappeared. A few hundred pounds of fancy software on a laptop meant the end of the picture editor. Small, lightweight cameras are gradually bringing about the demise of the craft cameraman. I make no claims for my camera skills; I can point and shoot well enough, but I cannot equal the craftsmanship of a really good camera operator. I’d rather have one beside me every time. But editing I really enjoy. And now I can finish filming a story, sit down in a café to edit, then file my report by wifi or, at a pinch, through my mobile phone.

Covering a story alone certainly has its benefits, though. There’s always more time with the interviewees and enough leisure to wait around for that one winning shot.

Last night I was shooting a story at a railway station. I took a small Gopro camera and stuck it on an egg timer. Over sixty minutes, it shot a 360 degree view of the trains coming and going as the sun went down, with commuters heading wearily home from work. A few clicks with a mouse, and that becomes a ten second timelapse sequence, the opening shot to my story. All without leaving the coffee shop on platform one. 

After traveling all over the globe and covering trains, among other forms of transport, which is Paul’s best train journey? It’s not the trans-Siberian railway, though he has done that. Not the Shinkansen in Japan, though he has been on that too. Visually, Paul picks London to Brighton.

60 years ago, BBC shot a remarkable film from the cab of a train heading from the capital to the coast, compressing an hour-long journey into four minutes on film. Thirty years later, it repeated the trick. Paul has brought it up to date, matching every bridge and every platform, to see how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. The tracks are still there, of course.

But the journey is 8 minutes faster now. The old semaphore signals, like the steam trains, are long gone. In 1953, every railway worker was a white man, and they all wore jackets, ties, and hats. By 1983 the caps had gone, but most railway staff were still male and most wore ties.

Fast forward to 2013, and the railway is a more cosmopolitan place to work – and as for the passengers to Brighton, anything and everything goes. It is a little piece of social history charting the changes of both people and places. We lined up all three journeys side by side. Apart from a nice piece of tv, we put the entire three journeys on Youtube. Last week half a million people watched.

Paul capturing the stories
Paul capturing the stories

Beautiful as it may be, Paul takes a step back. It might not be the best journey after all. Years ago, Paul went to film a new type of train that was being built in Germany. There’s a test track at Wildenrath and they let him have a go – not driving the new suburban commuter trains destined for southern England, but the latest high speed European inter-city stock from Siemens. Paul found himself driving a train faster than any fully qualified train driver in Britain. However, just as Iain recited earlier, most train journeys are not fun at all.

Two thirds of all train trips in Britain begin or end in London, and most involve the daily commute to work. The trains carry twice as many people as they did in the mid 1990s when Britain’s railway services were privatised. Record numbers of passengers squeeze into overcrowded trains on congested tracks built by the Victorians. Railways are booming – a nice problem to have, certainly, but still a problem. As a journalist, it’s my bread-and-butter work. Can a fare rise by justified? Do passengers get value for money? At least I have seen trains becoming faster, more comfortable – and a great deal safer. 

The bottom line is this: “I don’t do stories about trains, boats or planes. I do stories about people.

My focus happens to be on how and why people move from one place to another, how that provides shape and form to their lives. But all good reporting is about finding interesting characters, and understanding what makes them tick. It’s the best job in the world.”

Railfanning the most traveled train network in the world

Bharath came in to the mygola office with a backpack and a tripod. For the next few days, he will be out of mobile phone tower and internet connectivity. He is teaming up with a group from National Geographic in a tiny place in the Indian state of Orissa on a local project (more on that at a later time). Bharath is the resident mygola railfan, and he has been one for as long as he can remember.

Author of Trackside, a book on rail memoirs, Bharath introduced this pet project of his as a collection of writings that he published on his blog and in the IRFCA (Indian Railway Fan Club) forums. IRFCA is a community of over 5000 rave train lovers in a country where train is, by far, the most used mode of long-form travel. Bharath co-runs this community.

The Trackside cover
The Trackside cover

If you read Trackside, it is easy to notice how he grew from a naive, wonder-eyed railfan hunting down the latest locomotives to ending up as a weary traveler, pushing himself to figure out why people live and work the way to do.

Since we started off with traveling the world on rails, would he recommend the Indian Railways to be on the travel list of someone like, say, Iain?

Absolutely. In terms of the variety of experiences that it can offer, very few railways can offer what the Indian Railways do. Yes, one cannot experience truly world-class, high speed travel like one can in Japan, France and Germany, but if you a speed king traveller then the railways perhaps are not the kind of experience you are looking for anyway.

The sheer scale and variety of geography of India means in one day of travel you can go from beautiful coastal lines in Kerala to the rugged beauty of the Western Ghats in the Konkan region. On the other side of the country, one can, in half a day, go from running through vast acres of paddy to the astonishing depths of the tropical rain forests in Assam.

Bharath tells us the best train trips that you should take on the Indian rails. While Palace on Wheels is a world renowned luxury service, and there are World Heritage carriages chugging along mountain ridges, he prefers and picks the lesser known and offbeat tracks: Spectacular journeys on the Indian railways. And here’s why we should ditch the regular haunts:

At the bigger towns (and stations), people usually are far too busy to dawdle. Most of them are there for a definite purpose and aren’t necessarily the most sociable. Bigger stations are also often not very clean, so hanging around in them for extended periods of time can get a bit taxing. Small towns don’t suffer from these. The railway station at most such towns are placed within the town hall. People meet for cups of tea, their morning walks, or rambling conversations. There is no hurried air about them. As someone who likes to observe and listen to stories, small places are so much exciting.

The Pamban Railway track
The Pamban Railway track

For better or for worse, travel in India has always been on the headlines of the world. Like everything here, traveling on rails in this country is tough. But in the end, if you are a person who wants to “see”, then there is nothing like it. There is a story of the Coal Scavenger in Jharkhand and of Yadaiah – the track walker that Bharath came across – that deserves to be retold. Bharath does point out there is little or no romance in train travel for daily commuters or the staff of the railways. Yadaiah, a 56-year-old gangman, walks up and down the tracks ensuring that nuts and bolts are in place. Rupa is a coal scavenger who is so poor she must eat mud for dinner on some days.

Platform sights in Thanjavur
Platform sights in Thanjavur

Trackside is a railway enthusiast’s treat with its 12 anecdotes full of minute details capturing the experience of train travel, from the interminable waiting for delayed trains to enchanting chance encounters with strangers.

Railfanning is like any other hobby. Just that it has this uncanny habit of developing into an obsession real fast. Instead of spotting rare birds or colorful insects, these enthusiasts spot trains with various colorful locomotives in the lead. Just like there is excited talk about Buceros Bicornis, there is talk about WAM-4 and WAG-9 and WDM-2s. Like most other hobby related activity, it is about meeting new people and enjoying each others’ company more than anything else.