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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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!