Sunday, April 26, 2009

Oncoming trains

I was excited this week to read an article on the BBC website about a possible renaissance of the US rail system, including talk of a high-speed link from Vancouver down to Seattle, Portland and Eugene.

Yup, I'm a train spotter lover. Love, love, love, travelling by train. Not quite as much as by boat, but close. It's just such a civilised, human way to travel. You can leave your seat, stretch your legs, wander through to the catering car for a cuppa tea or a beer, even jump out at stations for some fresh air. Compared to trains, planes are just awful - full of that nasty recycled air and the risk of DVT due to hours of inactivity. And cars... I do not like travelling by car at all. Strapped into your seat, stuck in traffic, and all that carbon guilt. The scenery also tends to be better from a train. I like the aerial views from the plane, but you don't get the detail. Obviously some roads have good sight lines to take advantage of nice views, but more often than not you just see a bunch of other cars, and maybe some stunted trees if you're lucky.

I took the train all the time in the UK: to get from my parents' to University and back, to go to weddings, football and rugby games, concerts, you name it. I've also been lucky enough to do some fabulous overnight and multi-day train trips, the stand out being Toronto - Vancouver through the Rockies. Toronto-Montreal was nice too, as were Paris-Marseilles, Paris-Madrid and Madrid-Lisbon. The latter journey was on our honeymoon and also Mr E Man's birthday, so we treated ourselves to a first class sleeping cabin, featuring fold-down bunks, our own bathroom and shower, and a delicious three course dinner with a more or less open bar (we did not test the limits of the openness, but the guys at the next table were getting close). I've also done shorter hops around France, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and Belgium. Man, I miss Europe sometimes.

So... regular high speed rail down to Seattle and Portland? Sign me up!* I've got friends there I'd like to see, and I'll be more likely to go if I can take the train (and once I get the coveted Canadian passport and no longer have to be fingerprinted, photographed and generally interrogated at the border). The US is going to lag behind Europe for a good long while in this regard, but if some of the stimulus money can be used to stimulate the railways, I'll be one happy traveller.


*Barriers to going right now: there are like 4 trains a week, and they're sloooooow. And expensive, because the only people who use them are wealthy European tourists. When I did the Vancouver-Seattle-San Francisco-LA section of my North America trip when I was 20, I had to take the Greyhound the whole way, because the trains were laughably far beyond my budget.


  1. I traveled between LA and San Francisco last summer, and I thought the train would be a convenient way to go. I mean, isn't that exactly two cities you would want to take a train between? Turns out that I would have had to take a bus from LA to another town, then a train from the other town to Berkeley or something, and then from there you had to go to downtown SF. It was ridiculous, so I took a stupid bus instead, from one sketchy bus station to another one, even though LA has a *wonderful* train station. It's nuts.

  2. They have been planning to put a train between Calgary and Edmonton, which would be perfect! It's too close to fly, but a little too far to actually enjoy the drive (~3 hours, and it's boring). For some reason it hasn't happened yet.

    I've taken the train a few times since moving to Ontario, and it's way more relaxing than plane/car travel. I also did the train thing around Europe and loved it.

  3. Yup - perfect distance, great views... but they just make it way too complicated. That's the other great thing about the European system - you go city centre to city centre.

    The LA Greyhound station may just be the scariest place I've ever been in my whole life! I went outside to get some sun while waiting for my airport shuttle, saw the needles and passed-out junkies on the sidewalk, and went straight back inside to stand next to a security guard.

  4. Mrs CH, our comments crossed. That would be another great one. The Toronto-Vancouver train went through Edmonton, and my parents have done a different route to Calgary, so clearly the tracks are in place, just not the will to put in the services!

    People do seem to take the train more in Central Canada than in the West. The Toronto-Montreal train was jam packed full of people, there was a really nice atmosphere on board.

  5. I too enjoy traveling by train - it might be a European thing after all :) Although the thought of going 2,700 miles by train each way (my most frequent trip) is a bit much. A trip up and down the West coast would be lovely though!

  6. Wife and I used to travel by train a lot when we were in San Diego. We took the Southwest Chief (Los Angeles - Chicago) a few times, and she traveled also up to Vancouver. We also traveled by train between Vancouver and Edmonton.
    There used to be a time when in order to keep air fare low, one would have to have a weekend overnight stay. In that case, in my opinion train (if available as an option, which is not most of the tim) would have been financially a reasonable alternative to plane, whenever one would have to attend a conference from Monday through Friday. Spending the extra weekend on the train, where they feed you and you don't have to worry about lodging, may often end up being less expensive than flying.
    For the most part, though, besides clearly being unpractically slow for most purposes, train is very expensive in America.
    I am taking the train all the time here in Europe, and it is indeed a great way of traveling.

  7. Wow! That would be great! I did once travel by bus/train from Vancouver to Eugene. I think it was expensive and slow, but not more expensive or slower than the Greyhound.
    I am sad to report that in my opinion, trains in Europe are getting less and less. Although still way better than in the US/Canada, my favourite connections are getting less frequent and terrifyingly more expensive day by day :(

  8. SG, yeah, that is too long to do on any kind of regular basis!

    Massimo, that's a major attraction of the overnight trains for student travellers - you cover your accommodation costs as well as your transportation costs. I did see a lot of people taking the train in San Diego (my hotel was quite close to the station).

    Nina, good point - the trains in the UK at least are definitely getting more expensive. The lines I tend to use are still of very high quality though. And Mr E Man loved his first long train trip experiences in Spain and Portugal in 2007!

    A general note about costs: I should have said that with the exception of the Paris-Madrid-Lisbon trip, I've only done the really long train and bus trips as a student, when I always got fantastic discounts. The exceptions were still way cheaper than the combined hotel-air fare cost though, as Massimo also said.

  9. There is a new bus company in the US Midwest, Megabus (I think is it actually a UK company?), that goes between all the major cities for SUPER cheap. The buses are nice and new, with no skeezy terminals. Still not quite a train, but better than car or air for those distances (3-7 hr drives).

  10. Yeah, there's obviously a gap in the market for clean, efficient, non-scary intercity travel! I hope the new company does well. Greyhound is OK for short distances, but the overnight trips are not too fun...


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