Knaller an der Zeitungsfront

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Quick, quick, slow (The Guardian)

Quick, quick, slow
When Dan Kieran stopped flying 15 years ago, organising his travel through Europe was a headache. Now, at long last, the rail companies are hitting back at the budget airlines, introducing faster, smarter trains - and a greener way to go
The Guardian
Saturday February 10 2007

Faster, smarter, greener ... trains are back in fashion. Photograph: Britain on View.
The waiter in the dining car leant over our table and enquired whether we'd care for another bottle of complimentary sancerre or perhaps some champagne before the main course arrived. The concierge, meanwhile, was preparing our cabin, with its own ensuite toilet and shower, for a tipsy reunion a few hours later.

I surveyed our fellow travellers and felt a twinge of surprise as we glided through the French countryside. In the 15 years I'd shunned aeroplanes for long distance trains, I had become used to being the youngest passenger in the dining car by at least 30 years. But not this time. My partner Rachel, our son Wilf and I weren't even the only young family. Only one couple could actually pass as retired. The rest of the relaxed, smiling faces belonged to adults of all ages who were thoroughly enjoying the journey to Madrid and all that free wine. It was then that I realised that our secret was out. Trains are back in fashion.

In recent years, rail companies may have been slow on the uptake when it comes to fighting back against the budget airlines, but with carbon emissions now so high up on the political agenda it's safe to say that the time of the train has come. Indeed by the end of 2007 the infrastructure will be in place for a whole new era of international rail travel.

Eurostar's new terminal at St Pancras, and the UK's first high-speed line, set to open in November this year, will cut journey times from London to Paris to 2┬╝ hours. Once it's up and running, there are plans to introduce tickets from the north of England and Scotland to destinations right across Europe. Manchester to Marseille, for example, or one day even Edinburgh to Istanbul. In June SNCF launches its high-speed TGV Est service, allowing passengers to travel from London to Strasbourg in a mere six hours. A new high-speed rail link between Brussels and Amsterdam is also opening in December cutting journey times by a third.

In an attempt to inject even more glamour into the experience, the rolling stock will look a little different, too, having been designed by Pininfarina, the famous Italian design company that lists Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Jaguar among its clients. Then there's the new Railteam project ( , which will give international rail companies in the UK, France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria the chance to offer a combined service right across the continent. Even the classic Inter Rail pass is being updated so you can cherrypick the countries you want to visit instead of the old-fashioned zone system that meant paying through the nose for a ticket covering countries you had no intention of visiting.

A fully integrated network will soon be in place offering an alternative to the environmentally damaging pursuit of no-frills flying with its emotionally draining two-hour check-ins and habit of dumping you miles from where you want to go. However, once you've tried international rail travel, you'll find it's not just a question of assuaging your environmental guilt. Those who are prepared to take a bit more time when going abroad have discovered something else, too. They've realised that the very fact that it takes a little longer means you genuinely get to "travel".

Before I stumbled upon European Rail, the company that organised our family package deal to southern Spain with a Grand Class overnight cabin that includes dinner and wine, I arranged my own rail trips abroad. And, if I'm honest, organising them was always a nightmare. I had some interesting experiences though, including one memorable 24-hour trip to Warsaw via Brussels to be the best man at a friend's wedding. Despite various mishaps, it gave me a taste for a new kind of "slow" travel. I got my timings wrong, missed all of my connections and ended up in Cologne station at midnight reading The Day of the Jackal while being stalked by the world's worst pickpocket.

I managed to talk myself on a train to Berlin via Hamburg before getting a connection to Warsaw. I awoke at dawn in Berlin, a horizon peppered with dozing cranes beneath an orange glow. Into Poland and we passed through fields where stout men were dragging their heels behind horse-drawn ploughs. On route, I chatted to a soldier on the run from Germany before giving an impromptu English lesson to a mother and her 10-year-old son. I'd also read that this stretch of the line formed part of Jonathan Harker's journey into Transylvania in Bram Stoker's Dracula, something that gave the thick dense woodland an air of fascinating menace.

My expedition was certainly altering my state of mind - the relative slowness of rail travel gave me time to absorb and acclimatise myself to my surroundings.

I arrived in Warsaw somewhat bleary eyed, six hours later than planned. The station was the kind of brutal concrete communist Lubyanka that awoke suspicion and fear in my middle-class eyes, despite the smiles and friendliness around me. I hailed a taxi and found myself once again in the umbilical cord of western life as we drove through the new developments of Warsaw with their lurid Coca-Cola and McDonalds branding jostling for position with Sony and a Holiday Inn.
I soon arrived in my luxury hotel filled with western businessmen and immediately bumped into a friend who had also come out for the wedding. He'd been in London only five hours earlier having, more sensibly in his eyes, chosen to fly. He laughed at my dishevelled appearance and told me how eccentric I had become.

But standing in the lobby of that hotel I realised that he wasn't really in Poland. Not really. He was in a building of the kind he saw every day at home. He had travelled through a wormhole that began in a taxi outside his flat that took him to an aeroplane that entertained him with his favourite television shows and delivered him to a taxi, which had brought him to this western hotel. He had no conception of the country he had entered. Neither, perhaps, did I, but at least I had the grace to be aware of that fact. I had, at any rate, seen the land and the people of the countries I had travelled through. I would suggest I was also unknowingly more respectful because of that fact.

The journey home a few days later was far less eventful but no less enjoyable, and when I got back to London I felt like I had actually travelled somewhere for the first time in my life. I felt like a pioneer. I was hooked and I have never flown since.

At the moment I'm reading English Journey by JB Priestley to prepare for a travel book I'm writing with my friend Ian called Three Men In A Float. We're taking this idea of slow travel one stage further and applying it to our own country this summer by driving across England in a milk float with our friend Prasanth. I discovered that Priestley predicted this phenomenon, the downside of excessive speed for anyone hoping to experience what it actually means to travel, while journeying around Britain in the autumn of 1933.

"Our new, rapid, closed-in sort of travel has its sinister aspects," he wrote, "and here is one of them. When people moved slowly in their travel, there was time to establish proper communications with what was strange, to absorb, to adjust oneself. Now that we are whizzed about the world, there is no time for absorbing and adjusting. Perhaps it is for this reason that the world that the traveller knows is beginning to show less and less variety. By the time we can travel at 400 miles an hour we shall probably move over a dead uniformity, so that the bit of reality we left at one end of the journey is twin to the bit of reality we step into at the other end. Indeed, by that time there will be movement, but strictly speaking, no more travel."

Thankfully, since my trip to Poland I've found rail package deals that offer the sense of perspective and adventure of that journey with all the luxuries and certainties you want when holidaying abroad. And the Railteam project will soon prevent fearful midnight conversations with surly guards if you do happen to miss any of your connections.

So if we are serious about tackling climate change, then the culture of short-haul travel will have to change and we will have to start turning our backs on the budget airlines. Not only do we now have a genuine alternative, you never know, it could even give you an addiction to a far nobler form of travel.

Dan Kieran is deputy editor of The Idler
On the rails the sexy, cinematic way to go
And the award for the sexiest train scene from a movie goes to ... ? What? Brief Encounter, where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard played out an unrequited affair exchanging nothing more than Received Pronunciation variations in the caff at Carnforth station? Or Lemmon and Curtis dragging around the sleeper car with Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot?
No, for me, it has to be Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Especially the bit where Cary Grant first encounters platinum blonde Eve Saint Marie.

Grant, dressed in a silvery Kilgour French Stanbury suit and Persol sunglasses, looks shifty but splendidly suave as he is shown to her table in the restaurant car of the clattering 20th Century Limited locomotive. Eve Marie Saint is coolly smoking. In every way imaginable. She tells him that she tipped the steward five dollars to seat him here. "Is that a proposition?" asks Roger Thornhill, Grant's character. Seduction moves at clattering double time when you travel by train and before long, Eve has got Cary back to her sleeping berth and sparks start to fly from the undersides of their respective rolling stock.

Of course, for us Brits, train travel isn't immediately associated with the libidinous, romantic, luxurious or filmic. Our trains are all about the overcrowded, over-priced misery of suburb-to-city commuting, poor quality food, endless cancellations, the wrong kind of snow and Minding The Gap.

But when train travel isn't a work thing, when one takes a train bound for a pleasurable destination, alone and off peak, to somewhere slightly more evocative than, say, King's Cross or Crewe, it can be quite wonderful ... sexy even. Even on Virgin Trains.
Some of my most memorable journeys have been by train. I'll never forget my cosy, quaint overnight train journey on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William. My wife and I had our first holiday together riding steam trains around Rajasthan, India, and a few years ago, on assignment for this paper, I took an Amtrak from Penn Station to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. In Switzerland, I had an insanely steep train journey up to St Moritz on a train that served wine in glasses with their stems specially bent to accommodate the gradient.

But my favourite train journeys have been taken alone, riding the Bullet Train from Kyoto to Tokyo, the magnificent Chihuahua al Pacifico railway into Mexico's Copper Canyon, or doing the Inter Rail thing from London to southern Italy as a teenager where I did my best to orchestrate my own kind of Cary/Eve encounter. Quite difficult, I discovered, when you have a non-seated ticket, a rucksack, no money for the dining car and an Echo and The Bunnymen haircut.

It may be slightly circuitous and protracted but at its best, long-haul train travel humanises its passengers. People move around on trains. They go to the buffet car and buy each other drinks. They stick their heads out of windows. (Well, they do on foreign trains anyway.) They can let each other through or choose to engage in a comical, playfully harmless frottage unique to railway travel, as they attempt to pass simultaneously. You tend to meet people doing this kind of stuff. Flirting with a stranger while the train jiggers through the night through the Alps or towards D├╝sseldorf (very Kraftwerk, that) is much classier and less sordid than a quick bit of mile-high action on a Ryanair flight.

That said, if you want to be left alone, go to Rio or Russia where they've introduced single sex carriages so women can avoid being chatted up. Alternatively, bury your nose in a book. How about Michel Houellebecq's Platform? It's about a couple who like having sex in public places ... on trains mainly.

Simon Mills


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