“So we’re going to take the train through the famous Chunnel at last,” I remarked rapturously.
Rich and I had been talking about it for years — ever since the Chunnel opened in 1994, in fact — and last September, as part of a surprise birthday excursion, he arranged for us to take the 2.75-hour rail journey from London to Paris. I was thrilled, wondering what it would be like to go speeding along at 300 kilometers per hour under the English channel.
It turns out that riding through the Chunnel looks exactly like this:
So not quite as visually thrilling as I’d imagined. Apparently others have been equally underwhelmed because the railway, Eurostar, now offers an alternative view. In the train station’s departure lounge enormous ads invite kids to rent virtual reality goggles; apparently you enter your seat number so the experience can be tailored to your precise place in the train. As a rule, Rich and I prefer actual reality during train rides, so we made a snap decision to pass. Obviously, now that we’ve done a bit more research, we are kicking ourselves for missing out on the opportunity to experience the Chunnel like this:
With or without virtual reality goggles, Rich and I remain steadfast fans of train travel. More civilized and less hectic than flying or driving, rail journeys let you read without getting carsick, stroll to the bar car for coffee, or engage in idle conversation with fellow passengers. And train travel isn’t just better for us, it’s better for the environment. By taking the Eurostar from London to Paris instead of flying, Rich and I lowered our trip’s CO2 emissions by 91%.
Math isn’t my strong suit, but when you figure there are about a billion inter-European air flights annually, if even a fraction of those fliers switched to trains, we’d make the planet a healthier place to live.
Whenever the subject of rail travel comes up, somebody always says, “Yes, I love trains too. If only I had the time to take them.” Maybe you do! Because it turns out that when you travel between European cities, it’s often faster to go by rail. Our Chunnel train from London to Paris was actually quicker than flying — only nine minutes quicker, but still!
Why don’t savvy travelers know that going by rail is often faster and always kinder to the environment? For one thing, the travel industry “only wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire, and more flights,” according to one of the most famous train travelers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. While working as a manager with British Rail, Mark launched a website and a personal crusade to inspire and assist railway travelers. His hobby grew into a career that’s made him a household name among train buffs around the world.
“People don't understand that by train (and for that matter, ship) the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” Mark told me. “It's not just about 'getting there'! For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp!”
Many of my favorite travel stories come out of our railway adventures. Like that time on the Hungarian-Romanian border when a couple of uniformed men took our passports and disappeared into the station. Twenty minutes later the train started up again, causing us to stick our heads out the window shrieking hysterically, “Our passports, our passports!” Only then did Rich and I realize that our part of the train wasn’t going anywhere. The lineman’s OK-to-go signal was for the back half of the train, which was separating from our section and returning to Hungary. The fact that everyone on the station platform knew this, and had doubtless arranged this amusing little prank countless times, didn’t seem to diminish their innocent delight in watching us make fools of ourselves.
Rich and I love long railway journeys, and one that lasted 83 days is chronicled in my book Adventures of a Railway Nomad. The journey took us through 13 countries on 38 trains for a total of 4627 railway miles. We came home with countless stories about silly misunderstandings, the kindness of strangers, and thrilling moments when we were gobsmacked by the unexpected.
“Anything is possible on a train,” wrote Paul Theroux. “A great meal, a binge, a visit from card sharks, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” Rich and I experienced all that and more as we traveled to areas so remote that, to us at least, they seemed the modern equivalent of those places on the ancient maps marked, “Here there be dragons.” You can imagine how excited we were when our train journey took us to Kraków, Poland, and we discovered these (alleged) actual dragon bones hanging on the wall of the cathedral.
According to legend, as long as these enormous bones — said to belong to the dragon Smok Wawelski — hang on the cathedral wall, Kraków is safe from destruction. Are they working? You bet. Otherwise, how would you account for the fact that during World War II, when just about every major city in Poland was bombed to rubble, Kraków survived more or less intact?
Railway journeys often inspire an adventurous spirit and profound thoughts. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity on a train. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed the lovely metaphor, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction,” which calls to mind a favorite saying passed on to me by a reader: “Never chase a missed train. Get a pastry and wait for the next one.” Today, we can add another form of train wisdom to our collective repertoire: choosing to ride the rails provides a practical way to support to the global climate recovery effort. In the long run, choosing railway travel may make us all more healthy, happy, and wise.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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