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A life on the tracks

From Alpine tunnels to the Zambian border, seeing the world by train brings adventure, intriguing company – and a deep sense of contentment

Celebrity questionnaires, now a compulsory feature of even the most distinguished magazines, including this one, sometimes throw in a tricky one: “When and where were you happiest?” Not that anyone has ever asked me, but I do have one answer. It was on a train, at some point in the 1980s.

I was on my way from Amsterdam to Paris. I must have been going to meet friends and watch the great French horse race, the Arc. I have no idea what I was doing in Amsterdam, and possibly had no memory even at the time. Now, however, it was Sunday morning; I had an old-fashioned compartment to myself; the only disturbance was an occasional visit from a steward offering coffee. The scenery on that route is exceedingly dull, but I had a good book and an overwhelming sense of contentment.

I felt something like that again in Jamaica, also in the Eighties, on the blissfully eccentric train that ran through the Blue Mountains from Kingston to Montego Bay until a hurricane destroyed the line. Very different: gorgeous scenery, with friends, certainly no silence; same sense of inner peace.

And over the past year, as I have travelled across Europe for my New Statesman series “The Lost Continent”, there have been flashes of that same feeling. The other week I travelled across northern Romania, from Iasi to Cluj. I had a meltdown beforehand when I realised the 250-mile trip would take ten hours, with no food. I thought about bus (just as slow) and plane (too expensive) before stocking up on grub and taking a deep breath. Half-an-hour out from Cluj, I looked at my watch and thought: “Damn. We’re nearly there.”

I can’t explain any of this. Ten years ago, when I was writing a book about Britain’s trains, I asked a therapist friend if there might be some psychosexual explanation for the male obsession with trains. She said it was too obvious to be worth discussing. But then again it is a peculiarly British male obsession. Everywhere else, people are capable of regarding railways as simply a means of transport. For me, rail travel seems to have a deeper purpose, cheaper than therapy.

But it does not work in Britain itself. Dearie me, no. Partly it’s because the journey is not exotic. I live in deep country but travel a lot. I dislike long-distance driving; I don’t care for buses (and I really hate, not so much flying itself, but airports). Most weeks I have to endure the malevolent rapacity of Great Western, whose new trains have the most uncomfortable seats I have come across since the slatted benches offered to third-class customers on the suburban trains of Naples in the 1960s.

And at home I just want to get there. Abroad, it’s an adventure. There is something about the bustle of the great Victorian Hauptbahnhofs and centrales of Europe that is overwhelmingly thrilling: often architecturally – Antwerp, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Milan – but also in the sense of freedom. It is particularly true in the major German cities where you can hop on one of their gloriously overbearing Intercity-Expresses and, with a quick change or two, end up anywhere on the Eurasian land mass. (This may explain something about German history.)

 
A berth with a view: crossing Europe by train is full of the joys of the unknown. Credit: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty

And I have done such things. Without trying, without counting until now, I find I have been on trains in 45 countries. I remember Egypt in the 1970s, when black-clad women would ignore the doors and swallow-dive through the windows straight on to a precious seat; and where men would ride on the roof, which would not have been remarkable had not the trains been powered by overhead electric cables.

I went to war in Saudi Arabia in 1991 by train (no unaccompanied women). I took the lovely but ridiculously slow train through the Jerusalem hills to Tel Aviv, which is only now being superseded. Back when newspapers allowed occasional indulgences, I persuaded the Guardian to let me take one of the last transcontinental trains on the Canadian Pacific route, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. That was another Nirvana trip.

When young and naive, I took the then-new Tan-Zam railway to the Zambian border to be told my visa was not in order. Panic-­stricken, I gave him a bung so large it denuded my finances and probably distorted the baksheesh market in the region for years afterwards. I went on to South Africa, which still had both segregated carriages and steam trains: the choice in the Karoo desert was between closing the window and roasting, or opening it and being choked by the smuts from the engine.

I even have some vaguely historic achievements. On 11 September 2001 I was the first journalist to arrive in Manhattan from outside after the disaster. Planes were grounded; roads were sealed off; I took the train from Washington, instinctively, and glided in.

In 1994, the week before the Channel Tunnel opened officially they allowed journalists to make free trips: everyone else got to Paris, had lunch, went shopping and home. The photographer Sean Smith and I went to Berlin (surely no one else could have been from London to Berlin by train before – the old train-ferries don’t count) and then on to a Polish seaside town with a brief, evocative name, mainly for the pre-ordained headline: “To Hel and back”.

The following winter, I was with my wife the first time snow and ice got into the tunnel; they hadn’t thought of that. We spent four hours under the Channel trying to calm claustrophobes having panic attacks, and arrived eight hours late. I was fine: I had a book.

So I have taken a lot of trains. But I have not been everywhere: there’s a Russia-sized hole on my map, and a South American one. I did not go trainspotting as a child, even though I lived only a mile from the Euston mainline towards the end of steam. And there are things I have no intention of doing. I have no interest in taking the Trans-Siberian or the Indian Pacific across Australia, which both sound frighteningly tedious. I have no interest in luxury trains (unless offered free) or heritage lines (except with children). I do not watch TV programmes about trains, and particularly not Michael-fucking-Portillo.

I do like travelling with a purpose, however obscure my purpose might be. I love dining cars, where they exist. I love old-fashioned compartments, still plentiful in Europe, preferably empty – though sometimes, if I fail to glare them off, the interlopers turn out to be charming company. Above all, I enjoy obscure trains going to obscure places, especially those that appear to be on the verge of closure, which is true of the entire North American passenger network, outside the Boston-Washington corridor – and even that is dangerously neglected after decades of underfunding.

On British trains no one speaks except in designated quiet zones, where they shout. (In carriages with at least 60 signs saying “Quiet Carriage” I have endured both a stag party, and a pillock from the Welsh
Environment Agency delivering an hour-long lecture.)

American transcontinental trains, in contrast, are more like cruise ships. Real Americans fly, drive or go by bus. The tiny minority who take the unbelievably slow Amtrak service are not usually tourists – they are all notionally going somewhere – but they do tend to be interestingly cracked. Silence is unthinkable. I have in my time met 9/11 deniers, a votes-for-babies advocate (honestly) and some very engaging females. You avoid the strip malls; you get back-views of American houses; and you go through beautiful places you could hardly discover any other way, such as the Youghiogheny River in south-western Pennsylvania. Sometimes you even arrive on the scheduled day.

Again and again in these situations, I find myself thinking of Edna St Vincent Millay:

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

And she was both American and a woman. You never know who your soulmates might be.

****

And so, over the past year, reporting “The Lost Continent”, uncertain whether it might soon be lost to us forever in the fog of Theresa May’s speeches, I have bought a series of Interrail passes. They are not quite a full passport to the Schengen area: there turn out to be all kinds of nasty little roadblocks. There are hidden supplements, especially involving the faster trains and the more touristy countries. And Eurostar offers very restricted availability to pass­holders, which can screw you up royally if you don’t book months in advance (I learned that the hard way).

Then there was the Lackov, a named overnight train billed to run from Munich to Rijeka in Croatia. The Lackov Sleeper was aptly named because the Rijeka portion, decoupled in Salzburg, turned out to be a single second-class carriage – without blankets or drinking water – which got as far as the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, before decanting us into the cold and dark at 6am. We were then loaded on to a bus with Great Western-style seats and no toilet for hours on end, most of them spent exiting the highway to find tiny wayside stations where no one ever got on or off.

The hell of the replacement bus is of course familiar to anyone in Britain foolish enough to take a train on a Sunday. It’s a kind of divine punishment, the railways and the northern Hebrides being Britain’s last redoubts of Sabbatarianism. But it is a bit too easy to assume that everyone else’s railways are better. The wonders of French trains are a complete myth. The TGV aside, they’re primeval. It is impossible to get from, say, Bordeaux to Lyon without lugging your bags across Paris, which is geographically insane. They are infrequent and, observing local custom, very keen on long lunch breaks. The food on board (as opposed to station restaurants) is dreadful.

Scandinavian trains are not as efficient as you think – though Denmark has the advantage of having its four main cities on a single line and is finally about to make it high-speed. Belgium, with the world’s densest railway network, seems to have the world’s densest railway managers. The few surviving Irish trains are more like buses; they do have a refreshment trolley but in my experience it arrives five minutes before the terminus. And so on.

Even in Germany, whose railway system is among the wonders of the world until something goes wrong, hopelessness can set in, and one begins to understand why the generals told the Kaiser he had to go to war because the railway timetable was immutable. Last year, I met a clued-up German rail consultant and asked if Britain was ahead of Germany on anything. “Yes,” he replied, “information systems.”

 
The stationmaster at Episcopia Bihor, Romania. Credit: Matthew Engel

The Swiss live up to their reputation in making sure that nothing does go wrong. A while back I had to make a three-hour midwinter journey from St Moritz to Zurich and thence to Luton Airport. Switzerland had 18 inches of snow: my train arrived 90 seconds late. Luton had a light dusting: both airport and station were in chaos.

But my favourite is Austrian Railways: ÖBB, pronounced Uh-beh-beh, which sounds like a snatch from an Elvis song. The trains are comfortable, efficient, beautiful, serve acceptable food and weave their way sinuously through Alpine tunnels (which may be taking us back to the psychosexual stuff). If they are ever behind schedule, the Austrians make it sound as though it was all part of the masterplan. I would add a special commendation to the Czechs, whose buffet-diners not merely serve good, cheap cooked meals but offer happy hours with wonderfully railwayesque timings, eg 18:53 to 20:27.

Nonetheless, I have to tell you that, IMHO, the best railway food on scheduled trains anywhere in the world is British. Three trains a day on Great Western, of all things, serve a brilliant full-English breakfast to all-comers. Three trains a day out of about 20,000. (And even these are at risk.)

But in Britain my sense of wonder is dulled by both the obscene cost and repetition. Crossing Europe by train is full of the joys of the unknown. A few weeks ago my train west to Budapest stopped on the Romanian side of the border while the Hungarians checked passports for the Schengen Zone (and who knows what baleful Orbánseque internal purposes). The place was called Episcopia Bihor.

On the platform was a grand lime tree, its leaves swaying in a soft autumn breeze. Behind it was a sweet station house, a mix of whitewash and pink brick. In front was an old-school stationmaster, with a cap to match the brickwork, a soup-strainer moustache and magisterial bearing, awaiting his moment to send us on our way. I was enraptured, full of the delights of Europe and the railways. As we pulled out, one could see the place was a shithole, full of derelict buildings and Communist-era detritus. But, me, I’ll always have Episcopia Bihor. 

Matthew Engel’s book about railways is “Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain” (Macmillan). Selections from his writing about railways can be found at matthewengel.co.uk

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special