Sunday, 9 January 2011

A World of Trains

It's ironic that I read about Spain's new high speed rail link between Madrid and Andalucia on a delayed service to Manchester. The new service, which was officially opened in December puts Spain at the top of high speed rail services in Europe. Even so, France is not far behind it and in fact, I have always had very good experiences of rail travel all over Europe.

As train travel is set to get even more expensive in this country it's embarrassing to think just how unreliable it is. In 2007 I embarked on five weeks of rail travel around Eastern Europe. The trip was great and travelling by train really makes you feel like you've travelled. My friend Rebecca and I flew to Prague and undertook a huge loop taking in Hungary, Romania, Russia, Latvia and Poland to name but a few of the countries we visited. When we got back to the airport in Prague to fly home we looked at the departure board and saw many of the destinations we'd visited. "Oh," said Rebecca, "we could have just flown." But the truth of the matter is that in going overland we saw much more of the countries we visited, met some very interesting people and had a real sense of achievement from our travels.

By the time we got to Russia, the signs on the trains were translated into three languages, none of which were even vaguely recognisable t0 us and not even in Roman script. Nothing else makes you feel quite so far away from home. Standing in front of the iconic St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square almost exactly midway through our trip I felt like a great adventurer - after all it had taken numerous train journeys to get there, some of which lasting over ten hours.

Having been to Africa and the Americas this wasn't the furthest away from home I'd ever been geographically, but it certainly felt like it was. Sitting telling ghost stories on a night train through Transylvania; cramped in a carriage full of farmers who spoke no English, but offered to share their food with us in Northern Romania; and nursing Rebecca through a bout of food poisoning in the Ukraine all added to the experience.

And the truth of the matter was this: not a single train on our trip was delayed. Never did we experience technical problems, crew shortages or the like. In fact, the only time I was delayed the whole summer was when I was taking the train from Newcastle back to Wales. There were delays, I missed connections and the air conditioning broke down. Maybe this country could learn a thing or two from trains on the continent. Some high speed rail services in countries like Spain offer a money back guarantee which means passengers delayed for more than five minutes get a full refund. That sounds pretty impressive to us in a country where being delayed for only five minutes is considered a rare good journey.

All over the world high speed rail is being invested in with Japan and the United States enjoying reliable services. When train travel is that good, there is less need for people to fly. Surely a great thing in a time when the world should be looking to cut its carbon emissions. I love to travel by train, I just wish it wasn't such an epic hassle in this country. And perhaps there is hope for the future as public consultation about a high speed rail route between London and Birmingham is due to start in February. The line would then be extended north to Manchester and Leeds. It's about time Britain came into line with the rest of Europe.

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