A dream of trains – from luxury sleepers to intercity rattlers

Switzerland's spectacular Glacier Express.

Switzerland's spectacular Glacier Express.

Locked down in my apartment in Melbourne’s CBD, I dreamt of trains. For the past decade I’ve increasingly written about rail travel, drawn more and more into a love of trains.

It doesn’t matter what trains they are – luxury “rail cruises” are impressive, but so to me is a berth in a weathered old-school sleeper car or a seat on any intercity train.

I dreamt of trains past. Particularly the Pride of Africa, a luxury train run by Rovos Rail from Cape Town to Pretoria, South Africa; and the Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore.

Both of these required guests to dress for dinner, so I carefully folded a jacket and a couple of ties into my backpack.

But also I dreamt of the less posh trains. For one, the Ukrainian sleeper train I caught from Kiev to Warsaw, after returning from an overnight tour to Chernobyl.

The sole luxury was the carriage attendant bringing me a cup of black tea and a biscuit at the start of the trip, for which she expected a tip later. In the middle of the night we were awakened by border guards taking our passports away for far too long, to the clanging sound of the wheels being adjusted to standard gauge for Poland.

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I dreamt too of smaller trips on local trains, some of which embed themselves in your memory as travel highlights. A train through the Polish province of Silesia, passing through a forest so dark and sinister that we might have entered a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Pointing out to Indian tourists on a train to Lucerne the distant Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes fictionally fell to his death in combat with Professor Moriarty.

Chatting to an Indian businessman in a four-bed compartment made up for day use on the way to Agra. Learning about a call centre worker’s daily life while sitting on slashed seats on a dodgy Cape Town suburban train.

great train journeys

Passengers wait to board at London’s Paddington Station in 1912. Photo: Getty

And I dreamt of future trains. Before this mess arose I had obtained a rail pass for the Balkan countries, and was about to progress from Athens to Istanbul by rail.

I haven’t ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway yet, nor the Orient Express; and I’ve always wanted to catch a train from Los Angeles to Williams, Arizona, from where a private railway line leads north to the Grand Canyon.

We don’t yet know which trains will survive the COVID-19 shutdown, especially among the tourist-focused long-distance trains. Even so, there’s nothing to beat train travel.

On a plane you’re crammed into a tiny uncomfortable seat in the clouds, waiting for the flight to end so the holiday can begin. On a bus you’re crammed into a similarly tiny seat, getting stuck in traffic and experiencing motion sickness as it lurches to its destination.

On a train, by contrast, there’s space, steady movement and continual scenery.

great train journeys

Soak up the landscape on a journey through Canada. Photo: Tim Richards

As I often say, trains are in the landscape but not of the landscape. As you stare from a train window you can enter a meditative state – passing the outside world at a steady rate enables a sense of flow that’s distinctive to moving by rail.

Other appealing aspects of rail travel are more practical, the type of advantages we’ll need when climate change looms large again. Rail travel is far lower in carbon emissions than air travel, especially if powered by clean energy.

Sleeper trains, after suffering a decline in the first half of this decade, are making a big comeback in their European heartland after Greta Thunberg’s climate activism.

Dress to impress aboard the Pride of Africa. Photo: Tim Richards

Austrian Federal Railways is leading the charge, outfitting modern new sleeper cars and reopening routes that haven’t seen a sleeper train in years. Who cares if a train takes hours longer than a plane to reach its destination, if you can dine onboard and sleep comfortably through the ride?

Though Australia has been wedded to air travel, we could do this here as well – there’s no reason why both high-speed trains and comfortable sleeper trains couldn’t play a part in reducing our carbon emissions in the decades ahead.

We don’t know yet when travel will return to normal and we’ll be able to board those humble and mighty trains, here and abroad. But I’m already dreaming of them. I will be, we all will be, back on the rails. In, hopefully, a better world.

More: For quality rail travel daydreaming, consult The Man in Seat 61.

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