Riding the Rails


I love trains. Not in the model-train-enthusiast sense, but in the dedicated-public-transportation-user sense. I will take a train over a plane or a car or a bus whenever I can. (Considering that I grew up in a car environment, I don’t know where this passion came from.) I’ve only recently discovered the joy of taking Amtrak between DC, Philadelphia and New York, and when I see how many people are boarding trains at DC’s Union Station, it restores a bit of my faith in humanity.

There are amazing train journeys to be experienced all over the world, but for my money, the best destination for trains is Europe. Trains have long been central to movement through Europe – a fact reflected in the many beautiful train stations scattered across the continent. While the discount airlines have been ascendant in Europe in recent years, train travel remains the preferred way to get from many Points A to Points B.

I could wax poetic for days about the advantages of train travel. Many train stations are themselves worthy of a visit even if you’re not getting on a train, for their impressive architecture, excellent shopping, and constant buzz of energy (so many people going so many places!). The stations are almost always located in the heart of the city (making it much faster to get where you want to be), you don’t have to endure long security lines or invasive pat-downs, and you can forego the stress of having to figure out driving directions and foreign traffic rules. Plus, the experience is just so darn pleasant. Watching towns and countryside roll by from the comfort of your train seat is one of the highlights of European travel. You can see parts of Europe (however briefly) that you’d miss completely if you were 30,000 feet in the air. And by foregoing a car, you’ll feel like a real European, too.

Different countries in Europe have varying reputations for their trains’ efficiency and comfort. Switzerland has the best system, hands down: far-reaching, efficient, and punctual to the second. When I traveled from Geneva to the small village of Wengen (for my first – and last – ski lessons), the trip involved four trains. Each train got successively smaller until finally I was on a tiny cogwheel train being pulled up the side of a mountain to Wengen. Some of my connections between trains were less than 5 minutes, which (at the time, being new to Swiss rail) had me worried – but everything ran exactly on time and the entire journey went off without a hitch. (I could not, alas, say the same for the skiing; you can read my account of that debacle here.)

Meanwhile, I’ve had more than one German complain to me about German trains, but I never had a single problem there, which makes me think their complaints were more a product of Germans’ high standards, rather than a reflection of a flawed rail system. And the high-speed rail in France, the TGV (along with Thalys, which connects to Belgium, and Eurostar, which connects to London), is nothing short of marvelous. Why should you schlep to the Paris airport to fly to London, when you could hop on a train in the center of the city and arrive in the center of London two hours later? (Hint: you wouldn’t.)

Riding the European rails can be a bit intimidating at first, but with a little advance preparation, you’ll find it to be a snap. (If you’d like to make your first foray into European train travel with a trusted guided, inside of going it alone, Mockingbird can help with that…stay tuned!)

I often lament that the train system in the US is so limited, but I expect we’ll see more development of our train infrastructure in the coming decades, as more people recognize the importance of mass transit. In the meantime, I’ll have to get my train fix across the pond – or I might just go sit in Union Station for a while, and take in the scene.


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