Train travel is going through a bit of a renaissance as people reconsider the carbon emissions, squashed seating and increasing fees of flying.
The man with a front-row seat to the rail resurgence is Mark Smith, the founder of the train travel website The Man in Seat 61. His site has timetables, maps, reviews, booking details and everything else needed to plan train (and even some ferry) trips in more than 100 countries.
Smith started the site on a whim after buying a book on coding in 2001.
He wanted a place to show how easy it was to take the train from Britain to locations across Europe and further abroad, and had noticed how hard it was to find information on how to do it.
“The travel industry is really set up to sell you flights, flights, car hires and more flights,” he said.
In 2007, he was able to quit his job with British Rail to run the site full time.
Today, The Man in Seat 61 gets up to a million visitors a month, with dedicated readers across the world sending in alerts when landslides, fuel shortages and other events disrupt train schedules.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Question: What sparked your interest in trains?
Answer: Well, it’s an interest in travel. But trains and ships treat you like a human being. You get to see where you’re going, and the journey can be as exciting and interesting as the destination. Sometimes, in this world of air travel, we forget that.
Q: How often are you on a train?
A: I have a young family, with kids ages 11 and 13, so I can’t get away all the time. But I try and get away as often as I can to do research trips when something really important changes.
Last year I was on the brand-new Hong Kong-to-Beijing high-speed train.
This year, I’ll be on the new Brussels-to-Vienna sleeping car. I enjoy the journeys, but it does become a bit of a work experience when I’m trying to get the necessary information.
My Twitter may show me enjoying a nice glass of red in the seat, but it won’t show me running up and down the train, trying to get photographs and videos of each of the different types of carriage.
Q: What is the country with the hardest trains to book for foreign travelers?
A: There is India, where just booking a train is a bit of a genuine Indian experience that you couldn’t have from home. It is very intense, busy, with crowded trains, but incredibly rewarding.
Q: What country has the best trains?
A: It’s a bit like drinking wine: You don’t have one favorite that you drink all the time; you like different sorts at different times.
But certainly, Switzerland has to be up there. Partly because of scenery, and partly because it’s got such a fantastic network. Every train connects with a local train, connects with a bus, and it’s so easy to get around.
Q: Are you seeing new interest from people wanting to minimize their carbon footprint?
A: Yes, absolutely. When I started back in 2001, if somebody said when they emailed me why they wanted to go by train, they would typically say they have a phobia of flying, or were medically restricted from flying, or particularly liked train travel.
What people tell me now is they are fed up with the airport and airline experience, or should I say non-experience, and they want to cut their carbon footprint.
Q: What is your favorite train trip?
A: It’s the Caledonian sleeper from London to Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland.
First of all, it takes me from where I used to work in central London, right to the West Highlands of Scotland, which are probably the most scenic part of the British Isles. Second, it’s a lovely train, a hotel on rails with private sleeping rooms and a lounge car.
And lastly, the experience of waking up, putting the blind up and seeing deer bound away from the train is absolutely fantastic.
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