Some years ago the BBC made four series of Great Railway Journeys in which a celebrity (in modern parlance) would travel by train (you might think this an obvious prerequesite but later programmes often abandoned the rails for quite long stretches) mostly outside of Europe though a few were filmed in the UK. Along the way they would interview locals and explore places of interest both on and off the train. Whilst the first series stuck to journeys that fell into the "great" category by virtue of being long distance epics , later episodes did feel a little more contrived and mundane - the Victoria Wood episode "Crewe to Crewe" being an example (no offence intended to Victoria Wood or Crewe).
So for the past few days I've been mulling over what exactly makes a railway journey great - is it the scenery, the people, the train or something more intangible? Drawing on my own experiences over the past year I've come up with the following journeys (in no particular order):
1. London - Berwick (- Edinburgh) - the East Coast Main Line: Frequent and fast (for the UK). Scenic highlights include the Tyne and Tweed crossings and the unforgettable transit of Durham. If you prefer hills stick to the West Coast Main Line.
2. Chicago - Los Angeles - the Amtrak Southwest Chief: Not fast but scenic if you are into deserts - and Grand Canyon stopover possible which is the most scenic location I've ever seen. Staff fairly attentive. Superior restaurant service to most European trains (free to First Class passengers), though not as good as a few years ago. Fellow diners generally elderly Americans, though a young family added interest. Reasonably comfortable if you have your own bedroom and the toilet is working. Can run very late - not recommended if your friend needs to catch the European Cup Final.
3. Los Angeles - Oakland (- Seattle) - the Amtrak Coast Starlight: Like most of Amtrak again rather leisurely but if you are not hugging the Pacific Coast you are running through the Coast Range, to say nothing of the spectacular Cascades further north. Staff helpfulness was a little variable, food was fantastic. Relaunched in June, definitely worth a return trip.
4. Belfast - Larne: On this route you are not just running along the sea but almost in it - north of Magheramorne the line strikes through the sea lough on a series of causeways. One of the most scenic and most unknown coastal routes in the British Isles. Larger stations are pristine, with friendly staff. Trains not up to much but hopefully this adds to the charm for visiting tourists.
5. London - Shrewsbury (- Wrexham) - Wrexham & Shropshire Trains: The best customer service I've ever experienced from a UK railway company, the staff I encountered were invariably polite, friendly and attentive. Freshly prepared food (including proper Welsh teas) brought to your table - and this was in the competitively priced Standard class. Comfortable carriages, not the fastest route to the West Midlands but this gives you more time to enjoy the service. A new but relatively unknown operator proving small really is beautiful. And in case you are wondering I have no financial interest in this or any other train operator (except as a UK taxpayer)!
6. London - Brussels (or Paris) - Eurostar: Fast and efficient, utilising the engineering (if not financial) triumph that is the Channel Tunnel. Not particularly scenic unless black is your thing. Comfortable, food a little expensive given it consists of pre-packaged fare.
7. Cologne - Brussels - Thalys: Something of a sister service to Eurostar, combining the two makes high speed rail competitive with air travel between the UK and western Europe. Again not particularly scenic but very comfortable.
8. Brussels - Luxembourg (through the Ardennes): Definitely on this list because of the scenic nature of the route. The memory of the sun sinking over the snow dusted Ardennes in the short November dusk will linger for years to come. Train is comfortable if basic - no catering, so come prepared.
9. Trier - Cologne (part of the route of the Norderney for example): This mostly follows the Moselle and Rhine valleys and is another highly scenic route. Trains are generally comfortable, punctual and cheap.
10. Deptford - London Bridge: Last but not least - no laughing at the back please. Remember Deptford is the oldest passenger station in London, on the oldest railway in London. Next time you're jostling for space on the 0810 spare a thought that you're continuing a struggle fought for generations past...
So what does make a Great Railway Journey? Looking through this list certainly not just one aspect of the journey. Scenery is a big plus, particularly for me. A decent catering service is great too, as is a bit of history to add interest. Speed is maybe not always as important as it's made out to be - I guess it partly depends on whether the journey is part of your travel experience or just a means to an end. Maybe the most important aspect of any journey - taking my fifth point as an example - is the people you make it with. Whether they are your family or friends, on-train staff or fellow travellers - they really can make all the difference.
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