The Romance of Train Travel — Is It Dead? Zell am See, Austria

The Romance of Train Travel — Is It Dead?

We’ve always loved train travel. ‘Loved’ being the key word. But a daylong journey fraught with problems from Budapest to Vienna, Vienna to Salzburg, and Salzburg to Zell am See, had us wishing we could have flown, and had us wondering what happened to the romance of train travel. Is it dead?

Over the years we’ve travelled by train around Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco; all over Switzerland; between Austria, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Denmark; throughout Central and Eastern Europe; and through a fair bit of Turkey. We’ve taken trains in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, and have done some of Australia’s epic train journeys, including The Ghan and The Indian Pacific.

There are no photos with those IDs or post 26159 does not have any attached images!

Our most memorable trip was on a train from Moscow to St Petersburg we nicknamed ‘The Blini Express’ because we spent most of the time in the dining car, eating blinis and caviar, washed down with vodka, as we took in the charming wooden dachas and bucolic scenery on the way. On our best trips we’ve been happy, relaxed, and so content to do little but gaze out the window that we’ve been hard pressed to read the books we’ve taken along for the ride. We’ve brought picnic lunches and bubbly on board and enjoyed leisurely lunches in the dining cars. Train trips were always fun. The key word being ‘were’. So what happened?

This year we’ve taken 16 trains in Europe. Only one of those has been so wonderful I’d recommend it — and actually do it — again (Jerez to Madrid on Renfe’s Trenhotel; see this post) and two have been okay (Barcelona to Perpignan, and Alberobello to Bari; covered in this post also). The other 13 trips have ranged from disappointing to problematic to disastrous —  just over 80% of our train journeys in 12 months.

We’ve travelled (unavoidably) during train strikes and had to deal with rude and unhelpful staff (in France), had our train cancelled, and had to fight for seats on later trains, despite having tickets with seat reservations. We’ve caught trains experiencing technical problems, which have resulted in lost seat reservations and the train being late — several hours in one case. We’ve taken a first class sleeper (without bathroom) on an overnight train that the Trenhotel and many trains in developing countries puts to shame, with a dining car that dished up food that was almost inedible. That train also arrived several hours late.

On most of the journeys (in winter, spring, and summer), trains have ran an average of fifteen minutes late — even in super-efficient Austria — making us miss connections. On most of the trips, second class has been so uncomfortably overcrowded, with people standing in the aisles and leaning into our seats, making it difficult to get comfortable, that on this last 10.5-hour trip we went first class so we would have more space and could continue to work.

On that journey, our seats were in an antique 6-seater cabin, while the 2nd class seats in a significantly more modern carriage had more space and the individual power points we were hoping to find in first. Our seats (naturally) didn’t have power points so we had to move to some that did. The heating went off (it was well below zero degrees Celsius outside and not much warmer in!), and when the crew tried to repair it, they took the power off too. An hour later we had to stop at a rural station so a technician could fix both. The train was 45 minutes late.

These trips were in Europe — in countries like France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Poland. Europe. Not Thailand, Morocco, or Russia, where I’d expect these kinds of problems, and in fact they’d form part of the adventure.

And in Europe — fun aside — train travel is expensive and with the high cost comes high expectations to do with quality of service and operation. Based on this year’s experiences, I’m beginning to think the romance of train travel in Europe is dead. For environmental reasons, I’ll still choose a train over a plane when possible, but I won’t do it with the excitement and enthusiasm I once did.

Have you travelled by train in Europe recently? What have your experiences been like? Do you think the romance of train travel in Europe is dead? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tips to Travelling by Train in Europe

Buying Passes/Tickets

If you’re booking a series of journeys or a complicated itinerary across Europe, we definitely recommend consulting experts like RailEuropeUK (which we’ve been using) to buy your tickets. It’s saved loads of headaches researching routes and timetables, which we’d started to do using various online resources. They’ll advise you if you’re eligible for rail passes — and whether a pass or individual tickets makes most sense financially. You can book online and they will post you all your tickets before you leave home.

When to Travel

Try to avoid travel during strikes, extreme weather, holidays, and weekends. We’ve done all of the above this year and we’ve experienced missed connections, overcrowded trains, and technical problems that have resulted in confusion over seating, lost seats, and no seats despite reservations. Travel mid-week, off-season, in more temperate weather, and try to build in some flexibility to your itinerary to allow for strikes.

How to Travel

If you’re on holidays and are content to read a book, second class is probably fine — but pay the small amount for seat reservations (it’s no fun standing for a four-hour journey). If you need to work on your laptop or want to entertain the kids with movies, you’re better off paying extra for first class tickets. Do check what kind of train it is and exactly where your seats are, as second class in a modern train can be more comfortable than first class in a six-seater cabin in a carriage that should be at a train museum. Unless you’re a family or group of friends taking the lot of course.

What to Take

If you must travel by train in Europe during strikes and busy periods, try to travel light. There has been little if any room to store luggage on most of the trains we’ve taken and we’ve had to chase our bags down the aisle (those four-wheeled ‘Spinner’ bags are called spinner for a reason). Also take something to eat and drink as sometimes the dining car can be at the opposite end of the train and almost impossible to reach on an overcrowded train.

RailEuropeUK ( has provided most of our train tickets this year and they’ve been super and we highly recommend them. Unfortunately they have no control over how train companies run their trains. A pity.

There are 21 comments

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  1. Antonio

    I haven’t traveled on trains in several years, in fact I have been flying for living for over 15 years now, so my romantic memories of train travel are still glued to my mind and have the appeal of how nice it was to travel that way when I had no money to fly and the world I could see was much closer (Europe) than the one I would have loved to see (the rest of the world).
    Reading your report now makes me feel sorry for you in the first place and ashame for the decay of services in many fields in many countries of what was once the most sought after and appealing region of the world to live in. There is this unhappy economic trend to ask everyday more from a client in terms of money, more from an employee in terms of service, while cutting costs to such a level tha makes providing a sustainably agreeable and decent service pure utopia. And this in the name of competition. Is that fair? I don’t know, as I am not an economist. However, the feeling one gets is that such romantic and appealing things like the kind of Train travel you mentioned seem to disappear and this is a big shame and a big loss. Finding little treasures like the spanish ride you mention becomes than unparalleled information for conosseurs who love travelling at a more human pace and love to experience travel with a more acceptable degree of comfort that makes it unforgettable and very enjoyable. I’d love to go back to “slow” travel with my wife, as we approach a new phase in our life, made of more quality time for us and less time devoted to work. Therefore, jumping off airplanes to jump on trains for the same environmental reasons you prever a train over a plane sounds appealing to me. But with your recount in mind…well, I should be thinking about it twice, when it comes to go somewhere next time.
    Ciao, ciao! And Happy New Year!

  2. Susana

    I hope it’s not dead! I am dreaming of doing train travel in Europe during 2011!!! Just love staring at the window and discovering beautiful landscapes…

    Big hugs and Happy New Year from Spain!

  3. Lara Dunston

    Ciao Antonio

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment – much appreciated.

    Technical problems on trains, shoddy interiors, rude/disinterested staff can all be put down to the things you mention, and the overcrowding on trains this year may be a result of the airline problems (all year? Hmmm… I don’t know about that).

    But one thing they need to do to improve the experience is only sell tickets for the seats available. People standing in aisles and sitting on the floor is expected on suburban trains, but not on a 3-4 hour journey. And as I said, it doesn’t bother me one bit if I’m in India or Bolivia or Thailand, but when you pay 100 euros more or less for a ticket, it’s not acceptable. Let’s hope things improve.

  4. Prêt à Voyager

    Train travel will never be dead in my mind. As a kid I rebelled against it as my father is so gung ho about it, but with age I’ve embraced it. I clearly am a product of my father (although I have not memorized train timetables around the world like he has). Even with delays, the ability to walk about is far more appealing that many of the airline horror stories these days (ie. stuck on the tarmac for hours, no thank you!).


  5. lara dunston

    Your dad memorizes train timetables?! 😮

    Definitely love that ability to move around, though only got to do that recently in 1st but 2nd was so crowded could not even get through the cars to get down to the bistro car, people sitting on floor etc. I’m hoping that this year has just been particularly horrendous due to all the strikes and the horrific weather and the volcano and airline/airport chaos and next year will be better. But I do think European train co’s have to get their act together. They all need to model themselves on Spain’s RENFE in my opinion.

    We did have a few experiences that were like waiting on the tarmac, one just a few days ago where we waiting at a station in the middle of nowhere (maybe somewhere near the Polish-German border) so they could fix our heating/electricity (and that was on an ICE train, though admittedly our car was an antique compared to all the others, and on an overnight train from Venice to Paris we spent a few hours parked God knows where in the middle of the night, while they fixed something, though they never told us what it was. That was the train that was a few hours late…

  6. josephine

    I hope not! My father worked for an airline, so growing up I was lucky enough to go on a lot of overseas flights that I always remember as being super fun, but now that all the fun of air travel has all been sucked away, it’s up to train travel to keep the romance alive. Sure, depending on the country and train line, experiences will vary, but there is also the added bonus of meeting interesting people on a train and the possibility of spontaneity if you decide to disembark in a city before your original destination. The movie Before Sunrise couldn’t have happened on an airplane, right? And that’s one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen 🙂

  7. Johanna Bradley

    On a lighter note- we had an “interesting” train journey across Poland last August. Our Polish family were aghast that we wanted to travel by train- my 15 year old nephew had never been on a train in his life (that’s what the family car’s for isn’t it?)- but we wanted to save them time and money in a round trip from Central Poland to Krakow.
    We were certainly unprepared for the extremely antiquated station at Piotrkow Trybunalski and the busy level crossing with no gates in sight! The train rumbled in. Did you mention power point? I don’t think so- not on this beauty anyway. Still, it took off at fine speed and we were suitably impressed. We were halfway there at Czestochowa in an hour. Alas we somehow then became a slow train, and, after a 20 minute interval, chugged the rest of the journey in 3 hours!
    Ah well- we saw lots of trees! Fortunately we weren’t in a hurry and didn’t have a connection to make. A previous train journey in Poland from Krakow to Warsaw had been extremely efficient so it obviously just depends where you live. I still love gazing out of the window at the passing landscape and judging from some of your photos there were plenty of beautiful sights to see.

  8. Lara Dunston

    That’s hilarious! Their attitude as much as the journey! Yes, we took the train from Warsaw to Krakow about 4 years ago and it was perfectly fine. I honestly think train services have deteriorated this year, perhaps as a result of all the air chaos and increasing pressure on trains, plus the weather, etc. Yes, it was certainly a winter wonderland out there!

  9. lara dunston

    Oh so do I, Josephine! I really do! I’m hoping we’ve just had the worst luck ever this year when it comes to rail travel, that we can blame it on the volcano and planes!

    I’ve definitely met lots of people on trains, and we met a lovely father and son on a recent trip. Terry and I also did the spontaneous jump off the train once too. You know, I think it was Pisa, Italy. It sounded so awfully touristy and we were going to go straight through but then we hopped off as the train was about to leave and it was one of the best decisions we’d ever made – it’s a heavenly town after all the tourists have gone in the evenings.

    And agree about Before Sunrise! LOVED that film! Terribly romantic… okay, I have some hope now… THANK YOU!

  10. Deborah Harmes

    Oh my — and here we are in Amsterdam, about to embark on a year (at least!) of travel and work around Europe doing a bit of this and that with lots of writing and photos in between. And we HAD planned to use the European trains which we both fondly remembered from our last extended time over here 17 years ago. Gads Lara, it sounds like things have changed drastically if they sell tickets for seats that aren’t even there and people are standing in the aisles!

    Granted, between volcanic eruption and strikes and severe weather events, the trains have been forced to deal with frantic and grumpy travellers. But there really isn’t any excuse for poor maintenance and unkind attitudes towards the customers that are paying their salaries.

  11. Zita

    Yeah, in Hungary the trains are shit (dirty) and expensive. If I travel from Budapest to my home town Szeged, I always go by train but thank God my workplace pays 80% of my ticket! 🙂

    Couple of years ago they introduced InterCity trains in Hungary. These are a bit more comfortable and nicer than normal trains. The idea with introducing InterCity trains were to reduce the time of journeys. For example between Budapest and Szeged, the train only stopped in Budapest, Kecskemet (halfway between the cities) and Szeged and the journey lasted 2 hours 15 minutes. Of course the price of the ticket was higher then traveling on a normal train.

    What happenes today? MÁV (Hungarian Railway Co.) still calls this kind of trains InterCity but between Budapest and Szeged the train stops at 6 places instead of 1, the time of the journey is longer now (but they still call it InterCity) and of course the prices were increased year by year! That’s why I don’t travel now with InterCity because there’s no point paying more if the service I get is exactly the same as I get on “normal” trains.

    I only speak about the train ride between Budapest and Szeged. There can be better service amongst other cities.

  12. Zita

    I traveled through Morocco by trains. The train system in Morocco is wonderful. Trains are clean, aren’t late. When I was there in 2008 all the stations were under renovation in Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, Fes. I can imagine they look really nice now!

    Do you know where I would love to travel by train? In Japan! Trains can be so fast, clean and accurate. Do you have any train ride experience from Japan?

  13. Terence Carter

    Funny you should mention the trains in Morocco. The one we wanted to take wasn’t running and they couldn’t tell us when the train would start running again, so we had to take a flight! Can’t say we didn’t try!
    Re Japan, our first overseas experience in train travel was in Japan – fantastic.
    We caught the train this year from Tokyo to Osaka. Brilliant. And those lunch packs! Love it.
    Thanks for your comment.

  14. Keith Kellett

    So far, I have the Caledonian Sleeper, Eurostar and the Ghan under my belt … and that’s just the long distance trains! Many more to come, I hope!

    If you haven’t already read it, can I recommend to you the excellent ‘Around India in 80 Trains’ by Monisha Rajesh. She really captures the buzz of rail travel

  15. Lara Dunston

    I haven’t read Monisha’s book yet, but she was doing that trip in 2010 when we were doing our big yearlong Grand Tour and I followed her avidly. I think I need that kind of experience again to restore my faith in everyday train travel. Love the luxury trains of course, the Aussie trains like The Ghan and we did a wonderful Epic Thailand trip on the Eastern & Oriental Express too. We had some real adventures on Russian trains and still dying to do the Trans Mongolian of course.

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