Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

In some countries it's actually a pleasure to take the train

Surely there can be no more civilised way to travel than by train? That thought kept coming back to me on a journey this week; unfortunately, not a rail trip but a delayed and shoddy flight to Turkey. It is never a good omen to board a plane on which some of the seats are shrouded in covers reading "Do Not Occupy".

How, I wondered while failing to doze off, do Britain's leading railway experts organise their summer holidays to maximise the pleasure from railways? So I asked the chaps who compile the Thomas Cook international timetables where they believe the world's best (and best-value) trains are to be found - and, for the record, their precise holiday plans this summer.

What holiday plans? That was the response from both Brendan Fox and Kevin Flynn of the European Timetable. They are staying put for the summer in Peterborough, at Thomas Cook HQ. But they did share their thoughts on the finest railways.

"One of my favourites is the Czech Republic," says Brendan Fox, "because the railway remains very traditional. There are lines to almost every small town and frequent services, no compulsory reservation, good connections all over the network, and plenty of loco-hauled trains. There is therefore lots of scope for touring around and exploring off the beaten track without having to plan everything ahead." From my experience of happy but ponderous journeys on Czech Railways, you don't want to be in too much of a hurry, mind.

"Switzerland," counters John Potter. "No high-speeds à la TGV: instead the Swiss have concentrated on creating and maintaining a service of frequent, regular and reliable trains which interconnect with each other and with all other transport. And that goes for local services just as much as for inter-city operations."

WHICH NATIONAL railway would you imagine offers the best value? Perhaps Italy, where fares are still artificially low, or France with its formidable network of TGVs. Well, the majority view from the European side of the Thomas Cook timetable operation is that Germany wins by a mile.

"For €3,300 [£2,350] you can buy a national railcard (BahnCard 100) granting unlimited rail travel for one year - on a network twice the size of Britain's," says Kevin Flynn. This annual season ticket, with no route restrictions, works out at £6.20 a day to travel anywhere in the federal republic. Kevin's colleague John Potter agrees: "Germany's fleet of ICEs cannot be surpassed for speed, quantity, quality and reliability. And at the other end of the scale the Schones-Wochenende-Ticket (Happy Weekend Ticket) allows unlimited travel on local trains on Saturdays or Sundays for up to five people and costs only £23."

The Overseas Timetable editor, Peter Bass, has different ideas. He says the heavily subsidised US railway network represents excellent value. He calculates that with a 15-day Amtrak pass, price $215 (£117), you could cover 10,697 miles - which works out as just over a penny a mile. And the top trains? "Japan - frequent and reliable services all over and still being improved".

BEST RAILWAY station? Most of the Thomas Cook men go for sheer scale. John Potter nominates "Milano Centrale, with its magnificent architecture frontage, the atrium housing the ticket office, the huge roof covering the long straight platforms that seem to stretch all the way to Rome, and the wonderful Italian atmosphere". His colleague Reuben believes London has the edge: "St Pancras. Such a fantastic building. A huge gothic cathedral of rail built by the Midland Railway" - and soon to become home to the Eurostar terminal. But Kevin Flynn nominates a place I bet you have never heard of, either: Roodeschool, the northernmost station in the Netherlands. Citing Edward Thomas's elegiac poem, he calls it "A kind of Dutch Adlestrop. Perfect for those Greta Garbo moments."

AMONG THE train buffs who are planning a summer holiday this year, the railways barely get a look-in. Peter Bass is heading to Santorini in search of "sun, sand, sea and an active volcano". John Potter is going to Turkey, "somewhere hot with a beach". But he will not be following the route of the original Orient Express to reach Istanbul. Perhaps the airline will have fixed the broken seats by the time he flies.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor