Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
In some countries it's actually a pleasure to take the train
Saturday 15 July 2006
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.
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