Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Europe's trains feel the strain due to low-cost aviation
Saturday 05 March 2005
Trains and boats and planes: 40 years ago, that was how Burt Bacharach neatly summed up the basic components of mechanised travel. By 2005, though, the first two are beginning a long, slow decline. Railways and shipping are being left in the slipstream of aviation.
My evidence is drawn from the new editions of those estimable companions, the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and its global counterpart, the Overseas Timetable. They provide help to the surface traveller even in places like Colombia, where - to quote the writer Charles Nicholl: "There are no timetables, only rumours." Life has recently become even worse for train enthusiasts in South America's most magical country. "Services in Colombia are generally suspended at present, as the state railway is bankrupt," report Messrs Cook.
The age of the train appears to be waning in many other countries, too. In Angola, for example, the railways offer two classes, but not the "first" or "standard" that we, er, enjoy in Britain. Instead, you can choose between "second" and "third" - though "most rolling stock is in such poor condition that classification is almost irrelevant".
In Europe, the railways are not about to hit the buffers - not least because of the European Commission's liking for high-speed trains. But as a mark of how much ground is being lost to low-cost airlines, the price of an Inter-Rail ticket is set to fall next month for the first time since the scheme began. And, as another bonus, Bosnia-Herzegovina is this year included in the scheme (the 80 miles from Sarajevo to Mostar pass at a comfortable 30mph).
The tide is ebbing for shipping lines, too. This week it emerged that Hoverspeed has abandoned its fast ferry link between Newhaven and Dieppe. With frequent flights between Italy and Spain, the Salerno to Valencia ferry is a lost cause; market forces have also ended the links from Troon to Belfast and Oslo to Frederikshavn, Denmark. And the Baltic operator VV Line has also gone bust.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Thomas Cook himself organised the first Continental package holiday. The man who would later become the most recognised brand-name in travel believed he could tap into the public's interest in the 1855 International Exposition in Paris. But the train and boat operators were reluctant to help.
"I tried hard to induce the companies commanding the Channel traffic to give me facilities to work with and for them," Mr Cook later recalled. "But they could not or would not see it to be to their advantage to comply with my requests". The only discounts he could secure were on the Great Eastern route via Harwich to Antwerp, and then up the Rhine from Cologne to Mannheim.
Ever the opportunist, he turned this to his advantage, by offering: "A grand circular tour to include Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine and its borders, Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg, and Paris," - an adventure for his customers, and the start of a lifetime of tours for Thomas Cook.
An adventure is guaranteed for overland travellers in Turkey, whether you are on the bus between Istanbul and Ankara (a 275-mile trip with coaches every 10 minutes or so) or the ferry between Istanbul and Novorossyisk ("sailings about every 10 days", according to Messrs Cook). But the comfort of being able to acquire millionaire status for 40p now eludes the traveller.
The Turkish lira, once trading at 2.5m to the £, has suffered the indignity of having not one but six zeroes knocked off its value, and is now worth 40 pence. This should stop rogue taxi drivers taking tourists for a ride: after a trip from the airport, some visitors - befuddled by all the zeroes - paid not 25 million lire (about £10), but a cool quarter of a billion (£100) of the old currency.
Thomas Cook Overseas and European Timetables, March editions, £11 each
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