So what if British trains are slow? They are only catching up with the rest of the world

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The Independent Travel

I do hope that there are some foreign tourists enjoying Britain's slow trains at the moment. Retired Americans, say, or mellow Australian backpackers. People who stay relaxed while looking out of windows at stationary British landscapes.

I do hope that there are some foreign tourists enjoying Britain's slow trains at the moment. Retired Americans, say, or mellow Australian backpackers. People who stay relaxed while looking out of windows at stationary British landscapes.

This is not to wish harm to foreign tourists. It is just to say that these are the only people who might actually be enjoying the experience of, say, spending entire nights on trains travelling between London and Nottingham (as opposed to the locals, most of whom probably want to string themselves up from the nearest broken signals).

Swedes, I hope, are already cracking jokes with Spaniards about funny British trains (maybe they will re-run the one about the man asking if he has the right platform for today's train. The guard replies: "No sir. This is yesterday's train. Today's train comes tomorrow") Commuters will not laugh, but if you are a Swede or a Spaniard, there is at least a chance that you will board your British train smiling contentedly at the ancient truth that timetables are not the only thing in life.

We are always reading in guidebooks, after all, about the pleasure of catching trains "just for the experience of it". How about the famous "toy train" to Darjeeling in India, for example, which takes an entire day to trundle up a miniature-gauge railway, along a route that can be covered in no time at all by bus? Everyone agrees (except, presumably, for local commuters) that the train is the only way to do it - because of the funny clanking noises and the sheer nostalgia the ride evokes.

Then there was the excellent direct train that, until recently, still ran between Athens and Istanbul. The only reason for getting on this train was the time it took: between one and two days (not precise enough for you? Go by bus then). What I particularly liked was that it was slightly slower than the same scheduled train service had been at the time of the Ottoman empire.

It is the same with all the great train rides. Yes, some of them are very long journeys. But what makes them really "great" is their slowness. The Trans-Siberian may be the longest railway in the world, but by any standards a whole week to get from Moscow to Vladivostok is a hell of a long time. A French TGV covering the same route could do it in not much more than a day.

My own favourite place for extremely slow trains used to be Spain. It was as recent as the late-1980s that I enjoyed the pleasure of taking the longest domestic train journey then available anywhere in the European Union, between Barcelona and Granada. Timetabled at an astonishing 18 hours, it was none-too-convenient for a quick business meeting. But for a tourist, creeping down the coast to Valencia, moseying inland across the plains of La Mancha to Ciudad Real, then meandering south through places like Valdepenas and Baeza... well, what could be better? The Spanish state train company, Renfe, seemed to understand this, deliberately slowing the train down the nearer you got to your destination. The last stages, inching between the barren hills of Andalucia, gave tourists a spooky feeling that they were coming to the last place in the world.

But that has all changed. These days Spanish trains have become so speedy that there is no fun in them any more. Riding to Andalucia is getting to be a lot faster than riding to (say) Nottingham. I don't see why British train operators cannot capitalise on this, and start making a virtue out of their slowness. At least it will please the tourists.

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