The Man In Seat 61 on global train travel, hidden subsidies, and Burmese numerals

Sylvia Bishop: Hello, and welcome to Browser Interviews. Today I am overexcited to be here with Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61 - and his dog Pip, if I heard that right?

Mark Smith: Yeah!

Sylvia Bishop: Mark, thank you so much for coming on. To start with, for our readers who don’t know Seat 61, can you give us a quick overview of what this wonderful project is?

Mark Smith: Well, it’s to help people with train travel. If you want to travel from the UK to just about anywhere in Europe, or around Europe, or indeed by train and ferry around the world, it’s the place to start and have a look at what the options are.

Sylvia Bishop: Yes. I did a quick check and I think you cover every continent except Antarctica, which is reasonable!

Mark Smith: There aren’t many trains there...

Sylvia Bishop: No - I think it’s safe to say you’ve covered all the trains in Antarctica, so well done.

My first question is just: how? How do you go about gathering all that information? What is the day in the life of the man in Seat 61?

Mark Smith: Well, intel comes in through all different sources.

So I’ve got Google Alerts set up for different train-related terms. We’ve got the railway magazines that give news about the rail industry in Europe and the UK and around the world.

And of course, I get lots of feedback from travellers. If something changes or something has happened, you can usually bet that I get an email fairly quickly and can change it on the site.

And that’s really important - become more important actually - getting feedback from travellers from the ground. Because I suddenly realised I cannot get everywhere myself. I tried but it’s not going to happen, is it? So it’s really great to get help from travellers who use Seat 61.

Sylvia Bishop: Well, that’s one of my questions... how much of the year do you now spend on trains, doing on-the-ground research?

Mark Smith: Not enough. I would love to do more. But I’ve got a young family and I have to take care of them. So I get out when I can, and usually try to cram in the maximum amount – I might be going for one particular reason but you can bet that I will take an interesting route and cram in some research along the way.

Sylvia Bishop: And the language barrier? A friend of mine is a Japanologist and she was very impressed by your section on Japanese trains, she said she wouldn’t know where to begin finding that information in the English language. Do you find that a barrier?

Mark Smith: No, not really. A lot of these websites have an English version, and for ones that don’t, there’s Google Translate.

Then of course I have found myself decoding websites in Vietnamese where the English ones weren’t very clear... and indeed I’ve tried Burmese... yes, I got to grips with Burmese numerals when they were the only information I had – because Burmese railways don’t have a website. So yes, I was decoding photographs of time table posters in Burmese to make sure I had the right information on my train travel in Burma page. That was quite fun.

Sylvia Bishop: It brings me to a question I have, as a complete layman about trains. I was looking at the website and you had a long, long, long section on Europe, and a long, long, long section on Asia - and then all of Latin America is over here at this link!

For the uninitiated, what’s the global picture of train travel? Where do we love to travel by train - where are railroads few and far between?

Mark Smith: Well, you've hit on it. South America is not the place for train travel. It has got some very interesting but very disjointed odd railways here and there but nothing that you would call a network, whereas Asia has got a sort of network in a lot of countries.

Europe of course has got a network. Europe and Asia are linked by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Even North America, in the age of the airline and the car, has got a rail network from coast to coast in both the United States and Canada. But South America is the weakest continent.

Africa is not too bad. Southern Africa has a network, although it’s not as quite as coherent a network as it used to be way back in colonial times.

Sylvia Bishop: Do you have any sense of the driving factors there, what makes for a country that falls in love with trains?

Mark Smith: Oh, I think the factors are many and various. That’s a whole subject in itself!

Sylvia Bishop: Sure! OK, so that’s the picture for train travel now. You’ve been running this website for - how long?

Mark Smith: Oh gosh, 20 years.

Sylvia Bishop: 20 years!

Mark Smith: It started in 2001. That’s when I first registered the domain name.

Sylvia Bishop: And have you seen any big changes in how we travel by train over that time?

Mark Smith: Well, the biggest change: when I set it up, if somebody told me why they were traveling by train between the UK and Italy or Spain or Portugal or wherever it was, they would typically say they had a phobia of flying, or they knew they particularly liked trains, or had a medical restriction against flying. That's a bigger minority than people think.

But that has changed, and what they say now is two things - in the same breath - they want to cut their carbon footprint, and they want a nicer, more pleasant alternative to the airport and airline experience. Somehow those two things go together and it has been really noticeable.

And although it has hit the media with Greta Thunberg and so forth in the last year or two, this has been going on for the last four, five or even six years. It hasn’t been a sudden thing.

And it’s a grassroots thing, because it certainly hasn’t come from the travel industry, and certainly not from the rail industry itself. I sometimes wonder whether the rail industry is prepared for all this extra business that they’re going to get.

Sylvia Bishop: Well, that begins to answer my follow-up, which is whether you’re seeing this change in demand impacting the train services being provided? Or have we not reached that point yet?

Mark Smith: Well, in Europe, the problem is that the rail service is quite fragmented. It was a network, and it still is on paper, but you need different tickets for different trains from different operators and different websites. That’s the biggest problem, and part of what I do is help people find their way through that jungle of tickets and websites to make it a good journey.

But one thing that is noticeable: sleeper trains, which have had a very hard time since budget airlines came on the scene - and of course high speed daytime trains - they are making a bit of a comeback.

And as people get more aware of the climate issue and get more fed up with airports and airlines, the distance they’re willing to travel by train increases. So there was a time when three hours was the magic figure. If you could get your train journey down to three hours, you could compete with air travel on a level playing field - because think about it, it’s a half an hour to the airport, hour check in, hour flight, half an hour into the city. That’s three hours. Same as a three-hour train journey.

But since 9/11 with all the extra airport security, that has gone up to four or even five hours - and also because you can use a train productively, with Wi-Fi and plugging your laptop in. I think for leisure travel at least, the climate issue is pushing that boundary even further, shifting the graph even further to the right if you like, of journey time against market share.

And sleeper trains are a way you can cover really long distances by train time-effectively. Leaving in the evening, arrive in the morning. It takes less time out of your schedule than four or five hours of faffing around with airport links and check-ins and flights.

So we’re seeing some new start-ups. We’re expecting to get a Brussels and Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague sleeper train back next year. We’re getting a Paris to Salzburg and Vienna sleeper train back next month and indeed an Amsterdam to Zurich sleeper train by next month. So this is good news.

Sylvia Bishop: It’s great news!

I took the sleeper train from Budapest to Bucharest on your recommendation, and it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had. I think I wrote to you at the time...

I was working on a children’s book that takes place on that journey; and there has been a bit of a spate of children’s books exploring the idea of trains and sleeper trains recently. But for anyone who has not read books aimed at nine-year-olds or been on a sleeper train, what is the experience? Can you paint a picture? Because I was expecting to sort of sit in my train seat and have a miserable time but that was not at all…

Mark Smith: Well, there are ordinary seats, and if you want to sit in one and have a miserable time, I suppose you can! It’s the cheapest option.

But the thing to do is to book either a couchette, which is a flat padded bunk with a rug and a pillow in a four-berth or six-berth shared compartment, and that’s a cheap way of traveling safely locked in a compartment, lying down and sleeping.

Or you can book your own sleeper. One, two or three beds, a wash basin. Sometimes a shower, an ensuite shower and toilet. Sometimes a shower at the end of the corridor. The sleepers have properly made-up beds that convert to a little private sitting room for daytime use and that’s lovely.

I mean, lying in bed between crisp, clean sheets, reading a good book by the glow of your berth light, the steel wheel swishes on steel rail beneath you... That’s a lovely way to travel. And leaving in the evening, arriving in the morning - well, it takes no time at all and it feels really quick, and yet you can cover 400, 500, 600 miles in a night.

Sylvia Bishop: I was brought an orange juice in the morning like I was in a fancy hotel! And it was waking up to a totally different view to the view you’ve gone to sleep at - I woke up in Transylvania and was surrounded by the mountains - and the magic of that moment, when you realise how far you’ve gone in your sleep....

Mark Smith: That’s a lovely journey! And people think you can’t see anything from sleeper trains, but actually on many routes you can when you wake up.

On that particular one, Budapest to Bucharest, you wake up in Transylvania, heading into the Carpathian Mountains which are really Alpine-like. They’re way to the east of the Alps but that’s the impression they give. Fantastic journey.

Sylvia Bishop: Oh, it was stunning. That brings me to what was going to be a closing question, but let’s have it now. What’s your favourite train journey - or is that like choosing between children?

Mark Smith: I have a list!

Yes. I mean my favourite of all is actually really close to home. It’s the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William, and there are various reasons for this. The first is the train itself, a little hotel on rails with a club car. A few haggis, tatties and neeps and a wee dram before you retire to bed. Your own private room, some with ensuite share and toilet; they’ve got some rooms with double beds now on that sleeper train.

The second is the sheer practicality of being able to go to sleep as you head away from the big smoke, London, and then wake up in the middle of nowhere on the West Highland Line surrounded by spectacular Scottish scenery on your way to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. That’s a fantastic journey and it’s not far from home.

Sylvia Bishop: Yes - yes please!

I think we’re doing a pretty good job of persuading anyone that train travel is the way to go. Most people I know now who don’t use it, it’s normally that cost is a barrier, in the bizarre world we live in, compared to flying - especially if they’re booking last minute.

Is there anything we can do about that, or is train transport just more expensive and would need massive subsidising …?

Mark Smith: Well, oh, there are several answers to this!

First, at this point, trains have their cheap fares too. So on the new Lumo train from London to Edinburgh, you get fares from £14.90, you can get a Eurostar ticket from London to Paris from £52  one way or £78 return - and then once you’re in Paris, you can go to Switzerland from 29 euros or Milan from 29 euros or Barcelona from 39 euros. So the cheap fares are there if you know where to look, and book in the right place.

The second thing is that it’s not a level playing field. Airlines pay absolutely no tax on their aviation fuel. Aviation is a very fuel-thirsty businesses. Up to 30 percent of an airline’s cost can be fuel, and letting them off the tax is a massive hidden subsidy.

So trains of course have to pay their energy costs in full with duty and tax on top. It really is a hidden subsidy into the most polluting method.

The last question, the last issue of course is that trains pretty much compete on price for a point to point journey. But if you’re going say London to Malaga, that’s a London to Paris ticket, plus a Paris to Barcelona ticket, plus a Barcelona to Seville ticket. So your daisy chain tickets and that’s – each fare competes with a flight for that sector. But when you add three up, it might cost a bit more.

But the key thing is if you look in advance as you would with flights, it’s affordable.

Sylvia Bishop: Great, thank you. I have a pet theory that British people are shyer of traveling by train because our train systems are expensive, and they don't realise how wonderful it’s going to be on the continent. Does that seem fair? Do you have a sense of which nationalities travel by train more?

Mark Smith: You know, everyone slags off their own rail network. The Americans slag off Amtrack which I love. Crossing the states by train is superb. The Germans, believe it or not, complain about Deutsche Bahn...

Sylvia Bishop: But it's so good!

Mark Smith:... when we think they’re wonderful. And we think our trains are awful when Americans come here and think they’re fantastic.

Now it could be that you’re comparing the commuter train that you travel to work on it every day with the gleaming intercity train that you travel on in a different country. And it could be that you remember the one time it was late on your commuter train to work, whereas when you travel in Europe, you travel once or twice, it’s likely to be on time. So you think it’s always on time.

So you compare it that way. But, yeah, that’s a sort of truism worldwide I think.

Sylvia Bishop: Interesting. Do you have a favourite country to travel by train in? What is objectively, according to Man in Seat 61, the best?

Mark Smith: What’s not to like about Switzerland, with its trains that run like clockwork through fabulous mountain scenery?

But I mentioned the States, and going coast to coast from New York to San Francisco on the Lake Shore Limited changing at Chicago onto the California Zephyr... That is as a three-night journey, three days. But what a journey, 3000 miles through some absolutely superb scenery in the Rockies, in the Colorado Canyons, in the buttes of Utah, the Sierra Nevada in California. And you can do it from around $200, so it need not be expensive.

Sylvia Bishop: That almost brings me to my wrapping up question. But I’ve got to ask, since he's here, can Pip come with you on these journeys? Are there dog-friendly carriages?

Mark Smith: He regularly goes to the Netherlands on the ferry. You can take him on trains in the UK, he's been on trains in the UK. Eurostar don't take dogs. So if he goes abroad, he's got to go on the ferry.

Sylvia Bishop: Aw, OK. More trains for dogs: that is my takeaway campaign from this. But if you could have one wish for train travel... we talked about the aviation fuel competition, or the disjointed rail services in some continents... what do you think would improve our rail experience?

Mark Smith: A single booking system for Europe that would do everything and has all the information in it.

I’m going to add a second one, because I’m greedy like that. Passenger rights whereby your connections are protected, not just with a through ticket, but if you need to make a through journey on separate tickets from separate operators, which these days you often do.

Sylvia Bishop: Yes, because it is stressful when your train is getting delayed and delayed, and you are desperately trying to work out what the next train from your other operator is and whether anyone will wait for you.

Mark Smith: Yeah! Normally they will help you out. But it would be good to have a legal right.

Sylvia Bishop: I had to make a very close connection on that journey, the one that involved the sleeper - it was actually London through to Bucharest, and I remember there was a very close connection where your website said it’s such a famously close connection that they will quite often hold that one for you. Which did actually happen for us. So that was very charming, that they waited.

Mark Smith: That was good!

Sylvia Bishop: Yes! In conclusion, train people are good people, but more trains for dogs.

Thank you Mark. This has been just a delight. Thank you so much for your website - as far as I know it’s a one of a kind, and it makes so much train travel possible.

Mark Smith: Thank you. Pleasure to be on.

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