The Romance of the (European) Rails

A Train Primer for First-Timers and Old Hands
By Nicolas Clifford

Travel by train occupies an important place in the North American psyche: Rails opened the West, drove the industrial revolution, unified Canada, won the Second World War . . . Our parents and grandparents crossed the country by train as a matter of course in curtained sleeping cars, vista domes, and elegant dining cars. But the politics of the 1950s and the power of the auto industry ushered out the age of the train in North America while in Europe it soldiered on.

French trains reached 125 miles per hour in the 1960s, 160 mph in the 1980s, and 175 mph in the 1990s. The 200-mph barrier will fall soon, perhaps broken by the Spanish even before the French get to it. The safety record is perfect: Not a single passenger has ever died in a high-speed train wreck. Contrast that with the 40,000-plus killed on American roads every year. Better yet, speedy trains turn out to provide a service no other vehicle can manage. If New York and Boston were in Europe, they would be 90 minutes apart and the ticket would cost $40. When it takes you that long just to make it to the airport, you wonder just what the Happy Days crowd was thinking when they turned away from trains.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Trains serve city centers. Airports don't, and highways gut them. Has Europe kept its beautiful and vibrant urban cores intact because it kept its trains? Or are trains necessary because the cities are so important?

As a traveler, you have made the decision to travel Europe by train, and it is a richly rewarding one. You have in store unparalleled scenery, contact with local cultures, and romantic arrivals and departures from glorious urban epicenters. In daylight you can travel fast. Overnight you can curl up in a bed and sleep away the trip to make the most of your time at the endpoints. Or, travel slowly. Swiss and Austrian local services climb every Alp, wending their way through meadows of wildflowers in the shadows of snowcapped peaks, views unsullied by the detritus of the roadside strip mall. Gaze out the window of your Danish express at thatched-roof farmhouses nestled in golden fields of grain under endless Baltic skies. Little country stations are just feet from the select beaches of the French or Italian Riviera, while the"rich and famous" (and none-too-bright) stew in their fancy cars, waiting out eternal traffic jams on impossibly choked access roads.

European trains serve virtually every village and town you will want to see, and their stations are the focal points of the services you will need: economical hotels, tourist information offices, gathering points for the night crowd, luggage lockers.

Unfortunately, using trains is not always simple. This is especially true if you are not European and have opted for the famous Eurailpass, a special ticket supposedly entitling the holder to unlimited rail travel for a specified number of days.

The following hints, in addition to our Eurail Overview, will make you a more savvy rail traveler, and help you to get the most from your vacation:

What You Need (Besides Your Railpass) to Actually Ride a Train
"Dos" and"Don'ts" of Using Your Railpass
Tricks to Get the Most out of Your Railpass
How Your Railpass Can Get You to Places It Doesn't Go
One Pitfall to Avoid as You Use Your Railpass

Bon Voyage!

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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