The ro­mance of trav­el­ling by train any­where in the world is an ex­pe­ri­ence that never fails to en­chant me

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Sorry if you are read­ing this on an over-packed, late com­muter train with failed heat­ing, but, for me, trains are still an un­beat­able ro­man­tic kick. It starts at the sta­tion. I re­mem­ber leav­ing the art’otel in Am­s­ter­dam on a south­bound Eu­rostar head­ing for An­twerp. It wasn’t just the mist ris­ing off the canals and the el­e­gant frosty con­course filled with cheese and flow­ers, it was the seam­less travel. No teeth-grind­ing queues and shuf­fling bar­ri­ers. No board­ing pass in­spec­tions three times in 10 min­utes. No duty frees with silly wind­ing paths and per­fume stench. I turned up my col­lar, strode to my plat­form, greeted my mas­sive and pow­er­ful con­veyance and got on it. I felt like Ja­son Bourne. Lud­lum wrote those ad­ven­tures at a time when trains were still the only way to cover con­ti­nents, full of spies and old ladies solv­ing mur­ders.

But the track still sings its song. From 12ft up, you are lord of the land­scape. Even in the deserts of South Africa, where the scenery is just a tad “samey” for sev­eral days on end, the view from the train win­dow has the slight, vary­ing, hyp­notic qual­ity of a good fire in the grate.

Is there any bet­ter way of pok­ing your nose into the char­ac­ter of the pop­u­la­tion than via their back gar­dens: their swings, their rows of cab­bages, their di­lap­i­dated fences, frosted win­dows and loft ex­ten­sions? You don’t jud­der your way through the worst of a city as you do in a car.

In Bri­tain, of course, we do not talk on trains. Good. We ex­ist, though, on any train, in con­cert with other pas­sen­gers, not jammed on top of them.

It’s why thriller writ­ers needed the rails. Gra­ham Greene, seek­ing com­mer­cial suc­cess, which he found with Stam­boul Train, got aboard and played with the in­evitable con­fronta­tional games­man­ship of the din­ner ta­ble.

There are still sleeper trains. You will have prop­erly trav­elled to Vi­enna if you ar­rive at nine in the morn­ing after a night jour­ney from Cologne with views along the glit­ter­ing Rhine. The Mom­basa overnight train slinks away from the de­serted mu­seum piece of Nairobi cen­tral sta­tion. Only a few ad­ven­tur­ers, back­pack­ers and dead­beats share the cracked and fad­ing sleeper cars. The food was ter­ri­ble but, like most African trains, the con­ver­sa­tion was mem­o­rable.

In Al­ge­ria on the way to Con­stan­tine, I was told I was rid­ing the “Train of Death”. It was a favourite “stop-an­das­sas­si­nate-all-wear­ing-jeans” line for the rebels in the on­go­ing civil war. “Don’t worry,” my fixer told me, “it hasn’t hap­pened for at least nine months.”

Take a train in Switzer­land, and it will ar­rive to the se­cond but if your re­served seat is oc­cu­pied by some smug lout, don’t ex­pect the guard to help you out with much more than a shrug. Cross­ing the Har­dan­ger plateau be­tween Ber­gen and Oslo I was as­tounded by the num­ber of peo­ple who were leap­ing on and off in the white-out of a bliz­zard.

I ad­mit I only ever feel the need to write poetry on a train, es­pe­cially when gaz­ing out over acid green Lin­colnshire marshes. I love to use Google Maps and dis­cover the world just a few min­utes’ walk from the blob mov­ing across the di­a­gram­matic world. I even love stand­ing alone on a plat­form in mid­win­ter in the mid­dle of the night after a gig, wait­ing for that light-filled, warm, gar­ish chunk of re­al­ity to hiss in and carry me home. I love the silly lit­tle sta­tions along the south-coast lines be­yond Portsmouth. I like the or­di­nar­i­ness of a com­muter train in north Syd­ney.

And three weeks ago, I dis­cov­ered that there is no bet­ter place to mas­ter the tunes of a new mu­si­cal than in your own cabin on a four-day long train jour­ney. Though the other pas­sen­gers may not agree. Like boats, trains sup­ply a limbo with the il­lu­sion of pur­pose. It’s an ad­dic­tive al­tered state.

Read more of Griff Rhys Jones’s travel writ­ing at tele­

The ‘Train of Death’ runs to Con­stan­tine sta­tion in Al­ge­ria

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