Rail Travel in Europe. Talking Trains Online with The Man in Seat 61

Mark Smith  was a career railwayman, starting work as a British Rail General Management Trainee in 1987, becoming Station Manager London Charing Cross in the early 1990s. Until 2007 he was the Department for Transport’s Rail Directorate (DfT) expert on UK rail fares and ticketing, heading a small specialist team. He now runs his train travel website seat 61 (www.seat61.com) focusing on rail travel in Europe and beyond on a full-time basis

From station manager to website owner: why?

It’s true I used to have a proper job – a career in the railway industry that led me from Station Manager at Charing Cross to head of the Fares & Ticketing regulation team at the Department for Transport. Looking for something to read on the train home from work one day, I found a ‘Teach yourself HTML’ book, HTML being the language in whichwebsites are written.  I started a site, purely as a hobby, to explain how to travel from the UK to almost anywhere in Europe by train. I have always found this easy, and far more practical and affordable than most people think, but finding anyone in the rail industry or travel industry willing to tell you how (let alone sell you a ticket) had become difficult if not downright impossible. The site now gets a million visitors each month, and adverts and affiliate schemes have made it possible to  run the site full-time. Which is just as well, as it’s a monster to update…

Why did you call the website “Seat61”?

When I set out on a special journey, for example London to Tokyo via Moscow & Vladivostok, or to Marrakech via Paris and Madrid, or the Crimea via Warsaw and Odessa, it became a sort of tradition to treat myself to Eurostar’s first class. And I’d always choose a specific seat, to make sure I got one at a table with an unobstructed view from the window.  Seat 61 (in cars 7, 8, 11 or 12) fitted the bill perfectly.

What are your three favourite scenic train routes in Europe?

Only three?  Hmmm… Then I’d have to say the West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig, the Bernina line in Switzerland from Chur to Tirano, and the line from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro. You can’t beat a good mountain or two!

bernina

 

Favourite overnight train and why?

The Elipsos trainhotels from Paris to Madrid & Barcelona have always been a great overnight ride.

Cosy sleepers, including Gran Classe with shower & toilet, a proper restaurant car with starched white tablecloths and all the trimmings, and a cafe bar complete with polished wooden bar and bar-stools. However, direct Paris-Barcelona high-speed TGV trains are due to start soon, taking 6 hours not 12, and the future of these Elipsos sleeper trains is uncertain.

What tips would  you offer on getting the best price tickets for rail travel in Europe?

Most importantly, with only one or two exceptions I’d always book direct with the relevant train operator, not with third party agencies. The reason is three-fold:  First, because the operator’s own website will offer their whole fare range including all the cheap advance-purchase fares;

Second, because you’ll usually pay no added booking fee and can print out your own ticket;  And third, because you’ll get maximum functionality, such as the chance to select an exact seat from a numbered plan. Overseas agencies in your own country may only be able to access the mostexpensive full-flex fares, may add fees, and may not offer a full range of seating options. And as fares in western Europe now work like budget airlines, book early for the cheapest prices. Bookings usually open 92 days before departure.

Why do you have to validate train tickets in France before going on the platform?

In France and a few other countries you have to validate tickets in a small machine at the platform entrance – it prints the time and date on your ticket, indicating that it’s been used, which stops fraudulent re-use or refund.

Will we eventually have direct train services from London to Rome along the Eurostar track?

Not to Rome, perhaps – but Eurostar plan direct trains from London to Amsterdam from late 2016, and German Railways plan direct trains from 2016 between London and both Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

And if you do want to reach Rome, I can recommend a scenic ride from Paris to Milan from just €29, then a high-speed ‘Italo’ train from Milan to Rome from just €30.

The Amtrak rail network in the US tends to get a lot of flak, but how do you think European trains compare with Amtrak?

Americans typically think we have a great network of rail travel in Europe, and talk down Amtrak.  Why? We have nothing here in Europe to compare with Amtrak’s gleaming stainless steel double-deck Superliner trains, with their sleepers, diners and glassed-in observation cars which roll right across a continent. And the scenery on a route such as the Chicago-San Francisco California Zephyr is world class, yet NYC-SF starts at just $212, surely one of the world’s great travel bargains. I’ve crossed the States by train half a dozen times and can’t understand why there isn’t a queue for tickets very day at Penn station!

When travelling across cities such as Paris and London, how long would you allow between arrival at one station and departure from another?

I normally allow at least 60 minutes to change trains and stations in London or Paris. Even though actual transfer time is more like 30 minutes, you need to allow time for orientation and any slight delays.

Do you have a worst train journey story?

Funnily enough, even ‘worst’ train journeys can end up as cherished memories. Such as a trip I once made in Egypt, fromAswan to Luxor on the most filthy, decrepit and delayed 3rd class train. I ended up reading text books to schoolchildren to help them with their English, and discussing village life with a young man who worked as a barman on the tourist cruise boats, as we rumbled slowly past the fields and palm trees of the Nile Valley.

Do you have any views on HS2 – the  controversial proposed high speed rail network from London to Birmingham which will cost over £50 billion?

The planned HS2 route passes just two miles from my house – but if Britain is going to cope with future transport demand, it should be with rail and not more motorways or flights. But I support a route next to the M1 or M40, not the route that’s been chosen.

Given the choice of any railway restaurant or hotel in Europe, where would you eat or sleep?

The celebrated and remarkable Train Bleu restaurant at Paris Gare de Lyon stands out, (www.le-train-bleu.com) – it’s ideal for lunch in Paris between a Eurostar from London and a TGV to Switzerland, Italy or Barcelona, an eatery that also happens to be designated French National Monument. I’m becoming a regular!

As for hotels, the Pera Palas in Istanbul was built by the Wagons-Lits company in 1892 for passengers arriving on the Orient Express. A bargain with faded grandeur for decades, it’s just had a refurbishment, and is no longer faded – or quite  as cheap!

Travelling from London to Paris or Brussels by train from city centre to city centre, what would be the typical time saving over flying? 

In Europe, a ‘one hour flight’ usually ends up taking three or even four hours from centre to centre. Eurostar takes just 2h15 from London to Paris, 1h55 from London to Brussels, with a 30-minute check-in in central London.  But it’s not merely the time saving – it’s the lack of hassle compared to flying, and the fact that you can read, work, or just relax. But then that’s the whole point – by air, it’s mere transportation.  By train, the journey can be an experience in itself. ■

Seat 61: http://www.seat61.com/

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