I have a rule that I have to catch a train in every country that I visit. Usually that’s not a problem as public transport is our preferred option when travelling overseas. Sometimes, it’s a bit more of a deliberate effort. Of the twenty-three countries I’ve visited so far in my life I’ve caught trains in each.
As my home country I have had lots of opportunities for riding the rails. In fact, I used to spend around four hours a day, five days a week, riding Sydney’s suburban train network to work and back. However, I’ve done a lot more than that, from the West Coast Wilderness Railway in Tasmania to the Kuranda Scenic Railway in North Queensland, I’ve caught trains in every state and territory that I’ve visited, bar the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where I’ve yet to go. As a young kid I would stay awake all night as we rode the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide and as a student I would take 36 hour rail journeys between Canberra to Rockhampton in Queensland, passing through New South Wales in between. Thus was set my obsession for railways as a fundamental part of travel.
Our stay in Austria was brief, a single night in Salzburg in September 2004, as we travelled between Munich and Venice as part of an epic railway journey around Western Europe. That was enough to explore the historic town and ride the funicular up to Festungsberg overlooking it, but fortunately not long enough for a Sound of Music tour.
Three times have I been to Belgium, but the last was not part of our planning. On our tenth anniversary trip we rode the trains from the wonderful medieval town of Ghent to Amsterdam, changing at Antwerp. Unfortunately, my wife left her small bag containing her purse on the seat. The Dutch train attendant on the subsequent train was doubtful we’d see it again, but contacted Belgian railways for us. We were indeed lucky and they found the bag. We had to alter our return journey from Paris to Amsterdam to stop off at Brussels and it up from their lost and found office.
A luxury sleeper train took us from Hong Kong to Beijing, a journey of around 24 hours. Though the décor was reminiscent of an eighties hotel, the twin beds were comfortable and there was plenty of storage and the compartment was fully lockable. The only negative is the lack of our own bathroom and toilet facilities. There is a dining car with local staples, our dinner is stir-fried beef and crab omelette. The late winter scenery is grey and miserable, crumbling towns and littered lands, though the big cities have flashy glass skyscrapers. It is an interesting and pleasant introduction to China. The next long distance train ride was not as pleasant, a local soft sleeper from Yichang to Nanjing, sharing with a nice elderly couple but with hordes on unticketed passengers attempting to squeeze into the compartment, smoking and talking all night. We decided we’d had enough of the country at that point.
In November 2011 a very comfortable overnight train delivered us to Prague from Amsterdam, the compartment equipped with an upper and lower bunk and a tiny bathroom with shower and toilet. Racing through the misty German and Czech countryside eating a continental breakfast was a wonderful experience. We did not travel outside of Prague, but within it we caught trams, the metro and even a funicular. In keeping with the railway theme, we also visited one of the world’s largest model railway layouts at Kingdom of Railways, before leaving the city on another overnight train to Zurich.
What is Denmark most famous for? Not pastries or Vikings or salami. It’s Lego! And when you are taking your kid (or inner child) to Denmark you have to visit Billund to see Legoland (closed for winter) or Lego House. Unfortunately there’s no train all the way to Billund, but we did enjoy a first class ride to Vejle, the nearest station, despite accidentally taking the slower of the trains. We were served bread rolls and jam and there was free sparkling water, tea and coffee on board. On the journey we crossed the same bridge where six people had died when a semi-trailer loaded with empty beer bottles was blown off a freight train and into their passenger wagon only weeks before. Having safely reached Billund ourselves, the Lego trains on display brought back many memories.
After a day visiting Santa Claus (Joulupukki) at Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle it was time to head back to Helsinki. Our second level first class sleeper was probably the nicest and cleanest that we had ever ridden, with bunk beds, a very nice shower and toilet. The cabin’s warmth was welcome after the -19 Celsius temperatures out on the platform. We had ridden the train up from Helsinki the day before, but this was definitely a step up in luxury.
Our honeymoon was in Paris and our first French train was the one from the airport. I got caught with my luggage in one of the too-fast ticket gates as I tried to switch trains to reach our little hotel in the Pigalle. We’ve returned to France three times since, speeding along in the TGV, feeling a little motion sick, or taking a regional train to St Malo or Nimes. We’d go back in a heartbeat and we’d certainly be catching the trains while we are there.
Amazingly, we’ve only been to Germany once in all our visits to Europe, back in 2004, which is a little strange considering that my introduction to model railways was a Maerklin train set given as a gift when I was one year old. On the first day we rode the trains along the scenic Rhine and Mosul Valleys from Frankfurt to Trier and back, saw Tornado jets race alongside while we struggled with jetlag. But without doubt our favourite place that we visited in Germany was Rothenburg ob der Tauber. To get there we caught the train from Frankfurt to Wurzburg, stopping to explore for a couple of hours, before continuing on a airy regional railcar set through lovely green forests until we reached medieval Rothenburg. It was the day of the city festival and residents were dressed up in period costumes, there was music and stalls and, at night, fireworks. It was the highlight of the trip.
The train from Salzburg to Venice passes some incredible scenery. The Alps and Italy’s Dolomites. Yet I shall always remember it to the music track of Journey to Transylvania from Alan Silvestri’s score to Van Helsing, for that was playing through my headphones. Venice is somewhere to see at least once in your life, but we also caught trains to Florence, Pisa and Milan. The latter ran quite late, a bit of a shock after the precision of Germany (though that seems to have disappeared lately).
Of all the railway systems in the world, Japan remains both my favourite and my most travelled. Not only their super fast Shinkansen bullet trains, but the tiny rail motors that chug their way through sparsely populated rural areas to tiny towns. In July 2017 I realised a dream and rode the Japanese railway network to its farthest compass points, from Wakkanai and Nemuro in the north and east of Hokkaido, to Sasebo and Makurazaki in the east and south of Kyushu. But many lines in Japan are under threat of closure as the population ages and moves to the largest cities. I hope to catch them while I can.
On my first trip overseas I caught the train from Johor Bahru at the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula to the capital Kuala Lumpur. We then continued on by rail to the northern city of Butterworth in Penang. Seated the entire way, we suffered the terrible program selection and adverts on the carriage screens, as curry puff sellers called our “Karipap! Karipap!” as they walked through the trains. More recently I repeated the journey on the modern electric ETS, both faster and more comfortable. The last leg, from Gemas to JB was still on a locomotive hauled train as shown in the photo.
Despite being a worthwhile place to visit in its own right, Amsterdam has been a transit stop for us, a place to transfer trains with a destination of elsewhere, to stay before a flight home. On our previous visit we spent a night at the A-Train hotel, decorated with railway paraphernalia and toys for our young kid. Then the next day it was on to a train to Schipol Airport, on the first leg of our journey home.
On our only visit to New Zealand we hired a car to drive around the South Island. At Dunedin we caught the train to Taieri Gorge, a heritage railway. Our journey was delayed as they had to check the tracks in the 22 degrees Celsius “heat”, but eventually we enjoyed a very scenic ride into the interior. I’d love to go back one day to see more of New Zealand by rail.
Singapore was my very first international destination and one I have returned to a number of times. The MRT is a very convenient way to get around, but you can no longer reach central Singapore directly on the train from Malaysia as it barely crosses the Causeway bridge separating the two countries before stopping at Woodlands, where you are quickly ushered into immigration. I was fortunate on that first trip to arrive into the old station at Tanjong Pagar. Today, the beautiful Art Deco building lies abandoned and unloved.
Our grand trip to Europe in 2004 included two transit stops in Seoul. On the outbound journey we spent a night in Dongdaemun, staying up late to explore the night markets. The return was a day in between two overnight flights and we were exhausted. Somehow we managed to incorporate a couple of subway train rides to and from the electronics district and overlooking a railway yard. I don’t think we bought anything, but at least we rode a train!
We arrived in Spain on a train from Avignon in France, changing at Portbou for Barcelona. Everyone I talked to knew of someone having their luggage stolen in Barcelona, so I booked us a hotel above the main station to ensure our luggage travelled the minimum possible distance while allowing us to explore this very Gaudi city. It seemed to work. We caught Spanish trains to Madrid and the AVE to Seville, packing in the sights. Our return to Paris was aboard the now defunct overnight Trenhotel in a very tight and stuffy first class compartment. My wife got motion sick, but we still had to connect to another couple of trains that day.
Our train rides in Sweden took us from Copenhagen to Malmo and Malmo to the capital Stockholm. Along the way we stopped at Älmhult, home of the IKEA Museum. Not only is it very interesting, the meatballs are better at their canteen. It was still winter in Europe and the snowscapes were stunning as our train raced along at 200 km/h. Just tonight I was watching a program about the Inlandsbanan and would love to ride that one day.
Switzerland is famous for its scenic railway trains. In 2004 we rode the Golden Pass train between beautiful Lucerne to Interlaken and Geneva. The magnificent scenery was of bright green fields, snowcapped mountains and brilliant blue rivers and lakes. Truly a wonderful experience, but for fellow passengers, the Durries of Melbourne, who noisily chatted about Aussie Rules football the whole way.
Taiwan has embraced its railways as tourist attractions in their own right. Not only do they have a version of the Shinkansen that stretches the length of the island and regular train services serving their major cities, Taiwan has converted a number of rural and industrial lines into scenic railways. The Pingxi Line runs right through the centre of quaint Shifen and when the train leaves visitors launch big paper lanterns into the sky, messages of hope written on their sides. Trains are a wonderful way to explore this fascinating and friendly island.
We’ve travelled from Chiang Mai to Bangkok aboard a frustratingly slow daylight rail car and along a section of the infamous “Death Railway” in Kanchanaburi, but our most memorable train ride in Thailand was the Mahachai Shortline. A local line taking you from a hidden station in central Bangkok, it passes swamps and tiny villages built along the canals, as close to local life as you can get, before terminating in the middle of a market, tracks disappearing beneath the awnings and wares as soon as the train passes.
Surprisingly, the home of the railway has never featured greatly in our travels, serving as a stop off point between Heathrow Airport and the Eurostar to continental Europe more than a destination in its own right. My most memorable railway journey was probably catching the local train between the airport and Earls Court, an early morning ride under blue summer skies, the sound of birdsong in the air. A few years later we stayed right near Paddington Station with our almost-three year old son, a personal connection to the very famous bear of book and screen.
It seems fitting to end this tale in Vietnam, site of my most blatant attempt to incorporate a rail journey in every country. After arriving an spending a night in Ho Chi Minh City our next destination was Hoi An, accessible from the major gateway city of Danang. But rather than fly to Danang directly, we flew further north to Hue and caught a taxi straight to the station. From there, we spent had a long slow ride southwards on what is reputedly the most scenic stretch of the line, hugging the coastline on our way to Danang. Sure it took a lot longer than the alternative, but the train gives you a window into local life that is rarely visible from the road or the air. A train ride is an adventure.