A developed, affordable railway network is one of the best adverts for any tourist destination. The Americas and the UK should take note.
My pre-Christmas getaway always has the same incredulous prologue: staring at the booking engine of thetrainline.com, wondering why the ticket from London to Glasgow costs so much and why – allowing time for two train changes – my weekend journey will be only 15 minutes shy of the average six-and-a-half-hour flight from Heathrow to JFK.
I see a developed first-world railway system as a badge of civilisation. The Japanese do it with such aplomb – but then they invented the electronic paperless toilet, which I view as an even greater badge of civilisation. Continental Europe has it largely sewn up: you can spend weeks riding up and down the boot of Italy, through the fairyland of the Alps and around the chateaus of France. Even rough and tumble India, which operates its railways in the style and fashion of a Monty Python tableau vivant of Hieronymus Bosch, famously has a network that allows the traveller to travel affordably from A to B to C.
I love taking the train. On the Orient Express I dined at a table with a 95-year-old woman wearing a diamond tiara and an ermine stole. On the West Highland Line I felt my cynicism melt at the scenery while I tucked into my M&S lunch. On the Ghan train crossing Australia’s Red Centre I marvelled at the sight of bush-fire flames licking the outside of my carriage. Adventures all. Less dramatically, but of no less importance, countries with user-friendly railways invite you to explore them. When I plan a trip, I look at what’s possible without car or flight from my point of arrival. I extend – or contract – the time I plan to spend in that country accordingly. If you want tourists, give them a modern, enjoyable, ecologically sound mode of transport.
The UK’s railways are inconsistent and expensive. In the US and much of South America they are largely non-existent. Want to see all the Niemeyer architecture in Brazil? Prepare to dig deep – distances are immense, there are no trains and air travel is extortionate. Want to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco? An equivalent of the Shinkansen (inaugurated in Japan in 1964) would take two hours. Instead, you get to take your shoes off for the Transport Security Administration. Granted, Obama is trying to fast track California High-Speed Rail – but why hasn’t it existed for decades? As for the rest of the US, it takes four days to cross country, and if you request a second complimentary beverage in first class on the oh-so-slow Amtrak service from Boston to New York the attendant looks at you as if you’ve offered him violence. Not good enough.
If the Americas lack the logistics, the UK lacks the will. The threat of Virgin losing its rail franchise and the suggestion it would prioritise London to Manchester flights is dispiriting. The way Government treats the railways, you’d think that they don’t see anywhere outside of London as relevant at all. At the same time, billions are being spent on Crossrail, seemingly to expedite the journey of Romford shoppers with a penchant for the Primark mothership, while destroying large swathes of historic Soho to make it happen.
For overseas travellers to the UK, first and last impressions of the country’s rail networks must leave a sour taste. Try to buy a ticket at Heathrow for central London and you’re faced with a bewildering, expensive array of post-privatisation options. Then there’s departure: I flew out of the capital’s other main airport recently, catching the train from London Bridge to Gatwick and assuming my London Oyster card would cover a “London” airport. At the other end, I joined the queue headed by a representative of Southern Railway, who collects a £20 fine from every customer who thought the same thing – no excess fare option, no discretion used. When I contacted Southern’s head office, they refused to disclose how many £20 fines they issue a day, but Twitter gripes suggest plenty of travellers have been stung. A great business model for them but a ghastly last impression of the UK for the traveller, and a very British way to run a railway.
Mark C.O’Flaherty is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civilian, an irreverent, new online publication fusing luxury travel, the arts and design. For updates of its latest stories follow @CIVILIANglobal .