Taking the train

Mark Smith, who runs travel website The Man in Seat 61, told David Hennessy why travelling by rail is a less stressful way to travel and better for the environment.

Recent scenes at Dublin Airport- and airports around the world- have shown the chaos caused by the world returning to international travel after years of little demand.

Having let go off staff they didn’t need when the pandemic left little demand for travel, the airports were ill-prepared for the masses looking to go away for the first time in years causing long queues at Dublin Airport and many to miss their flights.

However, there is a more stress free and greener alternative to airline travel.

Using his website, The Man in Seat 61, Mark Smith has long advocated for rail travel and its benefits over flying.

Although he started the site as a hobby, it would grow so much that it has been his full-time job since 2007 meaning he could leave his previous work as a British Rail manager.

Mark told The Irish World that greater consciousness of the climate crisis and people growing tired of the stresses of flying has led many back to the train.

Mark says: “It’s becoming more mainstream again.

“First of all, this is a grassroots thing.

“It hasn’t suddenly turned up with Greta Thunberg.

“It’s been happening for the last six or seven years even, slowly and building up.

“When I started Seat 61 20 years ago, if people told me why they were using the site to go by train from the UK to Italy, or Spain instead of flying, they would typically say, ‘Well, I’ve got a phobia of flying’. Or, ‘I’m medically restricted from flying’. Or, ‘I know I particularly like trains’.

“And what they now tell me in the same breath is two things that go together: They’re fed up with flying and want a nicer alternative, and they want to cut their carbon footprint.

“And I can’t tell which of those is more important. I suspect for the average traveller, it’s 80-20, 80% fed up with flying, 20% want to cut carbon footprint.

“Maybe for the true eco warrior, it’s the other way around.

“But those two things go together and I think that’s really important, because we’re not telling people to suffer for the sake of the climate, we’re actually saying it’s a nicer way to go.

“I mean, sometimes people say they didn’t know they could go by train. But actually you could go by train to Italy well before the Wright Brothers ever got off the ground.

“So maybe they’ve forgotten. And it doesn’t take weeks to get there. You can get to Italy in a day.”

Mark says that taking the train to Europe removes a lot of the stress and there is a need to level the playing field between air and rail.

“It’s a lot less stressful. Even though you still have a security check for Eurostar, that’s much easier than airports and once you’re on the continent, you just stroll off the street to a city centre station and off you go. And some of the scenic journeys are as enjoyable as the destination.

“People overestimate the time taken by train, and they underestimate the time taken by a flight, because a one hour flight takes three or four hours.

“In fact, even before the pandemic the head of French Railways said that the magic three hours- which railway marketeers have always said is the point at which rail competes with air on a level playing field- Three hour journey time is equivalent to half an hour to the airport, an hour check in, an hour flight and half an hour into the city- He said that that three hours has become four hours, or even five, because of the enhanced security since 9/11.

“Also, because business travellers can use their time effectively now- They’ve all got laptops, and the trains have all got Wi Fi and power sockets, there is a plus point there as well.

“Even for business travel three or four hours or even five is now competitive.

“And for leisure travel, it can be even more.

“In fact, the Germans and French are talking about a direct Paris to Berlin train, daytime train taking seven hours.

“But there are now people who are happy to do that for leisure purposes because they don’t want to fly.

“I think we need to level the playing field because at the moment airlines get no tax or duty on their aviation fuel, which is a massive hidden subsidy.

“People think that flights are commercial but actually there is this hidden subsidy like you or I filling up our car at half price.

“I’m told that fuel can make up to 30% of an airline’s costs.

“30% of airlines cost, they’re currently buying at half price, massive hidden subsidy.

“And some countries have to charge VAT on rail fares, for journeys where there is never any VAT on air fares.

“So for example, the Austrians and Germans charge VAT on top of an international train ticket from Berlin to Vienna but there is no VAT on an air ticket from Berlin to Vienna.

“It’s almost as if the policy was designed to put people onto planes. So we need to level that playing field.

“And we also need to make it a lot easier for people to book long distance international train travel.

“At the moment there are 50 different websites booking different trains across Europe.

“And there is very little in the way of websites that will look for trains for you from all the operators.

“There’s a couple, thetrainline.com and raileurope.com, that do connect to the French and the Spanish and the Italians and the Germans and the Austrians, even they don’t connect to the Hungarians or Bulgarians or the Finns or the Norwegians.

“So there’s a lot to do in making rail travel easier to find out about particularly for longer journeys, particularly for journeys that involve multiple operators, not just one.”

Mark explains what motivated him to first establish the site.

“I love travel. Going places and seeing things is a basic human need, I think, to see what’s over the next hill.

“And if you’re gonna travel, there’s two forms of travel that treat you like a human being not a piece of freight.

“One’s ships, one’s trains. You sleep in a bed, eat in a restaurant, stand up and walk around. You’re not seat belted in, you get to see where you’re going and that’s really important to me, because the journey should be as important as the destination. The journey gives relevance to the destination. Like climbing a mountain to reach the summit, it does matter how you reach that summit.

“So I decided to join the industry and be part of that industry, and never regretted that decision.

“And I started the website, because it was so easy to take the train from the UK to Italy or Spain or Austria or Hungary, but so difficult to find anyone in the commercial world who will tell you how to do it.

“So I thought I’d be subversive and put that information online, never thinking that it would ultimately become my full-time job. I thought at the time, it was just a hobby, a thing I would do, a cry in the wilderness.

“Yes, it certainly has exceeded my expectations.

“Before the pandemic, I had up to a million visitors a month from all over the world.

“It beats real work, it means I can sit at home doing my hobby, and helping people discover the joys of train travel rather than flying, as I have.”

Of course rail travel was affected by the pandemic just like all other travel. But Mark has seen it bounced back.

“The pandemic was the perfect storm. And it was for much of the travel industry.

“Even though I deal with Australians going to Thailand and Americans going to Vietnam and Americans coming to Europe and Brits go to Europe, we couldn’t conceive of a situation where something would stop people from everywhere going anywhere.

“You’d think all your eggs were in many different baskets, and you couldn’t conceive of this perfect storm where all the baskets were affected.

“But that’s what the pandemic was.

“So it was a very tough couple of years for much of the travel industry and indeed hospitality industry.

“But we’re now seeing it bounce back.

“It’s bounced back in Europe quite effectively. All the restrictions and issues with traveling are almost disappeared for traveling around Europe.

“There’s still a few things to watch when you try and go to Thailand or Cambodia or Malaysia.

“And of course, we have a problem with cancelled flights if people need to go to a long haul destination and are going to fly.

“But certainly for traveling around Europe, I think it’s pretty much bounced back.”

There has been a revival in Europe of sleeper services where passengers can sleep on their way to their destination. This is something Mark would like to see more of within the UK.

“People, for climate reasons, want to travel by train rather than plane.

“They increasingly want to travel further by train. And let’s face it, the sleeper train, leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning is a wonderful way you can travel by train over a very long distance- Just as convenient as flying.

“In fact, flying from Paris to Vienna, let’s say, might take five hours out of your schedule by the time you get to airports and checked in.

“Whereas the train leaving at eight o’clock at night, and getting in at 10 o’clock next morning doesn’t really take any more time.

“In fact, some routes can take less time out of your schedule than flying because you’re traveling overnight, plus it’s fun so this has led to a modest revival of sleeper trains.

“Even the French government have got involved reviving the Paris- Nice sleeper, which has suddenly become very popular again, as I knew it would be.

“Caledonian Sleeper operates Glasgow and Edinburgh to London, and Inverness, Fort William and Aberdeen to London, and they’ve just re-equipped with completely new trains over the last few years.

“They’re a very enjoyable way to travel, and a favourite of MPs from Scotland going to Westminster.

“But it’s a shame we haven’t got more sleeper trains. We could do with one from the southwest and Bristol up to Scotland, as there used to be.”

Something Mark brings people’s attention to on the site is the value for money rail-sail tickets that can provide an alternative to Ryanair for travelling between Ireland and the UK.

“These rail- sail tickets between any station in Ireland and any station in Britain are sort of a closely guarded secret.

“But once you know about them, even if you need to go tomorrow, it’s 50 quid and you’re Dublin to London.

“I’ve had to study because I do get a lot of Irish people using the site, and I’ve had to study the ferry options between Ireland and France because that’s another way to go.

“There’s now the Irish ferries sailing from Dublin straight through to oh gosh, is it Cherbourg and you can catch a train to Paris.

“And it’s a floating hotel: Restaurants, bars, private cabin. You sail from Dublin in the afternoon, relax on the ship, have a meal, fleet the night away, you’re into France next morning, catch train to Paris. It’s part of the holiday.”

Mark has seen a massive evolution in his time using Irish trains, describing it as going back in time when he first encountered them.

“I’ve seen it (Irish rail) transformed because when I first went to Ireland in the 1980s, it was like going back to Britain in the 1950s.

“You would travel from Dublin to Galway with ancient diesel locomotives, three steam heated coaches. And I had never seen steam heating on a diesel train before,” he laughs.

“Wisps of steam coming up between each coach and the platform, from the heating system.

“And the locomotive would run around when it got to Galway to attach the other end to go back.

“It was like something out of the 50s.

“And of course, it’s been transformed now with the Hyundai diesel units with air conditioning, and the new fast trains on the Cork run.

“It’s actually a really nice network to travel around on.

“It’s been transformed. And it’s now a pleasure to travel.

“Plus I have to say that the cooked breakfast on the Dublin- Cork route is one of the best I’ve had on the train.”

There have been deafening complaints about the price of car rentals in Ireland. Perhaps Ireland’s rail network could provide an inexpensive way for travellers to get around.

What improvements could be made? “I don’t really think you need a high speed line.

“You just need a bit of settling of the current network.

“It’s a network that’s right for the size of Ireland.

“But more frequency would be good. So building up frequency and building usage would be good.

“For example, Dublin to Belfast should really be an hourly service, that does need to be improved.

“And I think everyone has been saying that for years.”

Mark has witnessed great strides forward in British rail travel up to and including HS2.

“They have been making improvements.

“Over the last 20 years, trains have been getting a lot more frequent, because that’s been the driver: Get more people on, double the frequency.

“The West Coast line has got faster.

“The East Coast main line has got a bit faster.

“And we have got HS2 in the pipeline.

“Originally it was going to add a lot of extra capacity and cut journey times not just to Birmingham, but to Scotland- Three hours 38 minutes from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“But unfortunately, the government has just removed one of the bits of HS2 and scaled back and that’s going to muck up that opportunity.

“So until recently, when we’ve got the rail strikes and stuff, it’s been getting a lot better.

“We’re in a transitional phase at the moment here in the UK, we’ve got Great British Railways being formed as the guiding mind.

“I don’t know at the moment whether they are just going to let the private train companies get on with it and make the odd suggestion or two, which is one extreme, or whether they are actually going to take control, sort out the fares, sort out policies so that it’s all consistent and central with the train companies simply delivering the train service. That’s the other extreme.

“So we don’t know at the moment but it’s an opportunity to sort out things like the fares system, which is completely Byzantine and does need completely reforming from the ground up.

“It’s a massive opportunity but I don’t know whether GBR are going to take it, it’s not clear yet.”

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