Tips for rail travel

KTX high-speed train, South Korea

Before airplanes and automobiles exploded onto the scene, rail travel was virtually the only way to travel cross-country. In some parts of the world, such as Europe and much of Asia, it's still one of the standard modes of city-to-city travel, and in others (e.g. North America) it remains as a fairly popular alternative. It lacks the speed of air travel on longer distances and often the density of coverage of the road network, but compensates with space to move around while someone else does all the driving. It's also more comfortable than air travel, especially in terms of legroom and to those who don't like the thought of being suspended 30,000 feet above the ground. For distances between about 100 and 800 km it may be the fastest method of travel, especially if you need to go from city center to city center. A rough first estimate is that a train is faster than a competing air-service if it takes three and a half to four hours or less, as getting on a train usually doesn't require being at the station more than some fifteen minutes prior to departure. For longer distances it takes longer than travelling by air, but provides you with a ground-level view of the territory you're visiting, and allows you to stop on the way. Prices range from cheaper than even a full car in some countries that highly subsidize public transport to comparable to (or even higher than) cheap airline-tickets in other countries that want their railways to generate revenue or have privatized them. In some cases both at the same time, depending on the level of service and the time you book.

Ticketing

When to travel

Sleeper services

Russian 3rd class sleeper, also known as Platzkart
See also: sleeper trains

In most countries there will be sleeper services at night. While you will usually pay a premium for the accommodation, you also possibly safe on a hotel and "lose" less time in transit even if the total travel-time might sometimes be higher (in some countries sleeper-trains have lower maximum speeds than regular trains). Consider investing in a couchette or sleeper compartment, which are often cost-competitive with lodgings for the night. A couchette cabin has around 6 beds for sleeping and no other facilities, while a full-fledged sleeper will have two to four beds and possibly bathing facilities like a sink or shower.

Using sleeper services may have some drawbacks:

At the station

Boarding

On board

Accommodation on board

Food on board

Stay safe

Keep in mind that trains are an extremely safe mode of transportation. The Japanese Shinkansen has not recorded a single fatality in 50 years of operation. The last deadly accident on a German high-speed train was in 1998 and the reason for that accident has been eliminated. That being said, there are some ways to increase your personal safety

Emergency brake to the right, emergency hammer to the left; notice the small seal on the brake to detect misuse
the system on a German ICE

Speed of travel

By region and country

We have more detailed guides on rail travel in these specific countries/regions. Other than that the "by rail" subsections of the get in and get around sections usually provide the information where more detail is not needed. If you know more about rail travel in a specific area, don't hesitate to plunge forward.

Asia

China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have extensive and well-developed railway networks. Japan's iconic Shinkansen was the world's first ever high speed train, and for a long time was the only such railway line in Asia. However, China, South Korea and Taiwan have since jumped on the bandwagon and now possess modern high-speed rail lines along their main business corridors. In particular, China has invested heavily in quickly building up its railway infrastructure, and now boasts the longest high-speed rail network in the world. While India boasts a long network of regular train lines and some luxury tourist trains, high speed rail has thus far never gotten farther than anouncements and plans.

Outside of East Asia, many railways have fallen into disrepair and are merely relics from the pre-WWII colonial era. In many cases, poorly maintained infrastructure means that travelling by bus can be faster than taking the train.

Further information is available about several specific routes:

Europe

Especially in Western and Central Europe, trains are fast, efficient and cost-competitive with air travel. High-speed trains like the French TGV, the German ICE, the Spanish AVE and the cross-border Eurostar and Thalys services speed along at up to 320 km/h (200 mph) and, when taking into account travel time to the airport and back (as well as security and tediously long boarding procedures), are often faster than taking the plane. The flip side is that tickets bought on the spot can be expensive, although there are good discounts available if you book in advance or take advantage of various deals. In particular, the Inter Rail (for Europeans) and Eurail (for others) passes offer good value if you plan on traveling extensively around Europe (or even a single region) and want more flexibility than cheap plane tickets or advance purchase train tickets can offer.

The most extensive and most reliable train travel planner for all of Europe is the one belonging to the German railways (DB). Keep in mind that you can buy any train ticket from their website - as long as it begins or ends in Germany.

For further details of European rail travel, see:


Information about specific routes:

North America

Although it once held much of the continent together, and remains useful for local travel in many metro areas, intercity train travel in the U.S. and Canada now ranges from relatively convenient in the Northeast Corridor, to manageable in California and parts of southeastern Canada, to sparse in other parts of the continent. If you prefer to travel by rail, it's still possible (depending on where you go), but it usually offers neither speed nor convenience. Passes allowing several journeys to be made within the same country are available, but cross-border passes have been phased out. Many train stations do not have ticketing agents, or have agents for brief periods at the time the train is scheduled to arrive. At smaller unmanned stations, you may be able to use a ticketing machine, or may be required to purchase your ticket onboard. You may also purchase tickets online or by telephone.

Mexico only has two token lines left besides a few suburban train services and metro systems. Plans to build a new high speed rail line were canceled due to the recent drop in oil prices, one of Mexico most important commodities.


Trains still serve an important role in some parts of the Caribbean. In addition, tourist and scenic trains can be found on St. Kitts and Jamaica. Almost all trains on the Central American mainland have ceased operations and those that do still exist provide touristic rather than transport benefits to most people. However talks to revive some lines or build new ones have only been cut short by the recent global economic downturn, and this might change again in the future.

Oceania

Rail travel was the dominant form of long distance travel in Australia up to the 1950's. However, the popularity of private car ownership after World War II resulted in the decline of railways and these days, Australia's rail network is only a shadow of its former self. Many lines have since been abandoned, and the only intercity commuter lines remaining are the ones that link the "big four" cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to the nearby country towns.

Today, rail travel in Australia is a rather expensive proposition and it isn't all that fast either. This is somewhat less true for the more populous east coast. Most lines were built with freight in mind and passenger service has long been an afterthought. That said, a journey by rail from one end of the continent to the other is one of the last adventures and with comfortable sleeper trains a luxurious one at that.

In New Zealand, rail travel is neither common nor fast, with the exception of some commuter lines around Auckland and Wellington, which together have the lion's share of all rail ridership in the country. Nonetheless, a trip on one of the four (yes that's the total number for the whole country) long distance routes offers breathtaking views of the scenery and a way to get around in style road or air transport can't compete with. A few heritage railways also exist and make the journey itself the destination.

See also


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