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A to B [Trains]

November 2, 2012

Second installment in this series about travelling. Growing up in The Netherlands, it never occurred to me that people would travel within the same country by plane. Of course this is commonplace in the US, and maybe even in larger European countries, but it would be silly indeed to travel even between the furthest two Dutch cities by air, as the time you’d have to stand in line in the terminal would be about the same as it would take you to drive or ride there. Cities in Holland are so close together in fact, that from the top floor of the old Architecture Faculty* of the TUDelft you could see the The Hague city centre to the north and the Rotterdam city centre to the south well enough to distinguish individual building details. Travelling back home to my parents over the weekends would take me two hours on good days, and that involved crossing half the country. Trains are the go to answer for travel —from anywhere to anywhere— in Holland.

It wasn’t until I got thoroughly grossed out by air travel that I started looking into alternatives to long distance travelling, and unfortunately there aren’t that many options out there. I don’t own a car —or, indeed, a driver’s license— and buses disagree with my long legs. Zeppelins explode, ships sink and horses become unmanageable at the first sign of werewolves.

Trains however seem to deliver on every front; you can walk around while the train moves, you can buy tickets with a minimum amount of fuss, they get you right into the centre of towns (f*ck you Ryan Air!), some trains manage a very respectable average speed, you can open the windows and you can show up literally one minute prior to departure. There are however some suggestions I’d like to make to improve the whole train experience, especially concerning long distance trips:

  • Provide lockers or some other way for passengers to securely store their luggage.
  • Clean the outside windows so I can actually see through them.
  • Provide ways to switch off or dim the lights inside the train so the windows don’t act like mirrors at night.
  • Make sure the breaks run smoothly, the screeching is often unbearable when standing on the platform and the uneven acceleration/deceleration is disturbing on the inside.
  • Announce every stop 2~5 minutes in advance so people have enough time to get dressed and gather their belongings yet they aren’t compelled to do so half an hour too soon.
  • Invent some better toilets for heaven’s sake.
  • Drink and snack vending machines in every car.

My best personal train story involves a summer holiday trip from Italy back home (Firenze → Wien). I had booked the train well in advance via trenitalia.it which at the time only allowed me to  book in Italian. I had no idea what exactly it was that I booked for me + girlfriend and we were getting worried while standing on the fully crowded platform after spending a day walking around Florence in the blistering summer heat. We were tired, sweaty, hurting and dehydrated and not looking forward to spending a long night in a cabin with two crying babies. As it turned out though I managed to book us into the honeymoon suite (which went some way towards explaining the ticket price), which had a large two person bed with a large square window from which you can admire the Alps and a personal bathroom + shower. Granted, it was a very (very) small shower and water only came out while pressing a button, but it is more than enough to make you feel a hundred times better.

If we ever meet in person you can ask me to tell you my most embarrassing train story, but that is not for public consumption.

* Now sadly burned down through no fault of mine.

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