Interview with the Man in Seat 61, Part I
- By Anila Babla
- 4th Apr 2012
To celebrate the launch of the Loco2 Engine Room, we caught up with the man behind the seat, Mark Smith, and picked his brains on all things from his first travel experience (as a runaway!) to disguising your pet as a guide dog.
For train travellers all over the world The Man is Seat 61 is a legend. His site, famed for its encyclopedic treatment of almost every railway in the world, has elevated its owner to celebrity status among train travellers everywhere. So it should come as no surprise that at Loco2 HQ he’s something of a hero.
Seat61 has been featured in almost every national newspaper and is the primary resource for overland travellers… how did it all begin? (the name and the mission!)?
Back in 2001, I was looking for something to read on the train home and found a “Teach Yourself HTML” book. I tried it, got a webpage online, and the subject was obvious to me. It’s so easy to get to all over Europe by train, not just Paris, but Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco but it’s difficult to find anyone to tell you how to do it, so I thought I’d fill that gap.
As for the name, Seat 61 is my favourite seat on Eurostar. I treat myself to Eurostar first class and I hate to find myself sitting next to a piece of wall, so I looked at the seating plan, worked out which seat was the best one and ticked all the boxes. It became tradition that I booked seat 61 on coaches 7, 8, 11 or 12 if I ever went somewhere significant. So if I go to Moscow via Vladivostok, Marrakech via Madrid or the Crimea via Warsaw that’s where you’ll find me.
Are you scared of flying? (We know you’re not!!)
I’ve actually done aerobatics in the RAF cadets and that’s proper flying so no I’m not scared! But one thing I am scared of is missing the journey… it’s the journey not just the destination that matters.
What I normally say is that flying on a budget airline is a nightmare, but easy to book, while travelling by train is wonderful but difficult to book. So if you put the effort in to arrange the journey, you’ll have a wonderful time, but if you chicken out, you miss out.
Did you ever imagine your site would become so popular?
No, I didn’t – it was a cry in the wilderness and I really didn’t think anyone would ever read it. So I was surprised when it started growing. One of the first things that happened was that I answered a question in a forum in 2001 and cited my site. That person turned out to be the travel editor of the Guardian, and my site become website of the week! I thought my friends were winding me up because no one else knew I had started it! When I found out, I burst out laughing in the veg section at Waitrose!
How do you feel about the media attention you’ve received?
Well first of all it’s quite fun. I’ve got to write for The Times, the Guardian and The Telegraph. And also, of course it’s positively evangelical, for getting your message across. Writing an article for a big newspaper is a fantastic opportunity, which is really great.
We know Seat 61 is where you best like to sit on the train. But do you have a favourite route train or station in Europe?
That’s always a tricky one. If you like wine, you’re always in pursuit of new and exciting new flavours, and it’s like that with train routes and stations. Of course, I love Milan Centrale – I think it’s wonderful, and Madrid Atocha with it’s tropical gardens, and of course St Pancras is simply beautiful. Since the renovation, the exterior now matches the interior – when they opened it, Heathrow terminal 5 was busy being a shambles, and at exactly the same time, Eurostar opened the new St Pancras station, without a hitch, on time, on budget – I walked in on day one and it took my breath away.
Can you remember your earliest travel experience?
Oh yes! I went to the Isle of Wight ages 13 without anyone knowing. I saved up my pocket money, for several weeks at least, until I had amassed a fortune, so I could buy a ticket costing £2.73. I’m not quite sure why I opted for the Isle of Wight – perhaps I thought it would be my first “overseas” trip. I remember sitting on the ferry not realising it was only going “over there” and not crossing the channel – and that I shouldn’t really be doing this. [Did they send out a search party?] I got home my mother was very worried. She put on a brave face but she was pretty upset with me.
Your site has almost million visitors a month and many travel queries by email that you diligently answer. What’s the most memorable correspondence you’ve had? Any questions you love or loathe to answer?
I think that correspondence is absolutely vital – for finding out how people think, what they’re interested in, what preconceptions they have. I can perceive the reactions and tailor what I say on my site to help other people. But there are surprises. For example, I didn’t think I’d have to deal with pets, but have had a slow trickle of enquiries about how you take your dog abroad, so I added a pets section. [Mark later joked that it would be easier to pretend to be blind and dress your dog as a guide dog than take a dog on the Eurostar, but no-one has tried this yet, as far as he knows]. I was also surprised by how many enquiries I receive from people dealing with claustrophobia, who ask whether a train window opens or is sealed.
I spend a lot of time going back to first principle with Americans. As Europeans we take a lot of things for granted and think it obvious that you walk out of a hotel with your bags, get on the train with your bags, sit with your bags, get off the train with your bags and off to the next hotel…with your bags. They can’t grasp it. They imagine you’ll have to put it on a baggage car, or check it in, or give it to somebody or put labels on it, or something and you know it’s totally simple. If all you’ve ever done is fly then it’s what you’re used to.
I suppose I get a bit bored of answering people who are looking beyond the 90-day booking horizon and wondering why they can’t book any trains. The other ones I hate are when people are so vague about where they want to go. They expect me to write a complete essay on “Options for your European Trip.” and I can’t crank the handle and decide for them where they would like to go on their day trip.
I love answering the ones where people are having a huge problem and I can tell them how to get over it. The principle of what I do is point people in the right direction and help them through the glitches and problems but it’s a self-help thing, I can’t take a million of them through the live booking process, I’d be in trouble! There is a lot of information to take in and sometimes people just get overwhelmed and reach for the “Contact me” button. It’s a difficult balance to present a simple clear message – these are your train times, this is what it costs, this is who your contact to buy a ticket, but also provide enough detail to get people over the problems they will encounter, to correct their misconceptions and answer all their queries.
What would you say to convince someone to take the train instead of the plane? Do you think there is the one change that would persuade more people to travel overland?
Well I think a lot of people already want to take the train are put off or fail because of the lack of information or problems with booking. So I’ve been trying to sort the information and help people through the booking problems. With any issue you go for the low hanging fruit, you’re not asking to persuade the die hard airline passenger to take the train… you take people who are actually fed up with the stresses of modern flying and say now its easy to take the train as an alternative. Certainly I think Easyjet and Ryanair are doing a sterling job of forcing people… ahem, persuading people to try alternatives, and they’re getting more stressful and more expensive. The people who contact me are fed up of the stress of flying and they want to reduce their carbon footprint. I don’t know if it’s 80/20, 20/80, or 50/50 but they cite those two things.
The train can be expensive compared to the plane though, right? And it takes longer! [Editor’s note: this is only meant to be gently provocative – it’s the main response we get to the suggestion of train travel over air travel by non-supporters]
I think people now realise what with airport security that a 1hr flight can mean a 4 or 5 hour journey. They realise that the £1 flights is actually going to cost them far more when all the extra costs are added on by the airlines, in desperation to cope with the rising fuel prices without changing their attractive advertising. What we need to show them is that there are also budget prices on the rails as well. People think that it’s expensive but actually London to Paris is £39, London to Switzerland can be as little as €25.
We also need to show that it doesn’t take weeks. I left Switzerland at 4.30 in the afternoon, was back in Paris at 7.30pm, back in London at half ten at night and back in Aylesbury before midnight.
The Loco2 Engine Room is brought to you in association with the Man in Seat 61. It’s a place for train travellers to meet up, share their experiences and ask each other questions. The Loco2 team and The Man in Seat 61 will be on hand to answer your trickiest quandaries and help make sense of the complexities of booking European rail.