The Man in Seat61, Part II
- By Anila Babla
- 12th Jun 2012
More tales from a lifetime of travelling on the train. Loco2 brings you the man behind the seat, part deux!
In the second instalment of our interview with the Man in Seat61, Loco2 hears more weird and wonderful stories from a lifetime of adventures by train. From a “hamille” wife in Istanbul to smuggling Vodka through Kiev, Mark reveals that few journeys by train are boring. And we ask what’s next for Seat61, which, though it contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate, is nonetheless the best guide to the (train) galaxy. In case you missed it, you can read Part I here.
You have a vast knowledge of train travel around the globe and it seems like you’ve been everywhere. Is there anywhere left on the Seat 61 bucket list?
Ah lots of places are left. I still have to travel the Nairobi to Mombasa train in Kenya and I’ve always wanted to go to the central Asian republics, Uzbekistan – you know, Samarkand and Bokhara Kazakstan.
What are your best and worst train memories?
Um… this is difficult because I’ve just got so many good ones. One of them was discovering that my wife was pregnant. We’d arrived into Istanbul by train and Nicolette thought she was expecting so we went to get a test kit from a chemist round the corner. Nic said, don’t worry it’ll be in several languages but it wasn’t, it was only in Turkish! So we discovered within minutes she was “hamile” but we didn’t know whether she was pregnant or not pregnant. So I charged down the stairs into the hall of the hotel reception – it was the wonderful Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, the one with the Orient Express, and stuck the instructions under the nose of the maitre d’. He didn’t know the English word for pregnant so in a moment of inspiration he moved his hand over his belly and said “baby”. So lots of things happen when I travel.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve encountered while taking the train?
I can think of something – having the entire sleeping car searched for illicit booze when coming back from Kiev to Warsaw. They wanted to search my compartment and I was the first and only person on departure from Kiev, and they found an entire off licence of illicit vodka above my head behind the paneling. [Busted!!] Haha, I was sitting there all along beneath it – I wish I had have know, I could have done with a stiff drink.
The train is considered greener and you mention the carbon impact of travel on your site. How environmentally friendly are you?
I have to be quite honest and say that I didn’t get into train travel because of the ecological benefit, but rather the benefit to the traveller. So my message is not that you have to put on sackcloth and ashes, but you’re actually doing yourself a favour by taking the train. You see something, you have a low stress journey, and you can stop off the way.
Other than that, I have done what anyone else has – replaced the light bulbs, insulated my house, and so on and so forth. But I have to be honest and say that I drive a Land-rover Defender, but it does produce less CO2 than the average mini as I only drive it 4000 miles a year!
Much has been said of the carbon-saving potential of electric trains when combined with renewable energy… in your opinion which are the most exciting new rail projects taking place in the world right now?
Spain is such a key destination for UK travellers, so the work that connects Barcelona to the French frontier with a high-speed line – which is only partially complete at the moment but should start running direct Paris-Barcelona trains from probably the end of this year – I think that’s very exciting. I think I’d still use the overnight train in one direction because it’s so time effective and a comfortable and romantic experience, but having the option of a fast daytime train is great.
The high-speed line is a much better option than expanding motorways and airport runways to meet Britain’s changing travel needs, even though the line does go two miles from my front door. I think Europe is following suit with the UK fares system – it’s abandoning a distance based tariff, which British Rail abandoned in the 60’s, and adopting cheap yield-managed fares like airlines.
Europe is following our lead on long distance rail fares by doing away with a one-sized-fits-all tariff and introducing a range of fares – a cheap fare if you book in advance – in much the same ways as the airlines operate. That has proved successful in getting people out of planes and on to trains. It’s a mindset. The classic is saying that it costs the same price to Manchester as it does New York and it doesn’t. If you turn up at Heathrow on the day and say, “can I have a flight to New York please?”, it’s not going to cost you £199 it will be £1500. It works exactly the same. Airlines have got good PR – they have got the message across that our fares are “from £30”, whereas the railways seem to labour under the concept that “our fares are from £250 downward”.
Do you think that the internet has helped or hindered the development of international train travel? What’s the biggest challenge that customers booking train tickets face?
This is a difficult one because in the old pre-Internet days there were travel centres, and they issued handwritten through-tickets, from anywhere to anywhere! In one sense it was an integrated industry, but it was awfully expensive when airlines came along. Now train companies have got managed fares that you can book through a reservation system. And there are cheap fares available, but on multiple websites, so it has become a very disjointed process. It’s getting worse as there are more companies, more websites and more options.
Have you got a favourite train-related film?
Yes, North by Northwest Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint travel on the 20th Century limited. [Have you seen the Virgin advert - it was a few years ago now? Do you know the one I mean where it's got Cary Grant, Some like it hot, I think it's amazing!] Oh, yes, I’ve got that on my computer actually! I know exactly the one you mean – it’s a fantastic ad! And yes, well the train on Some Like It Hot, which is my second favourite train film. And of course I also like The Lady Vanishes – the 1938 version as opposed to the Cybil Shepherd 1979 one.
Do you have a favourite soundtrack when you’re travelling on the train, or do you prefer the landscape out of the window? I have a very eclectic load of music which I take with me to listen to, ranging from jazz and doo-wop through to Crowded House [all the classics then] Yes!
Timetables and trains are always changing. If you could resurrect a train service or route, which would it be?
Oh gosh, there are lots. I’d like to do trains to Greece – Greece is cut off at the moment. And I’d also like to resurrect the Peloponnese Metre Gauge network that I travelled around on on several occasions in my youth. I find it very sad that my children won’t experience it and they’ll experience motorway buses instead. It was a little railway that used to go south of Athens to Corinth and do a loop around the bottom of Greece, around the little blob south of Athens There’s the meter gauge metalwork that rings that with beautiful scenery, and it really does need bringing back to life. It only got destroyed last year
Loco2 is starting a campaign to bring back sexy train names. Any suggestions?
I am a great believer in train names because they are easy to remember, much easier to find than a train number, so much easier to find your train. They give a sense of romance and history which air travel lacks and so we have the east coast which used to have the Flying Scotsman emblazoned on the side of all the coaches, and on the other side of the spectrum we have Virgin trains who think that Virgin’s modern brand names are all that’s needed and have done away with names as though they don’t realise for appreciate the heritage of their own route – I mean things like The Royal Scotsman and The Irish Mail should be reinstated on the west coast [and do you have a hypothetical contribution?] Well, I think there are enough real names out there without that! [You can get back to us on that one!]
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that a towel is the most important item a hitchhiker can have. What is the most important thing a train traveller should have?
Well I always say a good book and a corkscrew – two essentials of train travel life. I have to say I often think of my own website in Douglas Adam’s terms. The way in which he describes the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – although it contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate, it is nonetheless the best guide to the galaxy! Haha! It’s out of date the moment you do it and there are all sorts of flaws, but I like to think it does give people a good idea. I ought to find a way of taking a cup with me though, or else you end up having a corkscrew and a bottle of wine!
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.