Books

Why we all need to fall back in love with rail travel

Travel can help us understand the world, and bring generations together. Just make sure you take the train

Illustration of a steam train

Illustration: Chris Bentham

Do you remember your first train trip? I do. I was five years old in the tow of my grandmother on a three-day journey through the Canadian Rockies in coaches pulled by a steam engine. It was a short hop to a lifetime of wishing to be “elsewhere”. A song that decade bred my wanderlust. American hit The Wayward Wind reached number one on the UK chart in 1963 in a recording by Frank Ifield. Its lyrics rationalised my behaviour: “And I guess the sound of the outward bound, made me a slave to my wanderin ways.” Since then, I’ve ridden the rails in 36 countries.

More recently, I had the chance to board a westbound Rocky Mountaineer in Banff, Alberta destined for Vancouver, British Columbia. From there I’d go aboard their train heading north-by-northeast, venturing back for a spell in the Rocky Mountains. To be on one of the world’s most famous trains begged an accomplice. Spontaneously, I invited my 10-year-old grandson Riley, creating an opportunity to see travel through eyes one-seventh the age of mine.

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Meandering to the rhythm of tracks meant I could share the hidden truths of train travel with my grandson. For a start, you have unexpected peace of mind (it’s like a long walk without the footwork). There are new friends (each with a story to tell, or a secret to hide).

The Rocky Mountaineer’s bi-level coaches have a bowed glass roof. Every vista feels within reach. That is grand as the journey is overwhelmed with geography. Tracks cross trestles over gorges carved by plunging waterfalls. Mountain peaks chiselled by glaciers hover, emotionally brushing your shoulder.

Train travel is an ongoing moment. It is the continual unfolding of anticipation and understanding. History feels closer on a train. A smattering of facts: this Canadian Pacific Railway route built a country, its last spike driven in 1885 when Canada was threaded together as a nation, stitched with steel against the odds of political shenanigans. Onboard, Riley would ask about Indigenous peoples – among them the Shuswap, the Kwantlen, the Lil’wat – through whose unceded territory we moved. Chinese railway workers were hastily buried when they died during construction, their remains and names resurrected by researchers known as bonepickers. I love to tell readers those stories.

Train Beyond the Mountains: Journeys on the Rocky Mountaineer is my fifth travel book. Earlier narratives are about dodgy spots for travellers: To Timbuktu for a Haircut and Walking With Ghosts in Papua New Guinea represent trips for which my relief of return was itself a quest. On the other hand, train journeys feel safe. Maybe that’s a factor in the revival of quality train experiences around the world. One journalist called me “a romantic vagabond”, and there are few stronger metaphors than “the romance of train travel”, the quirky feeling that associates trains with meaning and purpose. My wife Janice and I got engaged on the train to New Orleans.

A quotable passenger identified my trip with Riley as “legacy travel”. She said intergenerational travel passes along the importance of seeing the world for oneself while attempting to comprehend it. We sometimes overlook travel’s impact on bettering the world. An Indian cabinet minister told me, “Tourism sits on the right hand of peace.” I’ve come to realise travel is the world’s synapse. It brings us together to share ideas and learn from one another.

Today we watch remarkable countries be taken off the “safe to travel” advisories. That, and Covid-interruptus, mandates an urgency to make up for lost time, and a desire to visit nations still politically comfortable. Alas, many of us have had a travel companion die, or witnessed medical situations restrict a friend’s mobility. A Japanese woman aboard Rocky Mountaineer kept an empty seat beside her the whole way. I never got her story about its missing occupant, but I got her message. Sensing my curiosity, Michiko offered her Buddha-like admonition: “The mistake we make is we think we have time.”

Lesson number one: travel. Be off! If there’s a choice to be had, take the train.

Is the penchant for train travel hereditary? I like to think so. All my grandparents took the most important of train journeys, that of an immigrant. My son Brent’s book, Ties That Bind: Circumnavigating the Northern Hemisphere by Train, is the story of him, my other son Sean and me embarking on five rail trips over a dozen years, on 16 trains in 13 countries as diverse as North Korea and Belarus. Earlier this year Riley, his dad Sean and I travelled on trains during a winter week in Norway with the wind howling. It struck me afresh that my life of exploring was born of “a restless wind, that yearns to wander”. As Frank Ifield warbled in 1963, may it also be said of Riley that, “He was born the next of kin, the next of kin to the wayward wind.”

Train beyond the mountains book cover

Train Beyond the Mountains: Journeys on the Rocky Mountaineer by Rick Antonson is out now (Greystone, £19.99) You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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