Why are Amtrak trains so slow

A slow train journey through Europe

The British travel journalist Tom Chesshyre drove all over Europe for three weeks, without a plan, in the slowest possible trains. His way to Venice led him to Maastricht and Leipzig, to Krakow and Zagreb - and even to the Black Sea. The end of the line: his book "Slow Trains", a declaration of love for Europe

Mr Chesshyre, you write that Brexit was to blame that you broke up. How do we have to imagine that?

We were caught in this terribly angry debate about leaving the European Union. The clashes were bitter and endless, and the idea that we were leaving Europe was so terrible. I just had to go. At the same time, I wanted to take a closer look at this friendly club we were about to leave. I took some time off and set out to hug Europe.

Did Europe Hug You Back?

I've seen so many wonderful things. What touched me most was a meeting in Belgium - where they are very proud of their railroad. On the way from Bruges to Liège, I got into conversation with two conductors shortly after the Brussels-South train station. Two funny guys who told me about how they play cat and mouse with dodgers every day. In the end they promised to send me one of their platoon leader ties and belt with a capital "B" on the buckle. They actually did. I then wore both to celebrate my book release in London. Unfortunately, not all experiences are so nice. When you drive through Ukraine, it becomes really clear to you that there is a country in Europe that Russia is currently invading. Foreign troops stand on its ground. You don't understand what that means for the people there, as long as you don't go there and hear what they have to say about it.

How did you get into the conversation?

It helps to choose the right accommodations. If you start talking to strangers in the lobby of the Ritz, you may be quickly taken to the door by security guards. Hostels, on the other hand, are made to meet each other. A door opener is of course also the train journey itself, with everything that goes with it. In Maastricht I had a long talk with a ticket seller from the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Her English was very good and when I asked her about it, she told me about living in London and selling Christmas baubles on Oxford Street.

Encounters with locals and other travelers - is that the reason you decided to take the train?

An important one, yes! That may have become more difficult in Corona times, dining cars may be closed, everyone is keeping a little distance. But that is not the end of spontaneous encounters on trains. When it comes to small talk, the virus even offers an advantage: it's a topic we all have in common. That connects.

The title of her book is "Slow Trains". What do you mean by slow?

I don't have a precise definition. Everything is relative. The world's first passenger train, it ran between Manchester and Liverpool, ran 30 miles per hour. What was a record then is very slow today. For my book, I tried to avoid the fastest routes and let myself drift along the secondary routes. But I wasn't crazy enough to be stuck somewhere for a week waiting for a particularly slow train.

How much was planned on your tour, how much was spontaneous?

I had a fixed goal: Venice. A place with which I associate train associations, the city was a station of the legendary Orient Express. The idea of ​​arriving there at the end of a long journey and looking out over the Grand Canal made my heart beat faster. My time frame was also set: I had taken a three-week vacation. But there was no plan for the path itself. I bought an Interrail ticket so I could decide where to go next every day. And I didn't always get there because I got off spontaneously somewhere.

For example where?

In northern Serbia. The train stopped in a tiny little town called Vrbas. Suddenly, without even thinking about it, my legs moved. I got off the train and didn't even know where I was - how liberating! I walked through a sleepy, very tidy place that reminded me of American small towns with its front gardens and streets lined with maple trees. In a café in the center I met Peter, a former professional basketball player. He knew everything about the place and told me about the past glory of the food industry there. He also helped me find a bed to sleep in. Nor would I have thought before leaving that I would land in Odessa and stick my toes in the Black Sea. That was a real travel adventure, nothing that a provider put together "perfectly" for you. Something can go wrong.

What for example?

Soon after my ferry arrived in Calais, I learned that the French railroad workers were on strike. Naturally, this made it difficult to travel the country by train. I was disappointed and angry that I hadn't noticed anything about it beforehand. There was only one train going, namely to Lille, and from there a connection to Kortrijk, Belgium. And so I left France very quickly, although I would have liked to stay longer. But whenever something annoyed me, I thought at the same time: "Now I have something to write about." You don't write a good travel book if everything works out. I've seen real stories, and real stories aren't always perfect.

We Germans like to complain about Deutsche Bahn.

I do not understand that. Deutsche Bahn is very efficient, their service is great! It is only surpassed by the Belgian trains - and the Indian ones, but that's a topic in itself! In Poland the trains were often overcrowded, in Great Britain mostly unpunctual and dirty, in France there was always the risk of a strike. When I told Dumont, my German publisher, about my enthusiasm for Deutsche Bahn, they thought I was crazy there. But did you know that service employees at the train stations in Budapest and Ljubljana use the Deutsche Bahn website to find connections? Your track is that good! In general, I liked a lot in Germany: In Cologne, the train takes you to the heart of the city, right in front of the cathedral. And Leipzig Central Station is crazy big! It extends over 83,460 square meters!

Tom Chesshyre, 49, lives in London, worked as a travel journalist for The Times for 21 years and is the author of several travel books. After "Slow Trains" he quit his job and has been a freelance writer ever since.

Tom Chesshyre's travelogue in 25 stations makes many arcs: from the little everyday observation to current politics, from historical upheavals to detailed railway knowledge, combined with an homage to letting yourself drift. DuMont Reiseverlag, 14.95 euros

What were the most European places on your side?

So many places in Europe have symbolic meaning. Take the towering chalk cliffs of Dover, known as the "Gateway to Great Britain". Or Calais, on the other side of the canal, where there was the makeshift tent city, called "the jungle," where refugees were waiting for an opportunity to travel on. And of course Maastricht: the place where the drama that led to Brexit began. I was very, very lucky there: I turned up at the "Gouvernement", the seat of the provincial government of Limburg, without any appointment. And an incredibly friendly employee, who also introduced himself as Peter, showed me the room and the table where the Treaty on European Union was signed in 1992.

But they were also less important to the state. In Belgrade you played a game in the gambling shop, in Lviv you went to the Irish pub instead of trying out local cuisine.

I tried to vary. Of course there are these places: cathedrals, squares and museums that simply attract you. But I never checked off lists. I've only ever spent one night in one place and thought to myself: I see what I see in time, I experience what I experience, and the next day the next place, the next adventure, is waiting. A lovely way to travel! I could have continued like this for months.

Most of us prefer to go to places that you know from Instagram or from a travel guide. With the result that it can get very crowded on site.

The problem, I think, is the cheap flights. When Easyjet and Ryanair started their deals, I wrote a book about how ridiculously cheap travel has become. In many places, these low prices lead to overtourism. In addition, before Corona, cruise ships attacked the cities: Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam, Venice, Dubrovnik, they all groaned under the floating skyscrapers in their ports. There is a lot of pressure on the subject anyway, from Greta Thunberg and many other climate protection activists. Perhaps something will now be adjusted by the virus so that we plan our trips more carefully and travel less overall.

Are we all getting a little more humble when it comes to traveling?

Hopefully. We can count ourselves lucky when we are allowed to travel. Why bother about it when the balcony doesn't have a perfect sea view? Those who dwell on such small things lose sight of the big picture, namely: How lucky it is to be able to travel.

You write of the "golden age" of the railroad, which ended in the middle of the 20th century. Now there are many vacation flyers on the ground. Does rail travel get a new chance?

I can well imagine. It's still very romantic to travel by train and really get to know a country through it. You have a lot of time, you can look out the window, read something about the country and try to understand it. When you fly, you only see clouds and nothing of the way the landscape changes along the way. But for me that is exactly one of the joys that you experience when you leave the fast lane. Definitely, it would be wonderful to experience a second golden era of train travel.