"Train travel hasn't lost its glamour" - getty
“Train travel hasn’t lost its glamour” – getty

The founder of the award-winning seat61.com rail website tells of the journeys that inspired him, his proposal on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the way Covid-19 will impact on travel – and how the 2020s may yet be another golden age for the train.

How did you begin travelling

My first solo overseas trip was to the Isle of Wight aged 13. I’d saved up £2.73 for a half-fare cheap day return by train to Portsmouth and ferry to Ryde. That’s where it all started. The next big landmark was an Interrail trip aged 19 travelling to Greece through the Balkans; where a guard stamped my passport, clicked his heels and said ‘welcome to Yugoslavia!’.

Is it just about trains?

If you love travel then the journey is just as important as the destination. You want to be treated like a human being and to see where you are going. I love trains, but I love travelling by sea almost as much. I’ve sailed to the United States many times. 

How did Seat 61 come about?

I was a British Rail manager commuting to London everyday and had noticed the massive gap between how easy, practical and enjoyable it was to travel by train from the UK to say Spain, Italy or Austria and how impossible it was to find anyone who could tell you how to do it. I thought I’d be subversive and put that information online. Seat61.com (named after my favourite seat on Eurostar) was registered in May 2001. Initially it was my hobby, but by 2007 it became my full time job.

Any standout moments?

From a single page on the web I’ve created a comprehensive site, a business and a brand. Winning Best Travel Website in the Telegraph Travel Awards of 2012 beating giants like Trip Advisor was a great moment. In terms of trips, a journey by rail from the UK to Moscow across former USSR to Vladivostok and then on to Japan by sea stands out. I also proposed on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. We’d only been going out six months and the train worked it’s very special magic; in a snow-swept Brenner Pass, I proposed to Nicolette. At least, that’s how she remembers it.  As I remember it, she proposed to me…  

On board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
On board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

How are you coping with the Covid crisis?

I’m used to working from home – or from anywhere – so that’s fine. But I have not been able to travel or do any research. I’ve done some maintenance work on the site. Traffic has been down by 75 per cent and booking minimal. Most people are waiting to see what happens.

How will rail travel change?

The need for social distancing obviously presents challenges for trains, but it is easier than for airlines that really have to cram you in to make it viable. The average inter-city train can function with a 45 per cent load factor so if you can organise that spread it evenly you’ve got social distancing with some empty seats. Globally big state operators will almost certainly carry on but I worry about the small commercial operators such as the Grand Central here or the Leo Express in the Czech Republic. That said I like to think positive and say just as travel flourished after the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic so it will after this.

The Golden Twenties revisited?

Society has changed a lot since the 1920s when glamorous travel was only for those who could afford it. Now everyone can. We are in a different world but I still think there is a romance and glamour taking a high speed train to Europe. I also think that the trend towards rail travel will continue. The climate change issue hasn’t gone away.

What’s the first rail journey on your to do list?

London to Fort William on my favourite train, my favourite route and my favourite destination: the Caledonian Sleeper to the Western Highlands.  

Mark Smith was talking to Adrian Bridge

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