Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.

Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.
Image by Cameron Lyall, GNU license Wikimedia

20 July 2011

Trains, Train Stations and The Chunnel: An American Perspective on Trains

Maybe it's because I watch too many movies and TV shows, but I expected the trains in Europe to be more glorious. Before I came to the UK I had never ridden in a real train. I've ridden on BART (the electric rail system in the Bay Area) and the train at Disneyland. I don't think either of those count as real train experiences.

Now that I've been here for almost six weeks, I've experienced more types of trains than I ever thought I would. I've ridden on the British rail system, the Scottish rail system, the Tube, the Eurostar rail system and French RER and Metro systems. The trains for the most part did not disappoint me at all. Rather it was the train stations that disappointed me the most.

I was expecting train travel to be glorious. I think that may have been the westerns and Harry Potter movies doing. The first train I took was the train from London to Windsor. To be honest I thought I was on the wrong train because it looked like a BART train. I guess I was half expecting train compartments like the Hogwarts express and ticket takers with funny hats and whistles. What I encountered was a much more modern and efficient form of commuting. While it was slightly disappointing, it won me over with it's ease of use. All you have to do is walk into a train station, find a train going where you want to go, get on and go! You can even eat, sleep, use your laptop and buy beer. What more could you want from public transportation?

The train stations are really disappointing though. The ones in Scotland are little more than a platform, a coffee and pasty shop and gross bathrooms. While the stations in London and Edinburgh are larger and have the impressive architecture I was looking for, they are riddled with trash, homeless people and even more disgusting bathrooms. I don't like spending more time in them than I have to.

But I did find the glorious trains and train stations that I was looking for. They came at a pretty steep price though. The Eurostar trains take passengers from London to Paris and Brussels. On our adventure to Paris we took the Eurostar train from London, through the Chunnel and into Paris. Once you have a Eurostar ticket, you have access to the Eurostar terminals, and that portion of the train station. When I entered the terminal it felt like I was in a completely different station. There were charging areas for electronics, higher end coffee shops and a bar. The terminal was clean and free of creepy people loitering around. The architecture was sleek and modern, mixing dark wood with glass and stainless steel.

The trains were even better. The seats were comparable to seats in Business class on an airplane. The trains looked impressive from the outside, and felt luxurious on the inside. I was completely comfortable the whole way to Paris, and there were no crying babies or rambunctious teenagers. The Paris terminal was even more ostentatious with high end boutiques, duty free stores and cafes. I truly felt like a privileged member of society instead of just another commuter on my way home.

I'm glad I got to ride the Chunnel train and see the secret side of the train stations (even if it put me in debt). I got to experience the glory of train travel, although it was a lot different than the trains in the movies. I'm also glad that train travel is so glorious and it hasn't died. The “going for a Sunday drive” glory of the American automobile has passed, and so has the glory of flight. I'm happy I got to experience the luxury of train travel before it becomes commonplace.

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