Riding the Rails in Europe – The Oracle of Train Travel Reveals Seat61 Insights
When someone lists Chateau Musar as a preferred wine, I know we’ll get along. And so it turned out. When researching the state of the European train sector in relation to sustainable tourism, the Seat61 website kept surfacing no matter what I typed. Run by train guru, Mark Smith, the site has promoted train travel for over 20 years, and grown into the information source of choice for millions of travellers wishing to ride the rails through Europe and beyond. During a delightful chat with Mark, it became clear that Seat61 (named after Mark’s favourite seat on the Eurostar) is a true labour of love, which explains its raging success.
I’ve travelled through many parts of Europe by train, my earliest memories from the Paris to Nice TGV, and of course crisscrossing my home country, Sweden, where distances from the south to the north equal those of a multicountry journey across the continent. Nostalgia aside, train travel has seen a renaissance as of late, much of it because of the low carbon footprint compared to flying. Yet, challenges remain. High-speed infrastructure needs serious expansion to become a genuine alternative to airlines, prices can be prohibitive for multi-city travel, and the booking experience for cross-border journeys is less than stellar. Due to legislation in countries like France and Austria where short domestic flights face bans, the relative market share of train travel looks set to increase on certain routes, but from a climate standpoint, it’s the long-haul trips which need competition.
Although not his original intention, Mark has pushed sustainable travel in Europe to new heights and has the awards to prove it. Who is the man in seat 61, how did he achieve oracle status, and what will it take for rail to challenge planes for European travel dominance? Find out as we go for a ride in the world of trains.
The origins of Seat61
“To travel means to see where you are going.” – Mark Smith
Is it about the destination or the journey? For Mark, the answer is clear: he seeks a more classical form of travel where experiences during the journey have to be enjoyable and memorable. Therefore, it came as no surprise to hear Mark travelled with an Interrail pass as a young man, or him working for Transalpino selling rail tickets while studying in London.
After university, he entered British Rail’s general management training scheme, responsible for smaller stations in Kent. The first half of the 90s saw him work as a station manager at iconic places like London Bridge and Charing Cross. Later he joined the Department of Transport, heading up a team which regulated rail fares on the UK network. In other words, the perfect man to ask about one of the main gripes about travelling on trains, the price. It’s complicated, as you will find out later, but deals are possible if you plan and follow Mark’s useful tips.
Like many other great business successes, the Seat61 origin story shares elements of serendipity, product fit, passion, and a curious mindset. In 2001, commuting to London, Mark needed something to read after having finished a novel. At Marylebone station, he enters WH Smith, the British retail chain, and spots a “Teach yourself HTML” magazine. The 2.95 GBP sticker price turned out to be an investment with dramatic returns. The kind you make when staking an early claim during the Internet gold rush. With deep-rooted sector knowledge, genuine interest, and newfound skills, Mark created a webpage to address a massive and frustrating gap in the market. Despite the practical straightforwardness of UK-to-Europe train travel, there existed a vacuum in regards to the commercial world telling you how to do it.
Like a true Internet-era entrepreneur, Mark did the rebellious thing and put the information online, a David vs Goliath situation where one individual triumphed over an entire industry’s collective shortcomings.
The Influence of Seat61 on Train travel in Europe
“When I started, I didn’t expect it to generate up to a million visits per month, or for it to become a full-time job.” – Mark Smith
This is exactly what happened, though. In 2007, Mark’s work with Seat61 became a 100% commitment, although it still feels like a fun hobby, with some exceptions. The period when European national rail companies change their timetables (second Sunday of December so check Seat61 in the month to come), the tasks to update 100+ pages take on more of a hard slog feeling. Otherwise, he finds dealing with people’s questions, individual misconceptions, and concerns most rewarding. Their feedback allows him to improve the site, providing more value for all, as one comment usually represents the tip of the iceberg. Every day Seat61 receives 30-40 emails with reactions and queries. Mark loves to hear when his efforts helped someone or opened their eyes to the possibility of travelling by train instead of sitting at home because they can’t or won’t fly. “There are options, even at great distances,” he says.
When I came across the page, I expected it to be run by a huge team, considering the breadth of knowledge available. You will find practical information on anything train-related, and sometimes more, for a large number of countries in the world, with more detailed info, including timetables, for European trains. Links to all major operators, how to buy tickets, what not to do, and news about line openings, Seat61 is an absolute beast, even sporting its own Wikipedia entry. I asked Mark how many people he employs. The answer? It’s a one-man show. In addition to himself reading railway magazines, readers and industry profiles help with fresh developments, via email or Twitter. Naturally, he restricts site updates to bigger changes, not real-time engineering works, delays, or as Mark jokes, “whether they run out of BLT sandwiches.”
Seemingly, Seat61 has won more travel awards and accumulated more media mentions than the total number of discarded water bottles at airport security. Slight exaggeration aside, Mark is a living example of the power of the Internet. One individual with a zeal can create massive value and a following bigger than multinational organisations. Still, he remains humble, happy to be recognised, and focussed on delivering a first-rate experience to visitors of the site. In fact, he cherishes the Daily Telegraph’s “readers favourite website” accolade among the top, especially since he beat the travel giant TripAdvisor.
When Seat61 won “best travel website” from the Guardian and Observer travel awards in 2008, Mark’s dedication to trains shone through as he travelled by rail (and ferries) from the UK to Fez in Morrocco to pick up the prize. When I spoke to him, he looked forward to taking the sleeper to Brussels to give out an award by the European Tourism Commission for the top railway campaigns. The site has, of course, received many responsible tourism distinctions, and it’s the sustainability of train travel to which we turn next.
Sustainability and train travel in Europe
“Hyperloop and Maglev distract from tried and tested high-speed rail.”
Back in 2001 when Seat61 came alive, a major reason travellers chose trains over planes had to do with a phobia of flying. Things are different now, says Mark. Passengers are either fed up with the airports, citing their tiresome, inhumane, time-consuming, and stressing nature, or they wish to cut their carbon footprint. For Mark, lowering emissions is a great bonus, but it’s not his primary motivator. He doesn’t believe in beating people over their heads with numbers of tons saved (I’ll do it for him – Eurostar’s train ride between London and Paris emits 90% less CO2 than a commercial flight between the same locations). You take the train because you want a better experience, like city centre boarding and arrival in both cities, a faster journey, and superior service.
In one sentence, I believe Mark has captured the best strategy on how to advance sustainable travel and tourism. Shame, guilt, negativity, and dry facts don’t work to convince a majority of travellers. Therefore, at Inspirit Journey, we produce positive, benefit-centred, and inspiring stories that create a personal connection between tourists, destinations and locals.
While already a more sustainable option than flying, European rail has several challenges to overcome to make it even more of a contender. During the conversation with Mark, we circled back on these topics.
Price and subsidies
Train operators use the same dynamic pricing as airlines do, meaning you need to look far ahead to find the best deals. Trains get an unfair amount of headlines complaining about high prices, though. More often, short-notice business travellers, not private consumers, see the exorbitant stickers. Only, when you combine tickets for a lengthy trip, it adds up, sometimes costing more than a flight ticket to the same destination.
It’s not a level playing field, however. Airlines have plenty of long-standing subsidies. Tax-free fuel, up to 30% of airline cost, makes for a massive edge. In some countries, like Germany and Austria, they put VAT on train tickets, and not on flights. “Is it public policy to promote flying rather than trains?” Mark asks.
To book train journeys within one country is straightforward, but cross-border is another matter, which is why Seat61 is a great resource to avoid pitfalls. Many national timetables, for example, in Eastern Europe and the Nordics still haven’t integrated with the rest, making it a fragmented experience. Trainline.com and Raileurope.com are two sites attempting to simplify the process, but not even they are complete.
In cases of cancellations or delays, you receive a refund for that particular leg, but it doesn’t cover eventual knock-on effects, like missing your connection. Thus, consumer rights require strengthening, where multiple tickets need to be treated as a single, through ticket, much like flight transfers. Mark presented on the subject in the European Parliament where a bill passed, only to be blocked in the EU Council after lobbying by train operators who objected to new legislation. “It’s a great shame they didn’t take the bigger view to get more travellers to use their systems,” Mark says.
High-speed rail has the potential to make rail a viable alternative to flying across Europe. It has already transformed the position of trains compared to airlines on several routes, including business travel. Amsterdam to Paris, 7 hours before, now clocks 3h, 20 min. Paris to Geneve, an all-nighter, comes in at 3h 10 min. High-speed infrastructure expands year by year, but progress is uneven. The UK lags, whereas Italy and Spain have gone forward, even opening up the rails to competition, reducing prices and attracting more travellers. As the technology works, has the carrying capacity, and is compatible with the existing rail network, Mark hopes more investments will result in a faster rollout. Hyperloop and Maglev which are at least twice as expensive, and don’t connect to city centres, divert attention and money, he answers when asked about alternatives.
High-speed is not the only solution. Mark is an advocate for sleepers (night trains), as some distances are too far even for high-speed trains, like Paris to Berlin, a seven-hour journey. Sleeper trains can be more time effective, not wasting day hours to travel. People have realised this and thus, the sleeper is making a comeback in central Europe and the Nordics, with Austrian government operator, ÖBB the market leader. Challenges remain, such as high costs, little stock, and some countries opting for pure high-speed.
Train travel tips in Europe from Seat61
“Settle in with a nice bottle of wine and a good book.”
When having a long chat with a train aficionado of Mark Smith’s calibre, you’d be amiss not to extract his best tips and favourite routes. The man in Seat61 still loves to travel by train, and when I ask him how many days a year he spends on them, he says, not enough. With a family, including two young children, he doesn’t want to leave Mrs 61 alone too much. Trains did feature in his private life, though. Travelling on the fabled Orient Express, he got engaged in the Brenner Pass. With the powerful magic of this classic route, coupled with a great atmosphere on board, love blossomed.
This year, Mark has made four work trips on his own. A recent one, the sleeper between Palermo to Milan, providing the most epic views in Italy, saw him research and photograph train stations in Naples, Rome, Florence, and Milan before heading back to the UK. It’s obvious he leaves nothing to chance, the information and advice provided on Seat61 needs his personal touch. Who better to turn to in order to maximise your experience with the following tips and recommendations?
Book in advance for reduced fares.
If you’re travelling between countries, check both rail operators. Sometimes one side can be cheaper than the other.
Relax with a favourite drink and something to read – see the journey as me-time.
Take advantage of enhanced work efficiency while travelling.
Try the Caledonian sleeper for breathtaking views of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a small hotel on wheels, complete with a private room, comfy bed, and a club car selling whisky, haggis, tatties, and neaps.
Another stunner is the Chur (Switzerland) to Tirano (Italy) route, a narrow-gauge train with panoramic sightseeing. Slow, but worth it.
New routes to look out for:
– The Paris to Berlin sleeper starting in Dec 2023 – Austrian Rail, ÖBB.
– Brussels to Berlin sleeper will extend to Prague – European Sleeper.
As you would have guessed by now, Mark is a fan of slow travel, the kind you envision when thinking about the classic carriages of the Orient Express, or ocean liners. Mark’s favourite type of transatlantic voyage is on the Queen Mary 2, of the Cunard line. When he started travelling in the 80s, emissions didn’t enter the equation, and with Seat61, he wanted to convey the story that trains represent a better way to travel, a nicer experience. And it’s that particular message which has resonated with his vast audience 20+ years on, as he continues to guide new generations with his passion. By focusing on the beautiful and exciting aspects of travel, he’s been a formidable one-man army in the fight for sustainable travel.
How often do you travel by train when on holiday? Have you used either high-speed rail or sleeper trains? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.