(This article was originally published by The Plaid Zebra, 07.23.16)
Human history is shaped by transportation, and the railroad in particular has become a sought-after time capsule for travelers to explore and romanticize.
Every summer, teenage backpackers embark on weeklong journeys throughout Europe via rail as a rite-of-passage, while every spring, blissful couples pose on rustic train tracks for engagement photos. The train not only connected the world faster than ever before, but also brought people together—to each other, to their environments and to their futures.
Today, train travel is experiencing a renaissance, not only in Europe but also across the world. Amtrak found that its ridership had increased 51% between 2001 and 2013, particularly for inner-city travel. Although daily commuting accounts for part of this resurgence (trains allow people to work in busy cities but live in more serene towns), it’s also due to the growing desire travelers have to “connect” with the places they explore, as well as retain a certain level of “freedom.” One such traveler, Jack Donarchy, while traveling from the town of Yokosuka, Japan to the airport, found himself lost on the train. “I had a window seat and was allowing my mind to wander with the rhythm of the train. Suddenly, a switch flipped inside my head and I realized that even though I’d spent the last two years in Japan, I was seeing—really seeing—the country for the first time.” The train takes travelers through the heart of a place—cruising through both its majestic landscapes, untouched by humans, and its forgotten underbellies abandoned in history.
The “Puffing Devil” and the revolution it started.
Invented in 1801 by Richard Trevithick at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the first steam-powered passenger locomotive was a shocking sight for contemporary travelers who witnessed its debut in England. Nicknamed the “Puffing Devil,” it was loud, dirty and visually jarring with its black, iron body and steaming top. Yet one witness described it as “a little bird, going faster than I could walk.”
Although the “Puffing Devil” would ultimately puff out just a few days later, a seed had been planted that would grow into centuries of rail travel. For those experiencing the Industrial Revolution, trains were a “reminder” that the world had changed. Railways became one of the “few places that upper and middle class came face to face with industrial machinery.”
The effects of the railway became known as the “annihilation of time and space,” because not only did it allow people to travel quicker and access places unimaginable before (it is also the reason we have standardized time), but it profoundly changed people’s relationships with nature.
Industrial machinery became a part of the natural landscape, with train tracks stretching across vast prairies, penetrating the bases of snow-capped mountains, and running through the centres of rural towns.
So here we are, 215 years after the “Puffing Devil” made its first climb up a meager little hill in Cornwall, and there seems to be an unlimited amount of train routes you can take that will quench your thirst for a freer, more ‘connected’ way to travel.
Instead of wasting hours in airport lines, and thousands of dollars on cramped flights that leave you lethargic, why not take the track less traveled, and see the world as those who braved the first train routes in the early 1800s did? As Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
To get you started, here’s a list of five unique train trips you can book tomorrow.
1) If you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and dreamed of scaling the Andes onboard a dusty, red train as a kid, take the Devil’s Nose Train Route in Ecuador.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
2) If “Little House on the Prairie” was your favorite show, or the (questionable) Jackie Chan movie, “Shanghai Noon,” then you need to hop onto the California Zephyr – you’re ticket through the American West.
3) If you love colorful little cottages buried in picturesque yet harsh mountainous landscapes, then climb aboard The Flam Railway in Norway, which twists and turns through the fjords.
4) If “travelling to the clouds” in a historic, toy-train is your thing, then join locals on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India, which speeds through the legendary town of Darjeeling, known for its surrounding tea plantations.
5) If you’re an overachiever not only in life, but also in travel, then you can take the train (plus a ferry) from London, England to Marrakech, Morocco. Yes, this is real and it’s unbelievable.