Why trains are better than planes

The train eased to a halt. It must have been about 2am. I didn't actually feel it stop, I was just shaken by something subconscious. We'd arrived somewhere.

I rolled over in the bunk and pulled back the little curtain. Fluorescent light streamed into the cabin. I had to squint to make out the sign on the platform: Cologne. So we were in Germany.

I had lunch yesterday in Sweden. I ate my dinner in Denmark. I'm now sleeping the night in Deutschland. And I'll wake up in the Netherlands. The only constant has been the gentle sway of a train in motion.

The journey began in Lund, in southern Sweden. I needed to get to Amsterdam. It would have been easier, and probably even cheaper, to cross the bridge from Sweden to Denmark and catch a flight south from Copenhagen, but where's the romance in that?

Much better to spend a night on a train, rattling through the Scandinavian countryside, buried under blankets in a bunk bed while the rain pours down in the dark outside. It beats X-ray scanners and safety demonstrations.

So I boarded in Lund, on the regular Swedish train running to its neighbouring country. I ate a quick dinner at the Copenhagen station, then waited, breath rising into the air on a cold platform, for my transport to Amsterdam.

There are fancy carriages on the City Night Line, the train that whisks people all around western Europe every evening. I could see those nice berths chug past as the train emerged from the darkness, these neat little compartments designed for one or two.

As the train cruised by the carriages got progressively rattier, until the car with the six-bunk rooms pulled up.

My hotel had arrived.

Except this hotel was more like a hostel, a dorm room of the smallest proportions. And like staying at a backpacker joint, my roommates would be chosen for me by the luck of the travelling universe.

I lugged my bag into the empty cabin and waited. Five minutes ticked by. Laughter outside, then a couple of girls stumbled in, bowed under backpacks. "Hi," one of them smiled. "I'm Nina, this is Maaike."

They were Dutch, my two new roommates, holidaymakers heading back to Amsterdam.

They'd also brought food, huge bags of the stuff that they broke open and spread across one of the bench seats. "Please," Nina said, "help us eat it."

But just then, in walked Nick, the next addition to our room. Nick was Belgian and he didn't speak much English. The most we could get out of him was that he was Belgian and that he didn't speak much English.

Suddenly the train started rolling. The adventure was beginning.

Maaike pulled a bottle of red wine out of her backpack. "Anyone got a corkscrew?" We didn't, so she stuck her head into the cabin next door and all of a sudden we had a corkscrew and a new friend, a Swedish guy called Johan.

Outside, Denmark flashed past in the darkness. We stopped in Roskilde, then kept chugging on through the night.

Nick the Belgian's English seemed to improve with each sip of wine. Pretty soon he was explaining that he was a volunteer firefighter. He also loved his gadgets, he said, reaching into a bag and pulling out a high-tech GPS, balancing it near the window to get a better signal.

Two Dutch girls, a Swedish guy and an Australian watched as the Belgian guy hooked the GPS into his computer and then brought up our exact position on Google Earth.

"Just here," he said, jabbing the screen. Still in Denmark. But progressing ever south.

Johan the Swede wandered back to his own cabin as the second bottle emerged. The Dutch girls, it turned out, were writers – Nina had three works of fiction published; Maaike was still working on her first.

If ever someone needed the appeal of train travel in western Europe explained to them, this should do it.

It's not just the fact that you wake up in the morning somewhere new and exciting, in a different country, everyone speaking a different language. It's not just the romance of falling asleep in a bunk bed with the click-clack of rails sound-tracking your dreams.

It's the people you meet along the way, the ones with whom you share the whole experience.

That night was a haze of stops and starts, of whistles at stations and footsteps in the hallway. At some point Nick the Belgian became a nameless, middle-aged German guy. He was just a shape on the bed in the darkness across from me. He got off again somewhere near Cologne.

Much later, light began to creep through the window as the sun rose outside. The train eased to a halt. I pulled back the curtain and squinted to read the sign on the platform: Amsterdam Centraal. So we were in the Netherlands.


Do you prefer travelling by train, even if it takes longer (and is more expensive) than flying? Have you had any memorable experiences on trains? Post your comments below.