There are two places I could meet Mark Smith, known to train aficionados the world over as the Man in Seat 61. I can head to his village of Quainton in Buckinghamshire, home to a steam railway centre. Or we can chat beside the Eurostar at London's St Pancras by Searcys, Europe's longest champagne bar.
I'll always vote for champagne. We meet on approach to the bar, gliding alongside each other on the concourse like trains on parallel tracks until I recognise Smith. After settling into a booth, I buzz the "Press for Champagne" button to place our order.
Over a flute of house brut champagne for him and pink English sparkling for me, he describes how he accidentally became a one-man train travel expert. "I was commuting to London and the momentous day arrived when I finished my novel – not the novel I was writing, the novel I was reading on the train home – and walked into WH Smith's to find something to read," he says with the deadpan humour his followers know well. "I found a Teach Yourself HTML book – in retrospect, it was possibly the best £2.95 I ever spent in my life.
"I got a webpage online and thought, 'What am I going to do with it?'. The subject was obvious to me because I've always found it easy and affordable to take the train to pretty much anywhere in Europe – Spain, Italy, Greece, wherever – but it's almost impossible to find anyone in the transport or travel industry who'll tell you how to do it.
"The rail industry tends to have blinkers on and just looks at its own little patch; the travel industry wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire and more flights. I thought I'd be subversive and put the information online."
In 2001 Smith, whose rail-focused career included managing stations in Kent and in London, and regulating rail fares at the Department for Transport, launched his evocatively titled website. The Man in Seat 61 is a nod to his favourite seat on certain Eurostar carriages.
Today, seat61.com – containing some 300 pages of detailed train information – attracts up to 1 million visitors a month, his YouTube channel has more than 76,000 subscribers (his most popular video, London to Paris on the e320 Eurostar, has been watched 4 million times), 48,000 fans read his tweets and almost 40,000 follow along on Facebook. "When I started earning more on my laptop on the train to work [from monetising internet traffic] than I did when I got there, I thought I better give up going to London and do the website full-time, which was 2007," Smith says.
He answers reader questions himself and never wants to hire an assistant. "I've done my time having 200 staff and a £5 million budget," he says. "I hate the term but it's a lifestyle business." His most memorable query was about procedures for train passengers at the Turkish-Bulgarian border, from a group that included a member who "tended to carry a hold-all of electric devices".
"They wanted to know what the search arrangements were," Smith recalls.
Certainly, Smith has a talent for noting the tiniest and most obscure details. "Once a station manager, always a station manager," he says. "I'll see a line of dust built up on something – you look for things like that." Earlier this year when he travelled aboard the revamped Caledonian Sleeper, he checked if the bin was rattle-proof (it was, thanks to a spring-loaded flap and padded inside lip).
He sounds equipment-obsessed but his interest in trains is broader than that. "I joined the railways because I loved travel – travel by train and ship," he says. "There's a world of rail enthusiasts but they tend to concentrate on the hardware whereas … I'm interested in trains as a means of travel.
"Trains and ships treat you like a human being. You can sleep in a bed, eat in a restaurant, stand up and walk around. You're not strapped to a seat and told to sleep in it and balance your food on your knees. So it's civilised. Then you've got room for people to interact, which is why mystery writers and romance writers set things on trains but the only thing set on planes are disaster movies."
His passion project dovetails with a growing global anti-flying sentiment. Proponents of flygskam – a Swedish word meaning "flight shame" – favour eco-friendly transport such as trains over planes. "This current push for flying less and taking the train is coming entirely from the traveller," says Smith. "It's not coming from the travel industry. It's not even coming from the rail industry. The industry needs to wake up to this and harness itself to it rather than trying to make it difficult.
"We talk glibly about a European rail network and visitors think [there's one] website [but each country] has its own national rail operator, possibly two, three, 10 private operators, they all have their own independent ticketing systems that barely talk to each other, if at all, and you need to go to the right reservation system to get the right journey."
He'd love to return to Australia and ride its long-distance trains – it's been 20 years – but top of his journey wish list is the train to Tibet. "It's a 48-hour journey from Beijing and not that expensive – I'd love to do that," he says.
THE MAN IN SEAT 61'S FIVE MOST MEMORABLE TRAIN JOURNEYS
1. VENICE SIMPLON-ORIENT-EXPRESS
I got engaged on this train. My girlfriend and I had been going out for six months and she'd never been to Italy – I was scandalised. I didn't think any train could be worth [that much] for 24 hours but it was magic. The name of our firstborn son was decided in the sleeper in the evening and the following day, somewhere in a snow-swept Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria, I proposed to Nicolette – at least that's what she says because as I remember it, she proposed to me. We ended up, slightly stunned, in Verona engaged. Here I am 13 years later with two small kids, two cats, one small dog and one large mortgage, so never underestimate the romance of the train. See belmond.com
2. CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR
Amtrak's most scenic route is an epic two-night, two-day 3900-kilometre journey on a gleaming double-deck stainless-steel train with private sleepers, reclining seats, diner and cafe-lounge-observation car. From Chicago, it labours across the vast flatlands of Nebraska, crosses the lazy mud-brown Mississippi on a steel bridge, scales the massive Rocky Mountains out of Denver, snakes through the Colorado Canyons just metres from the whitewater, passes Utah's eerie buttes then rolls through California's snow-capped Sierra Nevada before reaching Sacramento and Oakland. See amtrak.com
3. CALEDONIAN SLEEPER
The train leaves London bound for Fort William and Scotland's West Highlands. Have a late supper and a dram or two in the lounge car while speeding through the suburbs at 130km/h, retire to your sleeper and wake up to deer bounding away from the train and the diesel up front straining at 50km/h on the twisting single-track route. The train rounds the horseshoe curve near Tyndrum, crosses the windswept Rannoch Moor, struggles up to Corrour summit and passes Loch Treig. See sleeper.scot
4. NORTHERN EXPLORER
This is easily the best way to travel from Auckland to Wellington, and you can also stop at Tongariro National Park for a few days if you like. It's a breathtaking 681-kilometre ride down New Zealand's North Island through every kind of scenery there is, from coastline to volcanoes and mountains, lush green farmland to thick bush. While tourists flock to the South Island's TranzAlpine train, the Northern Explorer runs the length of the historic North Island Main Trunk Railway, started in 1885 and completed in 1908, over engineering feats such the Raurimu Spiral, Turangarere Horseshoe and Makatote Viaduct. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz
5. BERNINA EXPRESS
My favourite Swiss alpine ride is a narrow-gauge train with panoramic carriages that climbs into the Alps from Chur, passing mountains, valleys, glaciers, lakes and summiting at 2253 metres above sea level. It crosses the much-photographed Landwasser Viaduct where the line leaps across a gorge from cliff edge to tunnel, spirals back on itself to lose height on the Brusio Spiral as it descends towards Tirano and, just before arriving at its destination, runs through streets with cars waiting patiently at traffic lights. Italian regional trains link Tirano with Milan Centrale, making it a great way to travel from Zurich to Italy. See rhb.ch