When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, passenger trains in the U.S. were numerous and popular. One even transported my kindergarten class between my hometown of Plainview, Tx. to Lubbock, 45 miles away. But with the advent of good roads and increased income, cars dominated and train routes dwindled. In other countries though, trains continued to deliver passengers and were there to be explored.
In 1972 I became enchanted by rail travel and all of its varied experiences. With three-month Eurail passes in hand, my friend and I visited 15 countries, occasionally sleeping overnight in route, eating lunches brought aboard, and often jumping on a train without stopping for tickets. In Spain, having misunderstood its departure time, we had to run alongside a departing train, tossing our luggage in as we ran. In what was then Yugoslavia, I watched in horror as my train disappeared from the station after a scheduled stop just as I returned from getting snacks to eat onboard. I had no phone and no way to message my friend who had remained on the train. Five minutes later the train returned on a different platform to my great relief.
Not all my train rides were comfortable. The train from La Paz, Bolivia to Argentina’s border town of Villazon was painfully overcrowded. All seats were taken and yet we were still issued tickets and told to stand. During the day, the ride was bearable. A couple offered me a small slice of their bench seat to perch upon. Cracked windows provided ventilation and the view of the Bolivian highlands was interesting enough. But night fell, windows were shut in defense of the cold high-altitude air, and nothing could be seen outside because of glaring overhead lights. My rare claustrophobia kicked in that evening requiring multiple trips to stand outside the train car where it adjoined the next car. It was one of the longest nights of my travels. Today, that train is modern and offers executive and lounge class with chairs reclining 160 degrees. But in 1974, it was the Bolivian indigenous crowd and us, passing the long trip in a crowded train car through the cold Andean plains.
I lived in Ecuador for 1 ½ years and had heard of a train ride that switch backed from the high altitude of Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil with beautiful views of snow-covered volcanos. We booked our tickets in advance but, again, upon arriving found the one-car train full. Given the option of riding on top of the car with the luggage or standing, the four of us climbed up an outer ladder and settled in amongst the suitcases and bags. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and happened to be around Carnival when water balloons were traditionally thrown at others, including any on top of a train. At one stop, we climbed down, bought balloons and water, filled them, and were ready for the next town. As we approached the flat coastal area, the train approached an area of several tunnels. We had been assured we could sit up in those tunnels, but I dove into the luggage every time.
Vietnam is not known for its train services but there was one from Hanoi to Lao Cai, landing us closest to SaPa, a mountainous town near the Chinese border used by the French for relief from the coastal heat. Many indigenous tribes live outside Sa Pa and the three of us wanted to explore their lives and crafts. The train left at night, and we had a sleeper cabin booked with two bunk beds on either side. We claimed three beds and assuming the cabin was ours, locked the door. In the middle of the night, loud knocking on our door awoke me but not the others. I didn’t answer. But then the conductor used his key to open the sliding door. In walked a man in a suit who nodded to me, took off his shoes and climbed up into the available bed across from me. After removing his tie and coat, he laid down and quickly went to sleep. I lay awake in my pajamas wondering how I was going to get dressed in the morning. Fortunately, our unexpected cabin mate was up early, and after straightening his tie and a second nod to me, climbed down, put on his shoes, and was gone. My traveling companions didn’t know he was up there until he was leaving.
Today, extensive train travel remains primarily outside the U.S., especially the high-speed ones in Europe and the Far East. I still consider that mode of travel best for passenger interaction and seeing the country. You just have to get to the station early.