Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 7. Letting the train take the strain

trainI love traveling by train.

And were it possible to travel everywhere by train, that would be my preferred mode of transport. There are many journeys I would love to take, particularly on the luxury trains such as the Orient Express, the Blue Train in South Africa, or the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok (I have the time, but don’t have the budget), as well as others across the USA and Canada through the Rockies, or in Australia (from Adelaide to Darwin on The Ghan, for example or across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth on the Indian Pacific).

When traveling on business for IRRI in Europe to visit the institute’s donor agencies, I most often traveled from city to city by train rather than flying. More relaxed, comfortable, convenient, and a better use of my time than sitting in an airport departure lounge wondering if the flight would depart on time, never mind – if there was inclement weather – if it would depart at all. The longest journey I made (twice), over about two weeks in total, was : Bromsgrove (my home town) – Birmingham New Street – London Euston / London Waterloo – Brussels (on the Eurostar) – Bonn (on the Thalys to Cologne) – Basel (down the Rhine valley) – Bern – Milan (cutting through Alps and along the Italian lakes such as Como) – Rome (but return to Birmingham by air). Seat reservations are a requirement on many European train journeys – none of this ‘sardine’ travel so typical on a number of commuter lines in the UK (and even on long distance trains at some times of the day or on holidays).

Braunschweig to Gatersleben and Berlin
In the late 1980s, while I was still working at the University of Birmingham, I decided to visit two genetic resources programs in Germany – at Braunschweig (in West Germany) and Gatersleben (in East Germany). This was before the Berlin Wall had been pulled down. It was actually quite easy to cross over from the West to the East, and at the crossing, border guards came on board to check documents. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly relaxed until my passport had been checked, all was in order, and I continued with my journey, via Magdeburg, Halberstadt, to Gatersleben.

Gatersleben is home to the Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung (IPK-Gatersleben) with one of the most important crop genebanks in Europe. I was made most welcome by the head of the genebank, the late Dr Christian Lehmann and his colleagues Karl Hammer and Peter Hanelt (and other genebank staff). It was a memorable visit, particularly walking through the impressive summer regeneration plots of cereals such as wheat, barley (seeing hooded barleys for the first time) and oats, and other crops, and discussing crop evolution and diversity with Dr Lehmann.

My return journey took me to Berlin, where I left the train at Schönefeld Airport station (in the southeast of Berlin), and crossed through the Berlin Wall by taxi, to arrive at the airport in the West. I’ve remembered that as Templehof Airport, although it might have been Tegel.

Stahleck Castle at Bacharach

The Rhine Valley
I’ve visited Bonn on many occasions. Flying into Frankfurt I could have taken the direct, fast train to Cologne via Bonn. But it’s much more enjoyable to take the (slightly) slower train that hugs the River Rhine. What magnificent views of the vineyards that embroider the steep slopes either side of the river. And also the fairytale castles that  cling to rocky outcrops. The river is a watery motorway, with barges flying the flags of many nations, many carrying a motor vehicle for use at ports along the journey.

Bern to Montpellier (via Geneva, Lyon, Valence and Avignon)
For my second visit to Montpellier in southern France in the early 90s I traveled from Switzerland’s capital Bern down the Rhône Valley. It’s not a particularly fast journey, because the line snakes along the valley. But the views of the surrounding mountains are simply stunning – impressive precipices over which plunge waterfalls for hundreds of feet.

Even 30 secs is late for Swiss trains. They have remarkable punctuality. I’ve spent time visiting various places throughout the country when I’ve had a weekend to spare during my business trips. Bern is a good base with excellent rail connections. Close by is the Jungfrau, and although I’ve not taken the train to the summit, I have twice been on the funicular up to Wengen (starting the journey in Interlaken), then the cable car up to Männlichen where there is a fabulous view of the Alps (Eiger on the left). From Männlichen you take the cable car down to Grindelwald, and then the train back to Interlaken.

The view from Männlichen, with the north face of the Eiger on the left.

Then there was the weekend I decided to see the Matterhorn in May 2004. Leaving Bern early in the morning, we headed through the Alps to Brig where I transferred to the local line up to Zermatt. What a fabulous day out – made even better by the train journey!

High speed journeys
Eurostar, Thalys or TGV. There’s something impressive about these high speed trains across Europe. I’ve been through the Eurotunnel a couple of times, and joined the Thalys (Belgian equivalent of the TGV) to Cologne or Amsterdam (and return). The German ICE (shown here) is incredible – fast, silent and very comfortable. I took this the first time from Amsterdam Central to Cologne, and had a seat just behind the driver’s cab. When he didn’t want to be distracted the driver could make the glass screen turn translucent. Otherwise it was fun watching the train eat up the kilometers from the driver’s perspective.

One thing I do remember from my first TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montpellier, is the speed we reached south of Paris to Lyon, over undulating terrain. It was the first time I had that sinking feeling on a train – just as in a plane descending – as we went over one hill and down the other side. South of Lyon, the TGV proceeds at a more stately pace since the line follows the river.

Yangon to Yezin, Myanmar
I visited Myanmar (Burma) just the once in about 1997 – I don’t remember the exact year. I had received a grant from the Swiss government of more than US$3.3 million to develop and manage a project to collect and conserve rice varieties and wild species in South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Although Myanmar had been essentially closed to the outside world for many years, IRRI had retained a presence there, with a liaison scientist and small office. Given the importance of rice in that country, it was appropriate to see what might be done in terms of collecting rice germplasm. So with my colleague Eves Loresto we  traveled the 250 miles or so north from Yangon (Rangoon) by train to Yezin where the Central Agricultural Research Institute (and university) is located, with its large rice genebank. Our outward journey was during the day, and although very slow (about 10 hours) it was interesting traveling through the vast plain of rice paddies. Several times the train was reduced to a snail’s pace as the track was flooded. We returned to Yangon a few days later by the ‘sleeper’ – I use that term advisedly, because I didn’t get much sleep and the accommodation wasn’t exactly desirable. At Yezin we had to evict a group of about five passengers who had commandeered our cabin.

Melbourne – Sydney
On Christmas Day 2003 Steph and I flew to Sydney, arriving the following morning, Boxing Day. We spent a couple of days looking round the city (we’d been there for the first time in December 1998 and saw the New Year in watching the fireworks display over the Sydney harbor bridge).

Anyway, on this second trip, we took a memorable road trip to Melbourne (about 1,000 miles) along the coast road with several diversions inland. After a couple of days in Melbourne we returned to Sydney by train. It was scheduled for about nine hours, but due to the heat (>40C) between Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border and Wagga Wagga (in NSW) (about half way through the journey), the train speed was seriously reduced because the track was buckling. Instead of arriving in Sydney at around 5 pm, we didn’t get in until after 10 pm. An interesting but rather tiring journey. Thankfully we had a couple more days to recover, enjoy a evening Sydney harbor dinner cruise (courtesy of Hannah and Philippa) before flying back to the Philippines.

One regret
One regret I do have is that I never traveled by train from Lima on the coast of Peru to Huancayo, crossing the Andes at over 16,000 feet at Ticlio (at 11:20 in the excellent video by takyvlaky on YouTube below). I used to travel by road to Huancayo almost weekly when I lived in Lima in the early 70s. The road and railway climb up into the Andes almost side by side, as you will see at various points in the video.

The wonder of steam
Wonderful as the train journeys were that I have described, there’s nothing quite like a journey on a steam train. Near where I live, the Severn Valley Railway – a heritage line from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth via Bewdley – has hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. I made this short video in 2008 when I was back in the UK on home leave.

I just had to include the next video that I found on YouTube, celebrating the Age of Steam.


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