Nicholas sees the World by Rail

Staff member: Nicholas // Trip date: Feb 2014

 

North America (Canada and USA)

 

I departed on my 8 week journey around the world in early December .Flying from Melbourne to Vancouver via Los Angeles.

The flights literally flew by and I found myself standing on the other side of customs in Vancouver in no time at all. I was lucky enough to have my hotel in Vancouver providing a shuttle service to the Shangri La Vancouver. However I had noted that the local train system in Vancouver is quite easy to handle, especially with the Sky Train in operation which in some cases shortens the trip as there are only a few bridges linking the Airport to the downtown area, which can become quite bogged down in traffic.

In Vancouver I had decided to spend two days getting out my crazy inner Tourist so these days included a Great Landsea Tour aptly called the "Vancouver City Highlights Tour" and they offer several other variations of tours including Victoria Island and Whistler.

The tour itself covered many areas of Vancouver; Gastown, Chinatown, Robson St, Canada Place, Stanley Park with several stops and Granville Island, Brent was my guide and he had an immense amount of information and history to share on the city and definitely imparted a personal touch to your usual bland city tour. The Tour size itself was luckily quite small with only 3 people including myself in the minivan.

The Shangri La in Vancouver was located right in the middle of Downtown Vancouver and offered all the modern conveniences, I particularly enjoyed being able to head straight out the door into the hustle and bustle of Vancouver without trekking in from an outer suburb. Meals were wonderful . My room was amazing and the staff at the Shangri La were approachable and ready to assist at a moment's notice.

I ended up catching a taxi with my luggage to the Pacific Central Station to board The Canadian; however trains from the city do go to the Science World Station which is within walking distance of Pacific Central Station if you feel inclined to use the metro system.

The Canadian (Vancouver-Jasper)

 

Once inside the Pacific Central Station, VIA Rail has a large setup with a greeting desk manned by an attendant to help point the way to the check in desks and luggage drop off, which was easily managed as I had already sorted out my overnight bag with the things I'd be needing for the next day on the train (please be aware that you will need to travel on the Canadian with an overnight bag as in some cases you do not have space in your compartments to store your full sized suitcase and hand luggage.) . Once check-in was complete I joined my fellow passengers in the Panoramic Lounge which offers refreshments and free WIFI. Once you are ready to board, the announcement is broadcasted and you start the walk down to the carriage along the platform, if you require assistance there are plenty of attendants on hand so you need only ask for assistance. The Canadian itself has many carriages with Sleeper Classes separated from the economy section by the main dining and meal carriage. Each carriage is clearly marked with a number and inside you will find clearly marked compartments. Each carriage has its own attendant who is responsible for its cleaning and is more than happy to help with any enquiries you might have. I found the staff on the Canadian to be very accommodating. Once everyone has boarded and you are departing Vancouver a departure gathering is held in the Caboose with champagne and snacks offered by the bar attendant there.
Also the viewing area of the train is open 24 hours if you would like to enjoy the last glimpses of Vancouver and the changes in scenery.

 

For my journey from Vancouver to Jasper I was able to experience the Single Sleeper class and I found that because you were lying along the window it meant you could really enjoy the views as you travel and it was perfect for the first morning out of Vancouver as the first views of the Rocky Mountains at sunrise are what I woke up to see.

 

Meals onboard the train were great with 3 times usually offered for each meal, I preferred an early meal most of the time as the meal carriage was much more quiet at these times. As a vegetarian with dietary requirements the Chefs onboard the Canadian were more than happy to accommodate my needs and each meal was well appointed and delicious. The menu offered was up to date including Quinoa salads and other tasty options.

 

After sitting in the viewing carriage for most of the late morning, our arrival to Jasper station was announced, in most cases there is some time allotted for getting off the train for a quick look around and to stretch your legs, however if you get off the train you cannot reboard until invited to do so. As I was going to be getting off the service in Jasper I disembarked and waited for the luggage to be brought around before being picked up to go out to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. I spent the few days travelling the Rockies travelling by shuttle buses, visiting Lake Louise, Banff, Calgary and Edmonton.

 

The Canadian (Edmonton-Toronto)

 

I joined the Canadian after spending several days travelling throughout the magnificent Rocky Mountains and had decided to travel all the way to Toronto via train. This was another 3 night journey on the train, however this time I was in a 2 person Sleeper compartment which gave me some extra room to stretch out over the next few days.

 

I spent the majority of the next few days between the Cafe car, the Caboose with Bar and the scenic dome. It's quite easy to make some friends on the journey with entertainment provided and activities such as wine tasting and live music to while away the time. Otherwise if you would like to you are able to request that your bed be left down so you can have a nap along the way. From Edmonton to Toronto there are a couple of significant scenery changes, starting with the move to the flatlands or Prairies which were quite unique but sometimes a bit monotonous, before entering northern Ontario a region renowned for its lakes and beauty.

 

I arrived into Toronto a little later than expected due to a broken down freight train during one of the nights we were on board, I definitely wouldn't recommend booking anything on the day of arrival just in case of this happening as in most cases without any fault of the operators there can be some quite hefty delays. However Toronto station is well situated in the city with an easy indoor walk to hotels and other amenities the city offers.

 

I ended up arriving into Toronto just as a massive snow storm blew in, which meant I had to find a Hotel before my friend was able to come into Toronto to pick me up.

 

The time I spent near Toronto included several touring days visiting Native American Reserves, Michigan USA, Malls in the nearby cities and some of the local townships. In Toronto itself I was able to get some VIP passes to go up the CN tower, definitely worth the price as there can be lengthy queues for most of the tower and the VIP pass gets you to the front of the line for everything. After the tower I walked around the Downtown and enjoyed the underground mall in all its Christmas lit glory and finished up my time in Toronto just after Christmas with a meal at the well renowned Noir restaurant which serves its meals in a Pitch Black dining room which was definitely an experience to remember.

 

I travelled with my friend from his home town down to Niagara on the day before my departure to New York City, and I was able to get a hotel with great views of the falls. Before spending the afternoon right down underneath the Niagara Falls doing some sightseeing before finishing up the day with a meal on top of the Skylon Tower a revolving restaurant where you can take in the sights of both the Canadian and American sides of the falls.

 

Niagara-New York


I boarded this journey on the Canadian side of the border, the station is a little out of the way but as I took a taxi from my hotel to the station there wasn't too much hassle involved. The station itself was not open when I arrived however shortly before departure the attendant did appear and started handing out customs cards for the American side and providing information for the journey.

 

The train from the Canadian side is well above tracks so please do not hesitate to ask for assistance boarding as it might be difficult for those with mobility issues. Once you leave Niagara Falls you cross the bridge onto the American side of the falls and arrive shortly into the Customs and Border crossing area, the train is quickly walked through by officials before being asked to orderly disembark for immigration. It was a rather quick affair and we were soon on our way, once we had set off again the cafe opened up and as I was sitting in Business class we were offered first choice of food and beverages. Business class also offers you complimentary beverages, Wifi, power points and reclining seats.

 

The service arrived on time into New York Penn Station and I was able to flag down a taxi to take me to my Manhattan based hotel.

 

New York CityPass

 

On my first morning in New York city I set out early at approximately 7am as I was dead set on heading to Dominique Ansel's Bakery to try the renowned Cronut, luckily they were handing out Winter Passes so I was able to come back at 9am an hour after opening and skip the hours of lining up. I used the time to plan my day deciding to head to MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Met and some retailers based in NYC.

 

I luckily was able to use a New York CityPass, definitely a handy tool for visiting all the big attraction in New York City, for a low cost it gets you access to; Empire State Building, American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Top of the Rock or Guggenheim Museum, the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island or a Circle line cruise.

 

It was easy to use and I was able to check 3 of the museums off my list by the end of the first day. My second day in New York City was on New Year's Eve so I had a late start knowing I'd be out all night, before leaving my Hotel in the afternoon to track down something to eat. After that I made my way to Times Square and waited for the ball to drop, it was an amazing experience in spite of the cold wind and size of the crowds. I spent New year's day catching up on some last minute tourist-ing before a dinner with a mate who had flown in from Europe which was a great way to spend my last night in New York City.

 

The morning of my departure I used a taxi to get from my Manhattan hotel to JFK airport, luckily Taxi's offer a one preset charge from Manhattan to the airport so even if you get caught in traffic you won't have a massive budget blowout. After wading my way through the copious amounts of security checks at the airport, I was waiting for my next flight from New York City to London, UK.

 

Europe (Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany)

 

I arrived into Heathrow in the evening before my train service out to Belgium and stayed with a close friend right in London for the night. I'd booked an early service from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi so I braved the peak hour Tube to reach St Pancras.

 

Geneva, Switzerland Via Brussels, Belgium and Paris, France

 

I boarded the Eurostar for Brussels and I had a connecting Thalys train service to Paris. I had to check in at the manned gate and make my way through airport level security and European border immigration. From there the trackside amenities included lavatories, cafes, lounges and help desks. I boarded my train to Belgium, which had plenty of spare room to stow my luggage and offered a nice morning snack for the journey with drinks. I was seated in a forward facing seat, that reclined had a tray table and sockets taking UK plugs, each seat had a comfortable head rests and arm rests and the carriage was configured in a 2seat- aisle- 4seat configuration with seats facing each other as well as just 2 aisle 2 configuration facing in the direction of travel. The attendants are quite helpful with information on travel times and the train seats had power sockets and tables.

 

I arrived into Brussels and had a quick hour to grab something to eat and locate where I'd be departing for Paris from. There is a dedicated Thalys help desk if you need assistance but I found the station fairly easy to navigate with plenty of signs and electronic departure time boards. The service from Brussels to Paris was a quick quite and comfortable affair, with another meal served which was vegetarian upon request and quite delicious. Also French border control went through the train a couple of times checking passports. The carriage configuration was the same as the Eurostar with a 2seat- aisle- 4seat configuration with seats facing each other as well as just 2 aisle 2 configuration facing in the direction of travel. The seats reclined and had foot rests as well as tray tables and free wifi was available on the service.

 

I arrived into Paris gare du Nord, disembarking the train and followed the signs down to the Paris metro system and used a Metro ticket to board a train to Paris Gare du Lyon, for my connecting Lyria train out to Geneva. I arrived with plenty of time to locate my platform and board the train finding the correct seat was easy as well lit numbers are on top of the headrests of each seat, the carriage had seats facing to the front of the train in a 2seat aisle 2seat configuration, and a small meal was served on board with complimentary newspapers available in French. Stowing luggage was easy using the luggage racks at the entrance to the carriage. And the journey to Geneva was a swift few hours.

 

From Geneva station I made my way down to a taxi rank and made it to my hotel in a few quick minutes. Check-in was a breeze and the hotel had a great restaurant that I ended up having my dinner at.


I spent the next morning walking round Geneva visiting the river with its massive geyser and the monuments by banks.

 

Later that afternoon I boarded my train to Basel which was connecting to an overnight service to Berlin.

 

BERLIN, GERMANY Via Basel

 

Departing Geneva I took a taxi once again from the hotel to the station and waited at the platform indicated on the electronic displays inside the station, the train arrived on time and was well labelled with the class of service, carriage number and the seats location within. The attendant came round and checked my tickets and passes were all in order before continuing on throughout the train. My seat had plenty of room and a table for me to use, also there was plenty of room to stow my luggage, both in-between the seats and in overhead luggage racks, the carriage was organised in a 2seats aisle 4seats configuration with the seats facing each other and the seats closest to each window had a tray table available and reclined.

 

Arriving into Basel station I disembarked the train and wandered around the station to stretch my legs, it has plenty of cafes, restaurants even a super market and pharmacy, it is well signed and there are electronic displays noting the platforms and times of the trains. I had my dinner here and made use of the free Wifi available in the station.

 

After a short wait in the station I was able to board my overnight train for Berlin, the train itself was quite modern in appearance, was well identified with carriage number and the destination on the outside and the attendant was quite helpful when it came to locating my room as the carriage was split into two levels double decker style. Inside the room I had a double sleeper, however as I was the only one to be using it there was only the lower bed down. There was a table with two seats, storage space and hanging space for jackets and clothes, power points were also inside the room and a full bathroom with shower vanity and toilet. A departure champagne was offered and complimentary bottle of water and soon we were well under way, the attendant requested what time I would like to be woken up and what I would like with my morning breakfast. I turned in for the night shortly after and woke up to be zooming across the German country side.

 

Breakfast was a simple affair as is most European breakfasts, a few selections of bread and cheese, orange juice and yoghurt with your hot beverage selection from the previous night.

 

I arrived into Berlin station on time and disembarked into a massive station that had a great selection of shopping and food on offer. There were tourist and train information centres towards the main entrance as was the taxi rank. I made my way to a taxi and from there it was a quick journey to my Berlin Hotel.

 

I spent the day wandering round Berlin taking in some of the sights, with no formal tour planned; I used the above ground transport to make my way to checkpoint Charlie and around the city before returning to my hotel and heading out for a great meal at Kopps restaurant.

 

The next morning I made my way to Berlin Tegel Airport to fly to Helsinki, I used a taxi to reach the airport with my luggage the journey took about 20 minutes or so and I was dropped off at the entrance to the Airport.

 

Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden, Norway)

 

I arrived into Helsinki, and outside the airport jumped into a taxi to the city centre which took about 25 minutes, I had a great taxi driver who spoke English and pointed out the sights we passed along the way and the main areas of the central city. I was quite lucky in timing my trip to Helsinki as I coincided with a festival that takes place there called the Lux Light Festival, it is run by the city and offers free tours in multiple languages a couple of times a day. You need only head to the tourist centre and ask for a ticket for the tour. After I had got my ticket I walked round the city taking in the sights as it was all beautifully decorated in Christmas decorations still. I had a great dinner in one of the restaurants in the main tourist area of the city and then headed back to the central square for the tour of the lights festival which took a couple of hours, before heading back to my hotel for the night.

 

Helsinki overnight to Rovaniemi


I made my way to Helsinki station in the late afternoon by taxi with my luggage, it is a large station with plenty of signage indicating platforms and departure times and within no time the train had appeared and I was boarding the train to Rovaniemi, a city out by the Arctic Circle renowned for being the home of Santa. It takes over 12 hours however the trains are quite modern, the carriage I was in was split into two levels with sleepers on both levels the rooms had vanities and bunk beds each with their own power sockets, alarm clocks and thermostat. Each carriage has a toilet and shower located on the lower floor. Surprisingly each room also has locks and separate card keys so you can walk around knowing your belongings are safe. The cafe carriage was large, and similarly to the rest of the sleeper carriages it has free Wifi, prices were moderate and there was hot food as well as snacks, drinks and ice cream supplied.

 

I spent the day in Rovaniemi walking around the town and enjoying the fresh snow, before returning to my hotel for a meal and turning in for the night, I had intended to do a northern lights tour but there was copious amounts of cloud cover so I cancelled that in lieu of a night in.

 

The next morning I took a regional train back to Oulu Station and from there a Taxi to Oulu Airport for my flight to Stockholm

 

SWEDEN


Arriving into Stockholm Airport I took a taxi to my Hotel, which was located directly across from the Grand palace, I used my time to enjoy the sights and wander round the city centre, had a meal at a well renowned local vegetarian restaurant.

 

The day after I arrived into Stockholm I had a reservation on the train from Stockholm-Oslo, I used a Taxi to get to the central station in Stockholm and from there it was as simple as following the directions to the platform and boarding. The service itself took several hours but was comfortable and countryside was different so the time went quickly. My carriage onboard had several different seating configurations, a 4 seater quiet zone with glass windows and a door for entry; seats were also arranged in the 2seat- aisle- 4seat configuration with seats facing each other as well as just 2 aisle 2 configurations facing in the direction of travel. Each seat onboard had its own table and curtains, power sockets and reclined. The carriage had plenty of luggage storage in both over head racks and at either end of the carriage. There was no formal border crossing however when you disembarked in Oslo station there were Border personnel at the platform and they were checking people in a random fashion.

 

NORWAY


I arrived into Oslo station in the early evening and utilized the taxi rank out the front of the station to reach my hotel. My hotel was based in the new area of Norway on Tjuvholmen Islet, which provided me with great harbour views and an interesting take on the new Norwegian architecture. I had my dinner in the hotel's restaurant and then headed up to bed.

 

OSLO - MYRDAL


The service from Oslo to Myrdal left early in the morning; I had a first class reservation which I had made prior to leaving home. As I was trying to do the Norway in a Nutshell journey as well today I'd had to leave as early as possible however there were not any ticket windows open in either Oslo Station or Myrdal station which is 'unmanned' so I was a bit worried about where to validate my pass, however the train conductor on the train service said that it just gets done my by the conductor on the Flam Railway. So I was able to relax and enjoy the scenic journey across Norway towards the Fjord lands. In my carriage the train had the 2seat- aisle- 4seat configuration with seats facing each other as well as just 2 aisle 2 configuration facing in the direction of travel, with each side having tray tables, overhead luggage racks and a power socket, there was luggage storage at either end of the carriage as well. The cafe car onboard had hot food available as well as snacks and drinks and you were able to pay via eftpos which was handy. The train also had Wifi which just required you to sign up to the railway website for free internet. I arrived into Myrdal around 1pm which left about 15 minutes to board the Flam Railway.

 

NORWAY IN A NUTSHELL

 


After I disembarked the train from Oslo at Myrdal station, I walked into the station which divides the two platforms one side for the intercity trains and the other for the Flam Railway. Inside the station are a few vending machines and a Cafe and Souvenir store which would be open in the summer season when the service is in bigger demand. There were plenty of brochures inside regarding the journey and electronic departure boards which showed the days departures and arrivals. It said that the flam train would be departing 15minutes after I had arrived but the train was waiting outside the station in any case so I boarded immediately. The service itself has 2 carriages and the engine with each carriage arranged into a 2 seats aisle 6 seats configuration with the seats facing each other, large TV screens with information about the journey and overhead luggage racks. The journey on the Flam Railway was amazing it is such a picturesque journey especially with all the snow and ice around. The train winds its way through short tunnels and clings to the side of the mountains as it gets lower and lower into the valleys, it stops at the side of a waterfall where they have built a platform for viewing and taking some photos and this is about halfway into the 15-20 minute journey down to the Fjords. You also pass an amazing little town hidden right in the middle of the valley in true Norwegian style brightly painted building in a green pasture surrounded by snow covered mountains on every side with a little river dividing it in two; it was an impressive journey which sees's you arriving about 1.5hrs before the ferry departs.

 

With the spare time that I had in Flam town, I visited the small Flam Railway museum and gift store, had a meal and wandered around the harbour area. They have a few larger souvenir stores which operate in the summer season but as it was the middle of winter several of the more touristy options had closed until then. I boarded the ferry about 15minutes prior to departure the operators just checked that the ticket had Norway in a Nutshell on it as well as what language I spoke. On the Ferry there was only 3 people including myself, however after chatting to the operator she said that in the summer times it can get as busy as 400 people per journey, the ferry is more than large enough to accommodate this many people but it was nice to have the entire boat to myself.

 

The Ferry journeys along the Fjords with an announcer in both English and Chinese relating to us the sights, details and history of the scenery we passed. The journey took a while but I was able to relax inside the ferry which has a cafe area and vending machines as well as lavatories. It was warm inside the ferry with large windows to take in the views of the Unesco Heritage Sognefjord and there are plenty of comfortable seats or outside there is both a large upper and lower deck with seats.

 

Upon arriving in Gudvangen there was a Shuttle bus lit up with a sign saying it was a 'Norway in a Nutshell' bus, waiting right in front of where the Ferry landed. I stowed my luggage and boarded the coach, the journey to Voss station was quiet, the coach seems to be a regional service as it picks up more passengers as it goes, but the driver was helpful and let me know when we were getting close to Voss station. By the time I got to Voss it was well and truly dark outside so I went inside the station and waited about 20 minutes for the next regional train to Bergen, the carriage was a simple metro affair with 4seats aisle 6seat configuration.

 

BERGEN


Bergen was a great city, everything was close together, it was on the side of a bay, had nice shops and restaurants all over the place, and the hotel I stayed at had an old clock tower on top that was free for clients to go up to and sit and take in the views of Bergen.
I stayed in Bergen for just the one night, the people seemed really kind and helpful, especially when I was trying to navigate myself to a great little vegetarian restaurant.
In the morning I ordered a taxi to go to the train station for my return journey to Oslo, a trip that takes approximately 6 hours, once again it was the same class and style of train from my Oslo to Myrdal journey, and I made good use of the free Wifi onboard.

 

Oslo-Tromso and the Northern Lights


Over the next few days I visited Oslo and explored the main area of Oslo which seemed steeped in history and very opulent, with great food and great tram system. I then flew from Oslo to Tromso for two days and visited the International Film Festival (TIFF) and spent the night out under the stars and full moon enjoying watching the Northern Lights, which was definitely the highlight of my entire trip. I ended my quick trip through the arctic by flying back to Oslo then catching a connecting flight directly to Edinburgh.

 

United Kingdom (Scotland, Midlands, London)


I had a First Class Britrail Pass which I used after a couple of days spent in Edinburgh to travel down to Birmingham via Newcastle. The train was modern, and first class provided me with endless snacks and drinks for the entire service. The train had Wifi and lavatories and the trip went smoothly, the train was configured with 4 seats aisle 4 seats with the seats facing each other as well as 2 seats aisle 2 seats facing towards the front. Edinburgh station itself has a supermarket and many cafes and fast food outlets; it is located under central Edinburgh almost so I was easily able to walk down to it. Arriving into Birmingham New Street station I swapped to a smaller regional train directly out to where my friend lives and stayed there for the next few days while I visited the places and people I had known when I lived there previously, the train itself had no first class area however, it was only a short service and the train was organised into a 4seats aisle 6seats facing each other formation and had lavatories onboard.

 

After a couple of days I boarded the train again to travel to the other side of Birmingham to visit with some friends as I used the smaller regional train system which took me only about an hour to head back into Birmingham and then out on the regional service it was an easy trip as all British trains are well appointed with message boards above the doors stating the next station and the destination and many stations are manned if you require assistance, the carriage was similar to my previous regional train taken a few days earlier.

 

After a couple more days I once again boarded the train at Birmingham New Street and travelled down to London Euston Station, the train wasn't one of the larger intercity trains however it had a separate first class area onboard which had comfortable larger seats and tables as well as power sockets, the first class area consisted of about 20 seats arranged in a 4 seats aisle 4 seat configuration with 2 seats aisle 2seats interspersed in the carriage. The journey took about 2 hours and from there I utilized my Oyster card to travel around London on a day to day basis. Using an Oyster card in London is a simple experience, you need only to top it up at either a machine located in the station or with an attendant behind the kiosks or even some stores will provide the service. Tube maps are available in most stations and the train stations display clearly where each train is travelling to and what stations are along the way.

 

Conclusion

 


Looking back on my round the world whirl of journey, I am really happy with the choice to use trains as a primary mode of transport and in some cases accommodation. Being able to take in the views from a train as I travelled in comfort was a surprising highlight to my journey. In Canada the train is a great way to sit back and take in the magnificent scenery that is on offer in a relaxed style, the meals were wonderful and fresh, the beds were comfortable and the service was exemplary. In the USA it was great to make the journey down from Canada without worrying about a hire car or flights, the Business class onboard the service is definitely worth the cost as it provides that extra level of comfort in what would otherwise be a long journey.

 

Having previously travelled Europe and lived in England, I have acquainted myself with the various modes of travelling Europe, From Coach tours with many like minded individuals to One-way flights for an immersive exploration of the local culture, however I have found that to get one of the truly most rewarding experiences one should definitely travel Europe by rail, you see places where roads don't run, where flights don't cross and yet discover totally unique communities existing by the trackside. Rail makes travelling in Europe easy and the Global pass that I had made the experience even more of a delight. My Global pass really opened up Europe so I was able to tick some things off the bucket list that I would have otherwise had to plan a trip for separately. Similarly my 4 Day Britrail Flexi Pass allowed me to visit all the places across the UK with little hassle and yet still have an unforgettably scenic journey. Rail has the unique advantage over other modes of transport in that the stations are usually centrally located in every city, have up to date information and provide access whether via a metro, bus or taxi system to the rest of the region. I would recommend for anyone wanting to explore the world to take the time and plan out arRail journey as you retain a sense of independence, yet have a great network of conductors, attendants, station masters and of course Rail Plus to help ensure your journey stays on track.

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