Traveler walking through train station


June 27, 2018

Train travel is a lot cooler than you might think.

Train travel is time travel. You’re seeing a world not connected by Interstate highways and airports.

There’s something about gliding through the countryside and seeing daily life close-up. Even if you’re on Japan's high-speed Shinkansen bullet trains, you’re rewarded by scenery – and people – you wouldn’t have encountered driving down the highway.

However, train travel can also be dangerous.

By danger, we’re not referring to those explosive, white-knuckle train scenes in James Bond movies like Spectre or Skyfall or From Russia with Love, or the train scenes in films like Strangers on a Train, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Not to mention The General, the 1926 film that created the train-danger genre.

The characters traveling on these trains weren’t paying a lot of attention to “stranger danger” or had any interest in staying safe. You, on the other hand, need to play it smart and stay alert.

Here are some tips for having a safe, fun train experience.

Crowd of people at train station Photo credit: Camila Damásio via Unsplash.

At the Train Station

  • Stand back from the edge of the platform. This should be a no-brainer, but invariably when I’m waiting for a train I see people hanging half their body over the platform in an effort to impress someone. And I’ve never heard anyone say this alarmingly dangerous behavior is cool.

  • Every time I’m traveling by train in Europe I see kids of all ages running around the train-station platform, with no parents in sight. If you’re traveling with kids, don’t let them join in. If not, look out below. You never know who might be at knee level.

  • Think of the train station as an airport with tracks. Don’t leave luggage unattended when you head to the restroom or grab lunch. And don’t say yes if you’re asked to watch someone’s bag.

Interior train window with foggy landscape outsidePhoto credit: Teymur Gahramanov via Unsplash.

On the Train

  • Be smart about your money. Keep your money and IDs on you at all times. If you’re buying a snack from a drink cart, have the money ready so you’re not rifling through your wallet showing off all your credit cards.

  • Most trains (in the U.S. for sure) have safety cards stashed on seatbacks or in brochure racks in your compartment. Go ahead and be the safe one who actually reads the rules and recommendations for safe travel. If there’s an emergency evacuation or security threat, you’ll know how to open doors and windows fast.

  • Keep all valuables on you or with you, and stow your baggage in overhead racks or designated storage areas not under your seat. Spoiler alert: There’s a cautionary tale in the non-fiction book The Paris Wife, written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley when the couple lived in Paris in the early 1920s. Hadley carried several years’ worth of Ernest’s work with her on a train from Paris to Madrid, meaning to surprise him so he could do some work in Madrid between bullfights. She stowed the work in an attaché case under her seat and stepped off the train to get coffee. I gasped when I read the next part. Hemingway’s life’s work disappeared – and as far as I know, it never surfaced again. 

  • At your seat, don’t shuffle the contents of your carry-on, purse or wallet so other passengers can see your train tickets or what types of money you are carrying.

  • Once you’re on the train, don’t be discourteous and talk on your cellphone nonstop or play video games and music throughout the ride. Use an “inside voice” so you don’t rile tempers.

  • Look for another seat if your seat companion is getting too close for comfort, or if someone is making you uncomfortable with too many questions about your personal life.

  • Trust your instincts, but realize not everyone has a hidden agenda because they’re quiet. Many people don’t want to talk on the train, but some are just looking for the right opportunity. 

Subway station platformPhoto credit: Martin David via Unsplash.

Traveling by train from Munich to Prague, I sat by a gentleman who kept staring at me. It felt strange, yet I didn’t feel threatened.

Finally, in English, I asked if we had met somewhere. He was delighted I opened the conversation because, crazy as it seems, we had met at the Intercontinental Hotel’s swimming pool in Bali a few years previous! That ride to Prague instantly became an interesting interchange of stories and reminiscences.

  • When you’re walking in the aisle, give up the macho air and use the handrails. I’ve seen the beefiest guys thrown into the laps of unsuspecting passengers when the train speeds up or flies around a bend. Walk carefully between cars. Those metal vestibule floors can be slippery.
  • Dining-car behavior. If you go to the dining car, you may be there for an hour or more, given the level of efficiency. Never leave your train ticket, ID, passport, personal items, or electronic devices at your seat or in your compartment. It always surprises me when I see someone head off to the bar car or the train’s restaurant and leave a carry-on on their seat to ostensibly “hold the spot.” I’m not against dining cars; I just want you to be cautious of how much of yourself you want to give away in that sometimes cozy, intimate setting.

On another note, the train’s dining room can spawn some interesting memories. There was that time when I was traveling on an old wooden train between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, and I happened to be in the dining car at the Russia-Finland border when the train stopped and a new Finnish crew came onboard.

The drab dining room was immediately “redecorated.” The Finns replaced the dull Russian photos with colorful soccer scenes, the soiled white tablecloths were replaced with bright blue cloths and crisp white napkins. The rubbery fake flowers on the tables were removed and a single fresh flower floated in a vase at each table.

That’s what I mean about train travel. You’re not going to see that on an airplane.

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