Following the Tracks

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What is it about train travel that captivates the imagination of travelers in every corner of the world? What about it makes the word “romantic” so apt? Do you have a rail experience that perfectly captures why we love trains so much? Or are you one of the people who actually avoids trains whenever possible?

yes. oh yes. as much as i love flying (#avgeek, y’all), if i could travel exclusively by train instead, i think i would. i. love. traveling. by. rail.

i’m not sure why that is. is it the technology (tilting, high speed, maglev…)? the way the countryside rolls — or whizzes — by as you stare mesmerized out the window? how even as toddlers we’re made familiar with them, taught that trains go choo-choo and i think i can i think i can?

my first big train journey was in 1999. i had just graduated from college and started working, and finally had the resources (time and money) to rail long distances instead of fly. that one-way trip from chicago, il (where i lived) to roseville, ca (where my parents live), cemented the romanticism of rail travel for me. i had my own compartment on the california zephyr where i watched the midwest, great plains, and rockies roll on by. i was glued to that window and in 48 hours i had seen more than i ever would have seen had i just taken the 4.5 hour flight. being born and raised in los angeles, i did things i never thought i would: i waved at strangers and they waved back. i saw the big black night sky, pinpricked by stars and a bright moon, covering like a blanket a vast expanse of prairie stretching as far the eye could see. i watched breathless as the train glided through the snowy rockies. i ate dinner at the same table as complete strangers! (i was pretty shy back then.) even though it was well over a decade ago, these are parts i still recall so vividly because it made such a big impression on me. sure, in my head i romanticized it (i still do), but that’s the magic of trains.

OK, don't laugh, but I blogged about it back then, which, thanks to the folks at, we can still read today (unfortunately I think I've lost all the pictures).

since then, my love for traveling by rail has only grown, especially when it comes to high speed train travel. here are some of my more memorable journeys:

  • 2002: up the west coast of india from thrissur to mumbai. this was amazing. you could hang out the open door, waving at people along the tracks, watching fishermen fish, seeing farmers tend their fields. the second part of this short video shows some highlights of that ride. it was by no means high speed, and i’m grateful it wasn’t.

[vimeo 892172 w=600&h=450]

  • 2003: my first high speed train ride, on a german ICE 3 from cologne to frankfurt. i remember staring at the monitor at the end of the car we were in, practically fainting when we hit the vaunted 300 km/h — it was as if i broke the sound barrier!

After I moved to Germany and traveling by ICE became the norm, it still never lost its appeal, even the ICE 1.

  • 2006: took trenitalia’s new high speed rail service from milan to turin for the winter olympics. literally brand new (the rail line had just opened less than two weeks before), i remember a loud cheer went up after the conductor announced we had reached trecento chilometri all’ora. i couldn’t help but smile and join in their pride and excitement.
  • 2006: bernina and glacier express trains. slow as all get out, but the scenery was breathtaking, especially going down into italy on the bernina.

  • 2011: bucket list item! i took the shinkansen from odawara to kyoto and it was everything i’d hoped for. like a true railfan, i purposely booked a connection so i could try both the hikari and nozomi services. for so long it was the pinnacle of rail technology and finally i was able to experience it firsthand. (in the video below, my poor iphone camera couldn’t even keep up with the speed of the train, hence its slanted appearance.)

[flickr video=6393316279 w=600 h=480]

I even had an ekiben to complete the experience!

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