Mark Smith is The Man in Seat Sixty-One, an independent website that not only encourages rail travel, but can also help you plan every step of your trip. He founded the site in 2001 as a labor of love; today he gets about 350,000 visitors a month. At the moment, he updates the site on his hour-long commute to work at the UK Department for Transport, but he’s about to give up his job to run the site full time. He lists his main sources as the “famous Thomas Cook European and Overseas Timetables,” internet sites, personal trips, and email feedback from seat61.com travelers. “Sometimes, it can be more like detective work,” he says, “especially in remote countries!” Plenty caught up with Smith to discuss what got him started, why people should abandon driving or flying, and his passion for traveling by train.
Why did you start the website?
I was looking for something to read on the commuter train home. I found a short book called Teach Yourself HTML and it all started from there. I thought I’d fill the gap between how easy and rewarding it is to travel around by train and ferry, and how downright impossible it can be to find out how to do it.
What was your first train trip?
My first trip involved running away to the Isle of Wight by train and ferry at age 13, having saved up the fare from my pocket money. My mother was too relieved to see me back safe and sound to scold me.
What is the most memorable train journey you have ever taken?
There's so many to choose from: London to Verona on the Venice Simplon Orient Express, where (totally unplanned!) my wife and I got engaged; London to Istanbul, Damascus and Petra in Jordan, during which my wife and I discovered we were pregnant; New York to San Francisco, through fantastic scenery; or either of my Trans-Siberian trips.
How important is the environmental aspect of train travel to you?
When I started the site, no one had raised the environment as an issue. But now it seems that it might help save the planet, too. Not only can you cut your carbon emissions by up to 90 percent by switching to rail, air travel has now become increasingly time-consuming and frustrating, and you can probably cut your stress levels by a similar percentage.
What are the other advantages of rail travel versus driving or flying?
Motorways are ugly and destroy the scenery through which they pass. Flying is a non-experience and a waste of an opportunity to do some real traveling. Putting your feet up with a glass of wine and watching the scenery pass by can actually be an enjoyable part of your holiday, not just a necessary evil that gets you there. But I've only recently discovered the biggest advantage of train or ship travel—it can actually mean quality time with your loved ones, free of distractions.
Do you ever travel by plane or car?
I have a car, and use it when I've lots of stuff to move, or if I want to tour around. But I only manage to clock up 4,000 miles a year instead of the average 12,000. I never take a plane within the UK or to Europe.
Do you wish train travel was cheaper?If you know where to look, there are some very cheap deals: London to Edinburgh by train from £20 (US$40), London to Amsterdam from £25 (US$50) by train and ferry, and Amsterdam to Zurich with a couchette by sleeper train from 39 euros (US$52). It also pays to be realistic about ‘cheap’ air-fares. When you add the cost of getting to and from airports, taxes, baggage fees, and ground transport at the other end, a £17 (US$34) each way fare can end up as £200 (US$399).
What single thing would get more of us traveling by train?
Better information is step one. I've tried to provide that with seat61.com. Easier booking is step two (I try to give step by step instructions on my site).
Have you traveled around the US by train?
I have traveled coast to coast on Amtrak five times, via several different routes, and I love it. The trains are like land-locked cruise liners, fares are very reasonable, and the scenery world-class. Any American with £200 (US$ 399) to spare and a need to get from New York, Boston, or Washington to Los Angeles or San Francisco would be crazy to fly and not spend just one long weekend experiencing the States overland by train. There's a whole world out there.
Are you still as passionate about train travel?
The feedback I get from travelers who have switched to travel by train and ship thanks to my site really buoys me up.
Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2007.