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Exploring the resurgence of rail travel

Before flying, travelling by train was one of the main modes of transport for tourists and business travellers alike. Now, with climate concerns on many travellers’ minds and the rise of slow travel, there’s a resurgence in adventure on the rails.

There’s a romance on the railways you just don’t get with flying. Watching the world whizz by as you journey from one destination to another has a unique allure – you get a special sense of place and an insight into the communities along the tracks. It had long been a speedy way to get from A to B, and entire countries have relied on railways to boost their economy, either through the movement of goods or through tourism.

With the advent of cars and flying, railways fell out of favour – particularly in the United States, where many railroads were replaced with highways – and so rail tourism was, for a long time, the preserve of either the budget market (think backpackers exploring Asia or Europe) or affluent travellers taking full-service tourist trains.

The resurgence of rail

But there’s a resurgence happening. Both tourist trains and general rail travel are becoming popular again with travellers. The Rocky Mountaineer, for example, has seen its best ever year for passengers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with a 12% year-on-year increase in passengers from the UK alone.

As a result, the service, which operates on routes through western Canada’s stunning mountain ranges, connecting Vancouver to the Rockies, has had the largest ever capital investment in its history, launching ten new purpose-built GoldLeaf carriages to its fleet.

This marries with Booking.com’s own research too, as its survey revealed a keen interest in slower forms of travel and rail journeys in particular. The data showed that 48% of travellers will travel for longer in order to cut down on environmental impact, and 62% want to take a trip where transport is part of the experience. Around 64% of people also expressed an interest in taking a historical train journey, such as the Flying Scotsman or Orient Express.

All of this signals good things for the rail tourism industry – and for hotels. The more passengers travelling by rail, the more room nights will be needed in hub cities where overnight stays might be necessary. Particularly with the demise of sleeper services across the world. “So many night trains have been phased out now,” explains Monisha Rajesh, author of Around The World in 80 Trains and Around India in 80 Trains.

“When I was travelling through China, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore,” she says, “I found they’d all adopted the super high-speed rails and they were phasing out some of their really, really long journeys. But I don’t think this means travellers are going to migrate to budget airlines. Vietnam, for example, has all these tiny domestic airlines and they were all regularly available to book, but the trains weren’t, because people still want to take the train.”

Who is travelling by train?

There are a few core reasons people choose to travel by rail, says Mark Smith – founder of indispensable rail travel resource, seat61.com – and those reasons have changed in recent years.

“I started my website in 2001, and back then the typical user, if they gave me a reason for wanting to go by train from the UK to Italy, or the UK to Spain, it would usually be ‘I’ve got a phobia of flying’, or that they were medically restricted from flying or just that they’ve always liked train travel.

“Over the last six to eight years,” he explains, “that’s changed. If people give me a reason for going by train, they say two things in the same breath: they are fed up with the experience of airports and flying, and they want to cut their carbon footprint.”

In terms of who these travellers are, Smith says it really varies. His site, which provides extensive details on how to use major train services across the world, sees visitors from the UK (30%), North America (20%) and Australia (10%), plus a variety from Asia, Africa and other European destinations.

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Train
48% of travellers will travel for longer in order to cut down on environmental impact. Photo: credit to Josh Nezon, Unsplash

 

“The age profile is remarkably flat,” he explains. “Rail travel appeals to both budget travellers and better off travellers. The latter might stay in a better class of hotel, they might pay for first class tickets, but ultimately rail travel appeals to everyone.”

Rail passengers tend to travel for longer periods, too. Simon Hodge, Managing Director of tour operator Tailor Made Rail, which sells trips in Europe, North America and South Africa, told Click.: “The average stay [of rail travellers] is around 10 nights away, though with the Australian market the length of trip is much longer. With the distances involved, they’ll often spend typically three to four weeks away.”

He says his customers are mainly ‘empty nesters’, with occasional families too. So with such a variety of potential business, there is no one specific demographic hotels should try to reach in attempts to bring in rail travellers. But there are a few simple things hotels can do to make their property appeal most to those travelling by train.

How can hotels appeal to rail passengers?

“Hotels have to provide the same kind of efficiency and ease you get while travelling by train,” says Rajesh. “So things like 24-hour check-in and the ease of check-in are important. When trains are getting in at three in the morning, front desks need to be staffed properly, or there needs to be a system where you can put in a code to open the door.”

Similarly, if rail travellers are departing at 7pm, providing somewhere to leave your things and then shower before leaving will add to the guest experience.

“One hotel that does do something special,” says Mark Smith, “is the Schweizerhof in Zurich. It’s one of those hotels that magically gets everything right, they just do. They’re across the road from Zurich Hauptbahnhof, and if you tell them when you’re arriving, one of their red caps will meet you at the station and get your bags across the road.”

One hotel in Denver, Colorado, is making a name for itself as the go-to rail travel hotel, not least because it’s directly inside the city’s Union Station. “We have done packages in the past for a couple of the trains,” says Marie DeLibero, Director of Operations for The Crawford Hotel.

“So for example, the Ski Train comes here in the winter and so we did a really cool package where guests who booked it got tickets for the train, a night in the hotel and a to-go breakfast they could choose the night prior. They could check-in the night before, get up early and then everything was ready to go for them so they could just walk right out the back door and get on the train.”

The hotel also provides rail status updates within the Crawford Hotel app, and ensures guests have somewhere to freshen up if early check-ins or late check-outs aren’t available. Ultimately, she says, the railways are an underused resource in the USA, but she expects to see a boost in those travelling by train as a result of the ever-declining experience of flying and climate concerns.

 

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Person using laptop
Hero image: credit to Tiago Gerken, Unsplash
Takeaway
  • Rail travel is experiencing a resurgence, with climate change, the simplification of the flying experience and a trend for slow travel behind it
  • The decline of sleeper services across the world means a larger market for hotels, as the more people travelling on high-speed rail means more room nights will be booked
  • Rail passengers aren’t just budget backpackers, they come from all walks of life and are all ages. But that doesn’t mean they’re hard to target
  • Those travelling by train, rather than planes, tend to stay abroad for longer
  • Little extras for rail passengers, such as specific deals focusing on a particular service, or transfers from stations to the property, will put your hotel above the rest when travellers are seeking somewhere to stay

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