/ 4 September 2006

Riding rails of the world with The Man in Seat 61

Every morning a mild-mannered British servant catches his commuter train to London, whips open his laptop and helps change the way people travel around the world.

Mark Smith is the man behind The Man in Seat 61, an independent website that’s riding a wave of global popularity as more and more travellers give up on chaotic air travel and embrace the romance of railways.

Fancy London to Tokyo via the Trans-Siberian and ferry? Or Bangkok to Singapore on a shoestring? Have you even heard of the WaraWara between Oruro and Tupiza? The Man in Seat 61 can help.

On a tea break from his government job in London — he helps draft transport policy — Smith told how his site, which grew out of a lifelong passion for long-distance rail travel, has blossomed over the past five years.

In July it pulled more than 260 000 visitors, with 50% more visitors just on August 10 — the day when the thwarting of an alleged plot to put suicide bombers on United States airliners resulted in unprecedented levels of security, and scenes of mayhem, at major British airports.

“When I first started the site, it was attracting people who didn’t need to fly,” he said.

In the last year or two, however, “there has been a surge of interest in travelling overland to avoid flying, or to cut down on flying” amid concern about the impact of civil aviation on climate change.

Typical of the new breed of surface traveller is Barbara Haddrill (28), an environmental activist who is taking six weeks to travel from Wales to Australia for a friend’s wedding.

“If I flew to Australia I would negate everything I have done for the last six years and that would seem sad,” blogged Haddrill before she set off by train via Moscow to Singapore, where she plans to find a boat to Brisbane.

By her estimate, her trip will put 1,65 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared with 3,7 tons if she flew.

Beyond environmental concerns, however, Smith senses a yearning among travellers to enjoy their journey as much as their destination.

“When you arrive somewhere by train, I suppose it’s like reaching the summit after climbing a mountain,” he said. “If you took a helicopter, it would be the same summit, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

Very much a labour of love, The Man in Seat 61 — named for Smith’s favourite first-class Eurostar seat — is updated by Smith himself during his hour-long daily commute to work from his home outside London.

It draws not only from his own experience and research, but also on e-mail contributions from fans around the world.

As a travel planning tool, he said, it is often the only place on the internet to find details about trains in offbeat places, such as Egypt where the state railway has no website of its own.

Even for travel within Europe, it has stuff that’s missing from official websites, such as pictures to show what exactly a couchette — an economy-class sleeper — looks like on France’s SNCF railway.

Most visited are Smith’s pages on the Trans-Siberian railway, India, Australia and Canada, as well as “London to anywhere in Europe” and an historical page that clears up myths about the fabled Orient Express.

Smith’s own recent journeys have seen him take the train to a wedding in Greece, then on to Syria and Jordan. Closer to home he has already introduced his baby son Nate to the Eurostar with a day trip to Disneyland.

As for this year’s most-talked about rail adventure, China’s newly launched high-altitude train to Tibet, “I think I’ll wait until the excitement has calmed down.

“The world is changing,” he added. “If we’re not careful, it will be an identical world with identical fast food places, identical hotel chains and every journey is an identical journey at 30 000 feet.”

“But we’re not there yet.” — AFP