Thibault Constant on why Amtrak has the most pleasant long-distance trains
If there is anyone who is experienced in taking the train, it is Thibault Constant. On his Youtube channel Simply Railway he reports on train trips across the world. Having spent more than 300 nights aboard night trains and having reviewed more than 170 train types in 30 countries, what are his main takeaways and how can long-distance train travel be improved?
For Constant, the enthusiasm for trains started at a young age, with many trips on the night train in his home country France. He basically grew up in a train. Constant has been making videos about his train trips for the past 4 years, with tens of thousands of viewers. During a workshop at RailTech Europe 2022, he shared his insights on travelling long-distance, which he defines as train journeys of 8 to 12 hours. Because from a passenger point of view, the time you spend in a train determines how long a journey feels.
What makes a good long-distance journey?
Constant’s shining example of the best long-distance trains actually comes from a country where – the cliché goes – everybody flies and drives: the United States and its Amtrak trains. “The first time for me was in 2015 with the train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a 12-hour journey”, says Constant. “I was used to TGVs in France that take five hours max. After that, my view on long-distance trains really changed.”
So what makes the Amtrak long-distance trains his favourite? “First of all, the sightseer lounge. This is for me one of the best features of Amtrak trains, and why their long-distance trains are so enjoyable. Train passengers can read a book, work, eat or meet people. Amtrak is excellent in that regard. There is a massive car with large windows and seats facing the window. I met a lot of people on that train, and then time feels really different. Time doesn’t really matter if you feel good.“
Admittedly, the US is not famous for high-speed or even fast trains, but fast is not always the most important, says Constant. “I’ve seen a lot of things happening in the lounge car, from concerts to poker tournaments. Each trip is different. You can choose to stay in your sleeping cabin or walk to the lounge or dining car, which is a true restaurant experience. This is something we don’t have in Europe.”
In a Nightjet sleeper train you are just stuck in your sleeping compartment, and the journey feels longer, he says. “The Swiss SBB and PKP Poland have some good dining cars, but I would love to see more of the US approach. In Europe, it is too much about speed and efficiency, but it is also important to do things right for the passenger.”
Another good practice from Amtrak is that all long-distance trains have a name, such as the California Zephyr or Silver Star. “Would you rather take the Sunset Limited or train number 3?” Europe used to have this with the Trans Europ Express, as well as the overnight train from Paris to Nice, which used to be called Train Bleu, the Blue Train. Now the same train is just called train number 5774, and it would be nice to see this come back to Europe, says Constant.
The ideal long-distance train
Taking the best practices from Amtrak, how could this look like in Europe? To paint the picture of what would be an ideal long-distance train, Constant takes the Paris – Stockholm route as an example. He made this journey by train many times, but right now it is “quite bad, with many changes and taking more than two days”.
The train would leave Paris at 17:00 and arrive in Malmö at 8:00 the next morning, with a stop in Brussels and Hamburg on the way. The Snälltåget train between Berlin and Stockholm also has a long stop – 1 or 2 hours – in Malmö, and this is actually ideal, Constant explains. “You can stretch your legs and grab a coffee in the city. I now know a good coffee place in Malmö because of this stop.” The hypothetical train would then arrive in Stockholm by lunchtime.
The ideal train composition would be three sleeping cars in the front. “I chose one of the MUn type because it is the only one that has large compartments for families.” Then the train would have two ÖBB Nightjet sleeping cars, “because they offer deluxe accommodation, with showers.”
After that comes the fun part: two lounge cars, choosing SBB cars with panoramic viewing, and a dining car in the middle. This would include free breakfast and dinner for passengers with a sleeping car ticket, which is also open for all passengers. “When you are in a train that long, you do not want just a bar and a vending machine, you want to have a good dinner.” Next would come couchette cars, with 4 or 6 berths, and two seated cars for people with a lower budget.
For a full service, a special baggage car for luggage and bikes is added in the back of the train, as well as an vehicle carrier. “You cannot take a bike with you on the bus or plane, it’s a shame you cannot always take it on the train anymore. A carrier for cars would be great for families who want to go from Stockholm to Paris and then drive to the South of France.” There are several countries that have trains with car carriers, such as Slovakia or ÖBB in Austria, he says. “For operators it may be losing money because you need staff and a loading platform, but you will attract more people to the train if they have this option.”
In reality, it is really complicated for operators to set up a train like this, Constant notes. “But we can dream about it. The big question is: how can we achieve that?”
When asked about the experiences of booking all these train trips in Europe, Constant lamented its difficulties. “Booking tickets is a true nightmare.” Sometimes it takes days, even to try to fit the schedule for the trips he sets out. For the train from Bucharest to Istanbul, which was part of his upcoming journey, the ticket cannot be booked online at all. For people this can be a reason to just book a flight instead because planning and booking a train journey takes more time, Constant sees.
“Hopefully the booking online will become as easy as booking a flight one day. I try to influence people to take more trains, and help people because planning journeys can be complicated. For the future of the planet, the train is a true solution. It is not always the most efficient or quick, but it is really enjoyable, and that’s what I try to show in my videos.”