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A travel-hardened pro

By - January 31, 2006 (Updated: November 30, 2014)


Compared to Canada, Belgium is an incredibly easy country to get around in. There are loads of buses, trams and metros, but my favorite Belgian travel method is, by far, the train.

Canada has trains of course. However, the golden age of rail that our country was built on is long over.

In the Atlantic Provinces, our passenger rail lines are virtually non-existent. In many towns — my hometown of Saint John included — the passenger lines have been torn out and replaced with walking trails.

Only one passenger train a day leaves Halifax, the largest city east of Quebec. This particular train was my first real experience with passenger rail travel.

As a university student, without a car, I resorted to train travel to get me home for holidays. The train only traveled as far as Moncton, a four and a half hour journey.

From there, I would board a bus that would take me to Saint John. This leg of the trip took several hours as the bus stopped at every small town in between. Six to seven hours later, I would be home.

A round trip journey cost me well over CAD 100. To put it into perspective, a car doing the same journey takes three to four hours and the cost of a tank of gas.

Much as I enjoyed the comfort and relaxation of the train — I would still love to ride the rails across Canada — it wasn’t a very practical way to commute.

In Europe, it’s a whole different story. I know the European national pastime is complaining about public transportation and my observations will be met with protests from the locals, but after you’ve dealt with trains in the second largest country in the world, you come to appreciate the speed, cost and efficiency of European rail lines.

My first European train journeys were in the Netherlands. Even in the tiny town we were staying in, the trains stopped every 15 minutes. They were clean, usually only crowded at rush hour and took me anywhere I wanted to go.

I was delighted to find the same situation in Belgium. Even if it is just a trip from home to Brussels, I now take the train a least a couple of times a week.

I wasn’t always a train pro though. It took me a while to get the knack of reading the schedules and figuring out which platform to be on. I always worried about catching the wrong train and ending up half-way to Berlin before I noticed.

My fears were realized only once. Of course, I couldn’t perpetrate my train blunder alone. I had to have an audience.

Andrew and I were spending August in Amsterdam and I had brought a friend along to show the sights while Andrew was working. I had raved about how easy train travel within Europe was and proposed a day trip.

My friend and I arrived on the platform just as the train was preparing to leave and I hustled us aboard. After what seemed like an inordinately long time, the conductor arrived to check our tickets. I handed mine to him and he looked at me over his glasses.

“Where are you traveling to?”

Instantly I knew I had screwed up. “Utrecht…?” I said in my most pitiful, stupid tourist voice.

“Not on this train you’re not,” he replied.

He took pity though and told us to get off at the next stop and what platform to stand on. He then scrawled a note on my ticket. I’m sure it read: “Please ensure that these dim-witted tourists make it to Utrecht without further incident”.

The conductor on the correct train simply rolled her eyes and handed the ticket back when she read the note.

Despite this minor setback, I am now starting to feel a bit more like a train expert.

I usually board the train at Zaventem Airport. Nothing is better for my train ego than a bunch of lost tourists, just off the plane.

I must at least look like I know what I’m doing because without fail I am asked, in shaky French, if this is the train to Brussels. I recognize the panic stricken looks.

When I reply in English they sigh with relief.  I help them to the right train and tell them how many stops to wait before getting off. Most of all, I try to assure them they won’t end up in Berlin.

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