Before airplanes and automobiles exploded onto the scene, rail travel was the ideal way to travel cross-country. In some parts of the world (e.g. Europe, Japan) it's still one of the standard modes of city-to-city travel, and in others (e.g. North America) it remains as a fairly popular alternative. It lacks the speed of air travel and the flexibility of driving an automobile, but compensates for that by giving you more room to casually move around, while someone else still does all the driving. It's also more comfortable than air travel to those who don't like the thought of being suspended 30,000 feet above the ground. For distances between about 100 and 800 km it may be the fastest way of travelling, especially if you travel from city center to city center. For longer distances it takes longer than travelling by air, but provides you with a ground-level view of the territory you're visiting, and allows you to stop on the way.
Be aware that it can be very expensive in some countries to travel by train. Especially high speed trains can be as expensive as — but more convenient than — flying.
If you can, book in advance. In many countries you may benefit from a substantial discount. Reserving a seat, on the other hand, will usually incur a small surcharge - in these countries, you will have to decide whether or not the train will be empty enough for seats to be readily available.
In some countries, fares are calculated by market, not by distance. In the United Kingdom, it is accepted practice to take full advantage of loopholes, such as it being cheaper (for whatever reason) to buy separate tickets A-B and B-C for a journey from A to C, or conversely it being cheaper to buy a ticket from D to F for a journey from D to E. Other countries may or may not allow this practice.
Many countries offer passes, allowing several journeys to be made within a region. Inter Rail (for Europeans) and Eurail (for others) are good value for those who qualify and wish to travel extensively through Europe. Otherwise, typically, the value gained from such a ticket is in inverse proportion to the area covered (unless you spend the whole period of the pass on trains).
Unless you are joining the train at a minor halt with no hint of ticket office or machine (or at somewhat more major stations, like Preston or even Manchester Oxford Road, at night, although even then one must check that the ticket machine is not in use), please buy your ticket before joining the train or else you may have to pay a higher fare or a fine or even face imprisonment. Although prisons may offer free accommodation and catering, a stay in this form of government hospitality may not form an enjoyable part of your holiday.
When to travel
If possible, try to avoid business rush hours. For local trains, this typically means travel on trains due to arrive at a reasonably large town or city between (roughly) two hours before and one hour after the traditional start of work, and departing the same town between one hour before and two hours after the traditional end of the workday. On the other hand trains in the rush hours are more frequent, and if you don't mind standing, you're more likely to have good connections in rush hour periods.
In western countries, Friday evenings, Sunday afternoons and public holidays are also not good choices of time. Please be particularly careful when travelling on Sundays and public holidays, as services are often reduced or non-existent.
Services in the late evening or early morning are often sparse and not entirely safe.
At the station
Be on time, or early. Though trains have a reputation for running late, they always seem to run early when you are running late to catch them. If you have bought the tickets in advance turning up 10 min before departure is more than enough. Bear in mind that trains often close the doors a minute before the official time of departure.
Many trains (especially faster ones) call for very brief intervals at smaller stations, sometimes as short as 30 seconds. Have all your luggage at hand and be prepared to board quickly. Tuck away loose pieces of luggage like drinks, maps, guidebooks and coats before the train arrives to ensure a smooth boarding procedure.
Please don't run if you can avoid it.
Do not walk on the tracks except at an authorized, controlled crossing or under the direction of staff. Look both ways before crossing, even if warning devices are not operating. Do not cross against warning devices.
Stay behind any yellow lines on platforms except when you are actually boarding.
Stand well back from the platform edge when express or through trains pass the station. They can generate a lot of suction as they pass.
Face the platform edge if you are wearing a backpack, so the pack won't be caught by a moving train.
If you have a pram with you (or, for that matter, anything else with wheels or rollers), keep an eye on it, make sure the brakes (if any) are engaged and position it parallel to the tracks. This will minimize the risk of rolling on platforms which slope slightly towards the tracks.
A radio controlled watch can be a useful device for frequent rail travelers. Trains in Western nations normally depart pretty much on the second of timetabled time, and "railway time" is synchronized with "atomic clock time", which radio controlled watches use. A normal watch is often wrong by a couple of minutes, which can make a big difference in the world of trains. Knowing in confidence that you still have 120 seconds to get from platform 1 to platform 12 will save you from having to run and experiencing unnecessary stress. Radio controlled watches can be purchased cheaply online. Synchronized mobile phones and PDAs will also do the job.
Before boarding a train, wait until all passengers getting off at your station have unboarded. Trains will not depart if there are still people queueing to get on, even if it means they're a minute late. (This doesn't apply to some frequent services at rush hour, where waiting a few extra seconds can cause the line to lock up, but on such a service it is no great loss to wait the few extra minutes for the next train.)
When boarding, stand on either side of the door(s) when other passengers are unboarding. Making sure there is a clear and empty path in the direction of the platform exit for unboarding passengers will ensure a quicker (un)boarding.
Find out if the class or car you are boarding is in the front, middle or rear of the train and position yourself on the platform accordingly. Ask the staff on the platform. In some countries, stations are divided into zones and and diagrams show you what zone your coach number corresponds to; for Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains, even the exact positions of the doors are painted on the platform.
Give way to encumbered passengers, such as people with lots of bags, people with children in strollers and people in wheelchairs. Offer them a hand if you can if they're struggling.
Do not enter or leave any train that is moving or while the doors are closing. If someone is caught in the door, alert the guard or operate the emergency stop/door release lever/button if the train begins to move. (Do this only in an emergency as once the train is stopped this way it may need to be inspected from end to end - which may cause a considerable delay. There are often fines for stopping a train inappropriately and you may be put off the train where it is stopped and handed over to the Police. Missing your station is not a valid reason to stop the train.)
Some Intercity trains in the United Kingdom have manual doors with central locking. When the door can be opened, an amber light is lit to the side of the door on the outside, and a sign is lit above the door on the inside. Do not attempt to open a locked door. All doors open outwards. There is only one door handle and that is on the outside; to open the door from the inside this handle must be pushed down whilst reaching through the window. Please shut the door firmly if you are the last to board/alight. Do not lean against these doors, and use the emergency stop if one swings open.
Trains offer a wide variation of amenities. Some trains offer airline style entertainment systems (when working and when the passenger has a seat). Others offer very little by way of facilities, some not offering not even toilets.
Train toilets are also to widely varying standards; some may not flush and others may be extremely unhygienic, while others are spotless and extremely modern.
Tuck away your luggage as much as you can. Don't let it block the way or the seats for other passengers.
Some trains are fairly safe as far as petty criminal activity is concerned. Others are not. When in doubt, ensure that your luggage is kept in your sight at all times. If you have your own compartment, lock the door from the inside when sleeping, preferably with your own lock.
Accommodation on board
If the train is lightly loaded, just sit anywhere (preferably where the seat is stable).
More typically, there will be some seats remaining. Double (or triple) seats are usually fairly hard to find (although there may be some at the far end of the train)
If you are on a British or Dutch peak time train, or on some trains in India or China, you may find that all the seats (if any) are taken. Do the best you can to find a safe place to stand or squat. Do not occupy the roof, the toilet, the luggage racks or the space under the seats or tables.
Many trains have first class accommodation. This can be affordable in some cases, or very expensive in others. You are paying (typically) for a wider seat and a much emptier compartment. The "perks" offered to first class ticket holders are usually fairly minimal (for example, free tea and coffee). Do not, under any circumstances, travel in first class unless you have a ticket or other permission to do so. In some countries (such as Belgium), pregnant women have first class access at no extra cost.
For overnight journeys, consider investing in a couchette or sleeper compartment, which are often cost-competitive with lodgings for the night. A couchette cabin has around 6 beds for sleeping and no other facilities, while a full-fledged sleeper will have two to four beds and possibly bathing facilities like a sink or shower.
Speed of travel
Trains travel at widely varying speeds. Fast trains in countries with efficient rail networks often travel at up to 300 km/h, making rail the fastest travel mode for fairly long distances.
Others, like the United Kingdom, have semi-major lines running as slow as 60 km/h (for example, Blackpool to Leeds, a distance of 135.4 km, takes 2.25 hours; this works out as 60.2 km/h). Other lines such as the East Coast Main Line run at 200 km/h; the 600 km journey between London and Edinburgh can take as little as 4 hours 20 mins.
Trains are typically, though not necessarily, faster than buses.
Further information is available about rail travel in specific countries.
For travel within Europe, consider the Inter Rail (for Europeans) and Eurail (for others) passes. There are now also limited versions of the passes available that cover just your choice of countries.
Although it once held much of the continent together, and remains useful for local travel in many metro areas, intercity train travel now ranges from relatively convenient in the Northeast Corridor, to manageable in California and parts of southeastern Canada, to sparse in other parts of the continent. If you prefer to travel by rail, it's still possible (depending on where you go), but it offers neither speed nor convenience. Passes allowing several journeys to be made within the same country are available, but cross-border passes have been phased out. Many train stations do not have ticketing agents, or have agents for brief periods at the time the train is scheduled to arrive. At smaller unmanned stations, you may be able to use a ticketing machine, or may be required to purchase your ticket onboard. You may also purchase tickets online or by telephone.