Airport woes got you down? Take the train and embrace 'slow travel' instead
Taking the scenic route can make the journey as magical as the destination, say rail enthusiasts
Flight delays, cancellations and lost baggage, like many Canadians have faced during travel this summer, is not the best way to start a vacation.
But there are alternatives — it just might take a little longer to get to where you're going.
"Slow travel can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. To some, it could mean, say, visiting a destination and spending a lot of time there rather than moving from place to place," Vincent Gragnani, a master's student at the City University of New York, told Day 6.
"And for some people, it can mean utilizing slow transportation. For example, taking a train ride, which is what I really love."
Gragnani examines slow travel, particularly train travel in the United States and Canada, through a lens of environmental justice and psychology on his blog Slow Speed Rail.
He's got the mileage to back it up, too.
He estimates he's travelled more than 32,000 km by train in the U.S. and Canada, with 14,600 km logged during the pandemic alone.
"My first trip during the pandemic, I rode Amtrak's Cardinal, which is the longest route between New York and Chicago, more than 24 hours," he said.
"There are some stretches where you're going through canyons that you can only see by train or by river raft. There are no roads, and that also means no Wi-Fi, no phone service, no way to really connect with the outside world. You're sort of in that moment. And to me, that was priceless."
After discontinuing several routes and reducing train frequency on others during the pandemic, VIA Rail has restored many, though not all, of its services.
In a statement, VIA told CBC Radio it's seeing an increase in demand for travel, but didn't specify whether current air travel woes might be a factor in that increase.
"After two years of the pandemic, people are eager to travel again this summer, and we are ready to welcome customers on board our trains and do our part to encourage Canadians and tourists to get out and explore this beautiful country," the statement reads.
The 'magical zone'
Singer and musician Orit Shimoni travelled the slow way for years until the COVID-19 pandemic ground most routes to a halt.
"It's just its own magical zone. It's unlike anything else. You're in movement with other people and you're all on this shared, collective experience that's disengaged from regular day-to-day living," she said.
She regularly performed for passengers on VIA's train The Canadian, a 4,466-km route that runs between Vancouver and Toronto and takes four days and four nights to complete one way.
WATCH | Orit Shimoni performs songs inspired by her years travelling by train:
She also relied on bus routes like those previously offered by now-defunct Greyhound to reach gigs around the country. She's currently based in Winnipeg, and hopes to get back on the road soon.
Travelling on The Canadian, in particular, afforded her ample time to get to know people from all walks of life with a level of detail an airplane flight never could.
"I always joked that there were these layers of getting to know people. Like day one would just be superficial questions. On day two, you'd get a bit of backstory. And then by day three or four, you'd be having long, philosophical conversations."
Psychology of train travel
Gragnani's writing and research has focused on the psychology of how travel impacts the mind and changes the experience.
"There's a growing field of psychology called environmental psychology that considers the impact that the natural and the built environment has on us," he explained.
That takes into account being mindful of the environment, too.
Commercial air travel contributes massive amounts of carbon emissions — as much as two per cent of total human-produced carbon dioxide, according to 2019 figures by the air transport industry itself.
That's led to a phenomenon known by some as flight shaming. Perhaps best known thanks to its popularization by environmentalist Greta Thunberg, its proponents advocate for more sustainable forms of travel, including trains, rather than flying.
It should be noted that, while VIA pitches itself as "the most environmentally friendly mode of intercity transportation," that might not always be the case depending on your starting point and destination.
Not so slow after all
For others, the massive delays at airports means so-called slow travel isn't actually any slower than trying to fly — and can be more comfortable or even quicker.
Comedian and Twitch streamer Blayne Smith found himself stuck in Chicago with an eight-hour delay thanks to a connecting flight from Austin, Texas back home to Toronto.
For his next planned trip to Montreal in the fall, he booked a train ticket instead.
"It's funny, a lot of people refer to it as slow travel when it really, in total, feels like kind of the same amount of time when the whole rigmarole is done."
Not for everyone
That's not to say taking the train would eliminate all possible travel woes.
Earlier this month, VIA Rail came to a tentative agreement with the union representing 2,400 of its employees, avoiding a potential strike.
Transit advocates have criticized the lack of modern high-speed rail networks in North America, pointing to similar systems in Europe and Asia that can whisk passengers hundreds of kilometres in a couple of hours.
Gragnani admits that train travel is slow in the U.S. and Canada because it's under-developed.
On his website, he notes that the high-speed rail route between Beijing and Shanghai in China takes about four and a half hours to cover 1,319 km, with more than 30 trips per day.
Amtrak, comparatively, takes about 20 hours to traverse the 1,540 km between New York City and Chicago — at a frequency of 17 trips per week.
Americans by and large don't understand how transformative high speed rail would be. There's a direct train from Barcelona, Spain to Paris, France. It takes 6 hours, tops out at almost 200 mph, and costs $40.<br><br>Not $400. $40.<br><br>That's like NYC to Columbus for the price of a meal.—@stealthygeek
With that timeline, Gragnani notes that many Americans simply don't have enough vacation days to fully take advantage of a cross-country train vacation. And of course, overseas plans are out of the question.
"So it's not for everyone. But train travel gives such a unique window — and not only the landscape but the people," he said.
While high-speed rail provides more efficient service, Shimoni said it loses much of the magic in the process.
"There's nothing phenomenal about being on a train in Europe … It's just like taking the subway for two hours. It's not remarkable in the same way that these long journeys are," she said.
Interview with Vincent Gragnani produced by McKenna Hadley Burke.
- A previous version of this story described VIA's The Canadian as a "cross-country" train, and has been updated to more accurately describe the route.Sep 06, 2022 2:46 PM ET