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Best books about trains

Best books about trains

From fiction to fantastic accounts of train journeys, railways fare well in the written word.

When travelling by train, you have time to contemplate the land and cityscapes around you, fellow travellers’ stories and cultural gems along the way. Train travel is, therefore, like a shot of double espresso when it comes to fodder for writers. Here are some of our favourites, either to read on your sofa, feeling as if you are rocking along in that carriage with them, or to pack for your next train journey.

European train travel guides

Top of the list must be Europe by Rail, written by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. Now in its 16th edition, this is not only factually brilliant but also written with eloquence and an eclectic knowledge of routes and destinations. Nicky and Susanne are gifted travel writers as well as committed train travellers, making this the definitive guide to train travel in Europe. Latest publication date October 2019.

The European Rail Timetable (ERT) is niche for some, and a never-ending source of superb train information for others. Dating back to 1873, and published in the UK, this bible of train travel comes out in print format six times a year and covers nearly all European train routes. Read our European Rail Timetable blog for more details.

Iron Road to the Isles: A Travellers and Tourist Guide to the West Highland Lines by Michael Pearson was published in 2018 in collaboration with Scottish railway companies, to celebrate the centenary of Mallaig extension. A route that features highly in our Most scenic routes in Scotland blog.

Train travel journals

Author Monisha Rajesh must have been jumping for joy when her book, Around the World in 80 Trains, published in January 2019, was reviewed by Michael Palin, with the words “Monisha Rajesh has chosen one of the best ways of seeing the world. Never too fast, never too slow, her journey does what trains do best. Getting to the heart of things. Prepare for a very fine ride”. We couldn’t put it better than Sir Michael. We are all a bit jealous of her seven months of worldwide train travel, though.

Tom Chesshyre’s Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys, published in 2016, is packed with both wanderlust and wit, taking on routes from Sri Lanka to Iran via Crewe, Inverness, the Australian outback and more.  

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1973, is Paul Theroux’ treasure of a travelogue about a four-month train journey through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. He updated this iconic journal, retracing his steps in 2006, in a book called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

Michael Portillo's Great Continental Railway Journeys, is the book of the successful BBC series of the same name, following on from the already successful Great British Railway Journeys. The original book that inspired Portillo’s travels is George Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide. He captures the romance and history of train journeys to places such as Bordeaux, Lyon, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin, Monte Carlo, Prague, Munich, Zurich, Rome and Budapest.

The Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas and Anna Cohen Kaminski, is the go-to book for those taking on the world’s longest railway journey. The book has, not surprisingly, over 500 pages to cover 9,600km of train travel. Read all about their journey across steppe, forests and mountains, two continents and 90 cities. The book has guides to 25 of these.

Train fiction

We asked our team for some of their favourite fictional books with train themes:

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov - “A brilliantly thoughtful novel. Here's a really memorable bit from the book: ‘And the boy shouted, 'Girl, I love you,' and this time there wasn't anything he was frightened of, because he knew that in the falling darkness his voice would not carry beyond this ploughed earth, beyond these Russian olives, beyond this emptiness which was by now a personal emptiness that he had himself marked and filled, filled so full that now he wanted to leave it alone, like well-worked dough that has already risen to the top of the bowl; and he began to walk quickly back along the sleepers.’ “

La Bête Humaine, by Emile Zola: “I loved that book, really immersed myself into it and felt like I was in the 19th century on a steam train to Normandy. With very vivid descriptions of the Gare Saint Lazare and the hard lives of workers at the time.”

The Little Engine That Could: “A classic”. A fairytale that has been published in various formats, the most iconic is the illustrated 1930 version by Watty Piper and George And Doris Hauman.

Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke: “It has pretty awesome monorail journey on the moon”.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: “So much of this epic drama is set on trains or in railway stations. Gripping stuff.”

And, last but never least, The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit, published in 1906, may be better known for its film version. However, don’t just plump for the movie on tablet version for this one as you go on a family trip. Treat yourself to the book and read it with your young ones for a gorgeous trip down memory lane. Fellow passengers will look on with envy. And possibly even a few tears.

Photo credits top to bottom: Man reading on train iStock ©tofumax, Europe by Rail books ©Hidden Europe, feet on backpack iStock ©Onfokus 

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