In this exclusive interview for SouthAmerica.travel, the Man in Seat 61, also known as Mark Smith, explains how his love of riding trains went from hobby to career, muses on the romance of train travel, and shares his thoughts on the future of South America Railway Tours.
“The Man in Seat 61” is the stage name for one Mark Smith, a British former Station Manager for British Rail and an expert-by-proxy on the subject riding trains. He started a website, seat61.com, a decade ago out of frustration at how hard it is for would-be train travelers to get relevant and helpful information on train travel. He must have been doing something right, because the website quickly blossomed into an authoritative resource for train travelers – and now The Man in Seat 61 is gearing up for a TV series that documents his journey from London across Europe into Russia, all by train.
His stage name comes from his favorite seat in Eurostar’s first class, the well-positioned window seat #61. Inspired by Zaharoff “the notorious arms dealer who would always book compartment 7 on the Orient Express to and from Istanbul,” Mark Smith won’t ride on any other seat.
SouthAmerica.travel: Was it your original intention to provide practical train travel information, or to highlight epic train journeys, or both (on seat61.com)? A reader commented on the TV teaser, “Seat 61 is not just about taking a train, it’s about finding information on epic journeys on all continents.” Was that how it all started?
Mark Smith: It started very much as practical information, just because no-one in the commercial world was providing it. If the train companies themselves wouldn’t tell people how to get from the UK to Italy or Spain, let alone to Moscow or Istanbul, I thought I’d just have to do the job myself. The first web page I put online way back in 2001 was a list of top European cities and how to get there from London. It grew from there!
SouthAmerica.travel: How did your hobby turn into such an extensive resource for train travelers?
MS: The site was first started out of frustration – that it was so easy and practical to travel by train, and so rewarding, but so difficult (and often downright impossible) to find out about. The various organizations who run the trains often don’t market their services well, or (for example, where a journey consists of multiple legs run by different operators) they don’t see the big picture so don’t provide end-to-end information for travelers. That gap still exists today, and as the internet has become the first place people look for travel information, seat61 has found its niche plugging that information gap.
SouthAmerica.travel: What’s the most remote place you’ve traveled to by train? Vladivostok?
MS: It depends on how you define ‘remote.’ Yes, Vladivostok is a long way from Moscow, let alone London, but I think Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands on a snow-swept February day looks even more wild and remote than Siberia!
SouthAmerica.travel: Why the romance of train travel? I watched the TV series trailer, and loved this quote: “Unlike air travel, nothing is stopping a train traveler from bringing a bottle of wine aboard.” Can you speak to any other reasons why train travel still has nostalgia and romance for the modern world?
MS: There’s a whole list… First, you get to see where you’re going, unlike air travel. You’re treated as a human being, sleeping in bed, eating in a restaurant, not strapped in, with space to move around. You’re treated like an adult (so can bring that bottle of wine on board!) not like a suspect at the airport and naughty child on the plane. Trains reflect the country you’re visiting; planes don’t. You may get to meet the locals, not just tourists, and businesspeople. And these days, trains are often low stress and low-carbon, flying is often high-stress and high-pollution.
SouthAmerica.travel: Where would you most like to travel to in South America?
MS: The train to Machu Picchu is high on the list!
SouthAmerica.travel: Thoughts on the future of train travel in South America?
MS: Unlike Europe and even parts of Africa and Asia, there seem to be oddly disjointed train services here and there in South America, but nothing approaching a coherent network. Bus and air travel appear to be the norm. But it will be interesting to see if Argentina does bring back an intercity rail network and if Brazil does join the select high-speed rail club with its proposed Rio to Sao Paulo line.
SouthAmerica.travel: Tips and tricks for train travelers (worldwide)?
MS: Oh, I have many – but then, that’s what seat61 is for, you’ll have to come and see the tips for whichever country you want to visit! However, I’ll leave you with The Man in Seat 61’s top tip, “Never travel without a good book and a corkscrew…”