The resurgence of railway travel.

In recent decades, rail companies have invested in making train travel greener, more affordable, and more desirable. This helped the industry increase regular ridership–and steady revenue–from commuters and others who don’t travel far. However, when it comes to longer journeys and vacations, trains remain relegated to something “better than the bus.”

Even before the pandemic, the railway industry was inching towards a critical juncture: make a change or get off the tracks. Here’s how it responded.

A need for speed

High-speed rail has been operating since 1964. However, its availability is limited, resulting in longer trip durations and, subsequently, a less desirable way to travel certain routes.

But there has been heavy investment in high-speed rail infrastructure in recent years. In fact, industry leaders in Europe recently introduced ambitious plans to double high-speed rail use by 2030 and triple current levels by 2050. The ultimate goal? Replace airplanes.

And, with only a single high-speed line, the US lags behind most of the developed world, but there are at least two reasons it may soon gain ground:

  1. Recent state and federal legislation has been enacted promoting–and in some cases subsidizing–rail line improvement.
  2. It turns out that Gen Z is very enthusiastic about high-speed rail development. While this group doesn’t yet have much influence, their passion leads me to believe that the development of these lines is only a matter of time.

Return to luxury

Train travel used to be the height of sophistication–and rail companies are trying to bring back that spirit.

Take, for example, the Orient Express. After shutting down in the 1970’s due to a decline in riders, the world’s most famous train ride will once again welcome visitors next year. Of course, it will still offer passage along the iconic Paris-to-Istanbul route, among others, but the new Orient Express La Dolce Vita will be an experience all its own.

I find it particularly noteworthy that this venture is owned, in part, by a French hospitality Group–a partnership that will only benefit riders and potentially inspire future collaborations. This this type of partnership and the return to luxury could not only bing back former train travelers, but attract new ones.

The routes less traveled

Rail companies are investing in lines to and through places that may not otherwise be explored. Take, for example, the Arctic Circle Express. This eleven-day expedition takes riders from Oslo through fjords, mountains, waterfalls, and additional natural wonders that can’t be experienced via other modes of transport.

It’s about the journey

When it comes to train travel, how you get to your destination is almost as important as where you’re going. In fact there are some train lines that are promoted solely based on their scenic routes.

Beyond just the views and vistas, entire train rides are being crafted around specific rider experiences. For example, the Presidential Train in Portugal is a nine-hour fine dining experience that features stops in the wine country and multi-course meals prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.

But for travelers who are taking the more standard locomotive, train companies are now making some (long overdue) adjustments to provide a more enjoyable experience. For example, Amtrak is improving dining cars on overnight trains–such as revamping menus, adding table cloths, and offering non-disposable dishware. These changes may seem minor but, given that meal options on trains are extremely limited, they can go a long way.

A lucky break

Of course, success in anything is nearly impossible without a bit of luck. For example, in the US, the Federal government has approved billions of dollars to improve passenger rail travel.

At the same time, other travel sectors are flailing. Though air travel would probably be better described as a mess.

And while the cruise industry is (surprisingly) bouncing back from its early pandemic turmoil, cruises are decidedly vacations–not a necessary method for getting from here to there, making it a luxury that many may soon not be able to afford.

Ridership can also beget ridership. While train travel has long been common in the EU, it wasn’t always a desirable–or available–option in other places. So, when a European travels to the US, they may now be more inclined to ride the rails. Or, conversely, an American may so enjoy their time on the high-speed trains in China that they may be motivated to see their domestic lines.

And with that, I say all aboard.

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