LEARNING TO BE STILL There is a mellowness to train travel. The pace of trains can be slow and there are all sorts of things you can do - have conversations with people, make friendships with strangers, contemplate; you can see the landscape in a way that you can't from any other form of transport. Sir John Betjeman, the former British poet laureate, said trains are made for meditation, and that's how I rather see them.
I've taken trains all around the world to make voyages of discovery. On trains overseas people tell you the story of their life, of their village and of their family. Because a train journey is transitory, people are willing to tell you things they wouldn't in other circumstances. I always travel on my own because that's the way to talk to other people. I don't talk back much because I'm a journalist. I'm trained to listen, but if I feel like chatting I will.
LETTING OFF STEAM All the little boys, and some little girls, of my generation were interested in trains. A train is a supremely mechanical object and if you can understand how it works, that's exciting for those with a mechanical mindset. You would find kids at the end of station platforms with their little spotter books and, just like boys of today follow the Premier League, we would follow express trains. It was a glamorous thing to do when I was nine or 10. We also associated trains with happiness in my generation; we would always go on holiday by train, to Cornwall or Kent or Sussex. I think it is part of the psyche, particularly for the British. Anyway, then I discovered girls, and I lost all interest in trains for many, many years. And then it became unfashionable to admit that you like trains. It was only once I felt sufficiently grown up that I decided to "come out" as someone who liked trains. And that was when I started my travel writing.
TRIP ADVISER I used to be a news executive on a national newspaper in London, sitting at a news desk 16 hours a day. I ran the (coverage of the) 9/11 disaster and the death of Princess Diana; I covered these events vicariously through my staff. One day the travel editor came to me and said, "Michael, did you know you need to get out more?" He sent me on a train journey across India, and I found this quite transformative. So I started writing travel stories about railways, and then I was approached by Penguin, an international publisher, and they asked how I would feel about spending two years on a train, travelling around Britain. For most people, the idea of spending two years on a British train would be the definition of hell but, for me, it was paradise. I would get off at various places, stay the night, talk to people. I wove the story of changing Britain into the story of my train journeys. The book was reasonably successful and the publishers said, "Do another one." So I did. And I've just published another, about travelling into the world of the imagination by train.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN I was once on a train in Wales, and I got chatting to an old farmer who told me he was going to hospital, where he thought he would be told that his cancer was terminal. He then told me the story of his life. Another time I was travelling on the Orient Express, on the very romantic Venice section, and sitting opposite me were a young couple who looked - to me - like they had had a bit of a row. They were rather quiet and tense. I thought, "What a shame to come all this way, and probably spend a lot of money, only to find perhaps that you weren't suited to be together." This was my perception. Then all of a sudden they seemed to cheer up, tremendously. I asked the waiter what had happened. He told me that the man had asked him to freeze an engagement ring in a lump of ice, and drop it into the champagne glass of his companion. And that was his way of asking her to marry him. He had just been sitting there really tense beforehand! Is that romantic or what!
DARJEELING OR BUST I think that often modern trains that are overhyped are disappointing. You find that some little, charming trains are far superior. (In India there is) a little railway that is itself a world heritage site, called the Toy Train (the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). It runs up to a beautiful hill station in Darjeeling, where the British used to go to escape the heat of the plains. This train breaks down all the time because it's still powered by steam. It's one of those trains that has men clambering all over it, coals dropping off along the way; it's chaotic, and ramshackle. But 20 years ago I found it to be wonderful. While I was waiting for this train in Darjeeling, I got chatting with a woman and I told her my plans. She said that she really liked trains, so I invited her to come along with me. She said yes, so we went on this train together. Later, I married her. Funnily enough, she's never really said she likes trains quite as much as she did on that day!
ON THE RAILS The psychology of the travel writer is often a little lonesome and about escape. There's nothing I like better than being between somewhere and nowhere. The perfect moments in my life are often in transit. Of course, I couldn't do this all the time because it's important to be with my family. This is mostly something I do for and during the hours of work; our family holidays are joyous in a different sort of way. I just love being on the move, and trains enhance that. Train travel is a much purer, most consistent form of travel than plane travel. A while ago, trains were seen as a rather second-rate form of transport - they were slow, dirty, and governments didn't want to invest in them. But I think all that's changed, for lots of reasons, particularly the development of high-speed lines. I think we'll see more of the expansion of railways, and increasingly they will rival the airlines, particularly in China. I think that train travel has become sexy again.
Michael Williams was in Hong Kong to promote Country Holidays' collection of luxury rail journeys.