What are the Disadvantages of Travelling by Train?

Photo by Charles Forerunner on Unsplash

Travelling by train can be great at times, but it can also be pretty horrible at others. Dirty, late, and expensive are three of the main gripes. For the full list, read on.

(Dis)Comfort factors of train travel

A major problem with train travel is overcrowding. The train pulls into the platform in front of you and you eagerly scan the passing carriages for empty sections. Alas, you scan in vain. The platform is crowded, and the spare seats are few and far between. It means yet another uncomfortable journey sitting on your bag in the passageway.

Crowded train

Image credit: Pat B / CC BY-SA

Hopefully your train doesn't look like this

Sometimes you can get a seat, but there is no space for your luggage, so you have to have your bags in the aisle next to your seat, inconveniencing any passengers who need to pass by.

Depending on the age and style of the train, the seats can be seriously uncomfortable, especially for a long journey. Lumpy, hard, seemingly designed for a sack of potatoes rather than a human, a bad seat can make your trip very unpleasant.

Once you are in your seat, all is well you hope? That hope is dashed when a troop of football lads/family with loud children/gentleman with questionable personal hygiene sits down next to you. Here is another disadvantage of travelling by train; you don't get to choose who you have to sit next to.

Loud kids on a platform

These two aren't going to help you have a peaceful journey

On many trains there is no assigned seating, it is first come, first served. Even if you do have a seat reservation, it is quite common to find someone sitting in your seat when you get on the train. This can be a problem if the train is already crowded. You either insist on your seat, so that the old lady currently sitting in it will have to stand, or you consign yourself to another uncomfortable trip.

Hygiene, health and safety on trains

Depending on the country, the train operator, and the number of people on the train, trains can be extremely dirty and unhygienic. This can range from simply a general lack of cleaning by the train operator, to passenger specific mess like discarded food, waste and even vomit. The toilets deserve a special mention. Generally tiny and insufficient in number for the service, toilets see the worst of humanity. Combined with (in the UK at least) an almost inevitable lack of soap and water, your life is at risk every time you need to spend a penny (British slang for use the toilet).

Travel sickness can be a problem for some passengers on trains. You will probably know if you or anyone you travel with is affected by this and will take measures to prevent it (and clean up afterward!). Although trains are probably better that cars and planes for travel sickness, a really hot train and a seat facing backwards can set some people off. Also, on trains, you can't just stop and get off when you want if you feel bad.

In a public space like a train there is always a risk of becoming a victim of crime. Fortunately, this tends not to be physical harm to the individual but is more likely to be theft. Italy seems to a particular hot spot, at least anecdotally.

Inconvenience of train travel

One of the major disadvantages of trains is that, door to door, they can take a long time. Compared to, for example, a car you have to factor in a lot of additional time:

  • Getting to the station at the start, are you close enough to walk, or do you need a taxi, or a lift from family or friends?
  • Allow extra time to get to the station as you really don't want to miss the train
  • You are there on time, but is the train? Another few minutes added to the journey by a late train
  • To be fair, if you are on inter-city trains, the actual journey time on the train can be pretty short especially on a bullet train in Japan or equivalents on other countries. But if you are on a local train (either deliberately or by accident) that stops at every little station, the journey can take an age
  • If you need to change trains there will be an inevitable wait for the connecting service. If you miss the connection (see late train, above), then you can add another hour or more to wait for the next one
  • Then there is the trip from your final station on the train to your actual destination. It all adds to the time you'll need for your journey

The nature of a fixed timetable means further inconvenience. There simply might not be a train when you want to go. This will not be a problem if you are travelling between adjacent major cities; trains are likely to depart every few minutes. But if you want to travel to somewhere out of the way, expect only a few trains a day, and sometimes a few trains a week. This means you will have to plan carefully in advance.


Off-road trains do exist

It might be stating the obvious, but trains can only go where there are tracks and you can only get off where there is a station (mental image of an off-road train here lol). Depending on the country, this might limit you to major urban areas. Very rural locations will be hard to reach by train.

You might suffer the ultimate train travel inconvenience if your train is entirely cancelled. This happens fairly regularly in the UK; some reasons given include:

Cost of train travel

If you travel during peak hours on a busy line, expect to pay handsomely for your uncomfortable and inconvenient form of travel. Economists coined the term perfect pricing to describe the situation where a company charges each customer the maximum they are prepared to pay in order to maximise the company revenue. This is why the busier (and thus more unpleasant) a journey is, the more you'll have to pay for it.

If you make the mistake of getting hungry on a long journey, be prepared for more cost in the form of overpriced snacks and drinks in the buffet car.

Missing your train can be expensive if you ticket is only valid on a specific train as you'll have to buy another ticket.

If you get on the wrong train things get even worse. Not only will you have to pay to get a train in the right direction, but you might also be charged a penalty fare for being on the wrong train in the first place. Add that to the literally hours you will spend getting back on (the right) track and you have a recipe for a fairly bad day.

We've already mentioned the additional time you'll have to allocate to getting to and from the station. If you are getting a taxi or further public transport, you'll also have to allocation additional fund.

Other issues with train journeys

Even if you are able-bodied, getting onto a packed train with a full load of luggage can be a challenge. If you are disabled, it is likely to be much more difficult. Depending on your disability you might have to call ahead to request assistance.

The overarching issue with train travel, especially where the state is involved, is under-investment. Trains are inordinately expensive to create and run, and if funds provided are not sufficient, the problems we've talked about in the article become more and more evident to users of the service.

But that is probably a topic for another article!