The Best Historic Rail Journeys | History Hit

The Best Historic Rail Journeys

Celeste Neill

15 Jun 2023
The Venice Simplon Orient Express is ready to depart from Ruse Railway station, Bulgaria. 29 August 2017
Image Credit: Roberto Sorin /

Take a trip back in time on these 5 iconic train routes. From charming steam trains to art deco carriages, each historic rail journey promises an immersive experience like no other.

Travel through picturesque landscapes such as the majestic beauty of the Scottish Highlands aboard the Jacobite Steam Train, or indulge in some fine dining aboard the exquisite Art Deco carriages of the Belmont Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Whether you’re a history buff, a train enthusiast, or simply seeking an unforgettable adventure, these historic rail journeys offer a window into the past, allowing you to relive the nostalgia and charm of a bygone era.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

The Orient Express was not a single set of coaches but a renowned service that operated various routes across Europe throughout its history. During its peak, there were several distinct Orient Express routes, which traveled from Paris to Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and either Bucharest or Istanbul. In the 1920s and 1930s, the routes ran from Calais to Paris, Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade, and either Athens or Istanbul.

The carriages of the renowned Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train hold their own unique history and character, accumulated from years of traversing Europe. In 1864, George Mortimer Pullman, an innovative railway constructor, introduced a technologically advanced and luxurious train in Great Britain, surpassing anything seen in Europe at the time. Parlour cars and sleeping carriages were subsequently introduced in the 1870s, offering passengers the novelty of onboard dining.

Georges Nagelmackers (1845-1905)(left); Orient Express’ promotional poster (right)

Image Credit: Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left); Jules Chéret, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

Concurrently, Belgian railway entrepreneur George Nagelmackers crafted luxury rolling stock and initiated the Orient Express service from Paris to Giurgi, Romania, in 1883. This train boasted sleeping carriages and was the first continental train to feature restaurant cars. The completion of the Simplon Tunnel in 1906, linking Switzerland and Italy beneath the Alps, significantly reduced the travel time between Paris and Venice. 

However, due to the later development of cheaper and faster air travel, the Orient Express routes declined in popularity, and stopped running in 1977. However rail enthusiast and entrepreneur James B.Sherwood later acquired 2 of the carriages at an auction in 1977. Over the subsequent years, he invested millions in procuring and restoring 35 original vintage carriages, culminating in the rebirth of the Orient Express in 1982.

The interior of a luxurious dining car carriage on the Belmont Venice Simplon Orient Express

Image Credit: Graham Prentice / Alamy Stock Photo

The train embarked on its maiden voyage from London to Venice, under a new name, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which continues to operate to this day. Passengers today board 1920s-vintage Art Deco carriages with stylish interiors, and it has become synonymous with luxury travel, frequented by royalty and movie stars, and immortalised in Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express.

Travellers today can enjoy sumptuous meals, and elegant afternoon teas, as they cross through the picturesque countryside of England, France and Switzerland, before arriving in the Italian city of Venice.

The Jacobite

The Jacobite steam train has been described as the greatest railway journey in the world. Its 84-mile route begins in Fort William, at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis, and ends at Mallaig, a small fishing port and gateway to the Isle of Skye. En route it runs across the mouth of Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, and crosses the breathtaking 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct.

The Jacobite’s route forms part of the West Highland line, which at its full distance runs for over 160 miles from Glasgow to Mallaig. At the time, the west Highland area was suffering through a lack of transport. In October 1887 the provost (mayor) of Fort William N B MacKenzie mobilised local support for a new railway connection with Glasgow. The British Northern Railway agreed to offer part of the funds, with the British government providing the rest.

Despite opposition from The Highland Railway and Caledonian Railway, who felt the line threatened their own, the West Highland Railway bill was passed in August 1889.

Jacobite, train

The Jacobite steam train at Fort William train station

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) / CC BY-SA 4.0

The line between Fort William and Glasgow opened in 1894 but due to competition with other lines and the remote location of its stations, it struggled to make a profit. British Northern Railway was soon losing money on the venture but still agreed to partly fund an extension, building a viaduct at Glenfinnan at a cost of £18,904. The completion of the extension further enhanced the West Highland Line’s significance and facilitated transportation to the picturesque coastal town of Mallaig.

The Jacobite’s route is famously featured in the Harry Potter films. The company operating The Jacobite provided Warner Brothers with the train used as the iconic Hogwarts Express throughout the movie series, granting them permission to film along the route.

The Ghan

The Ghan is an extraordinary 1800-mile route slicing right through the Red Centre of Australia from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north. The journey takes 54 hours in all, including stops at the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, and Alice Springs.

The train was originally called The Afghan Express. It was named in honour of the camel drivers who were brought to Australia from the Middle East to help the Europeans to navigate the arid interior. In fact 3 railways have carried the name The Ghan. Construction began on the first, a narrow gauge line, in the late 1800s. The purpose of the first line was to link the coal mines of the interior with Port Augusta on the coast of South Australia, west of Adelaide. The line was extended in stages until finally, in 1929, it reached Stuart (modern day Alice Springs).

As with all pioneering ventures, the first Ghan faced tough obstacles: the steel rails buckled in the intense heat; termites gnawed at the wooden sleepers; kangaroos and emus were mown down in the darkness; and in places flash floods washed away the track entirely. Eventually a new track was built, this time in standard gauge, located further west to avoid the flood plains. The new Ghan opened in 1980.

More than 20 years later, in 2004, the final link from Alice Springs to Darwin was completed, costing A$1.3 billion. The first departure on the new transcontinental line left Adelaide on 1st February 2004.

Today, passengers can experience the whole route from the comfort of private sleeper cabins and dine on fine cuisine in the restaurant car.

The Blue Train

The Blue Train, running from Cape Town to Pretoria, is one of the world’s most luxurious train journeys, with a history linked to the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of the early 20th century. From 1923, 2 trains initially ferried thousands of prospective gold miners between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The trains were utilitarian, built to transport the eager masses, but as the gold boom continued, it produced a new class of wealthy elites, who expected to travel in style.

In 1927 new luxury coaches were introduced, boasting hot and cold running water, electric lighting, a sumptuously appointed dining car, and an observation coach at the back of the train where guests could enjoy unobstructed views of the passing countryside. Local people began referring to the service as “those blue trains”, and the name stuck. The Blue Train was born.

The Blue Train

In 1937 an order was placed with a Birmingham firm for 12 new all-steel coaches, in a distinctive blue, were delivered at the outbreak of World War Two, during which the service was suspended. When it resumed in 1946, local people began referring to the service as “those blue trains” and the name stuck. The Blue Train was born. The train was modernised in the 1970s and electric and diesel engines replaced the original steam locomotives.

Today passengers taking the 27-hour journey from Cape Town to Pretoria can choose between de luxe and luxury suites aboard the train. Passengers can relax in one of two lounges before dining on local produce in the restaurant car.


The Trans-Siberian is the world’s longest rail journey, stretching 5,772 miles (9,289km) from Moscow to Vladivostok, it crosses 6 time zones.

In 1886, Emperor Alexander III approved a series of research projects to assess the viability of a Trans-Siberian railway. Siberia lacked strong transport links to boost its development, but there was plenty of foreign interest in constructing. Alexander determined that the railway must be funded and built by Russia, as a matter of national pride.

Construction began in 1891 and started at both ends of the line, with the intention of meeting in the middle. The terrain was inhospitable; workers had to contend with the Russian taiga (forests), swamps, vast rivers and lakes, and ground hardened by permafrost. Nevertheless, the railway progressed at a rate of 600km a year and was completed in just twelve years.

The new railway led to a boom in agricultural exports from Siberia and an influx of millions of immigrants. The poor were crammed into sparse third-class carriages, whilst a first class ticket offered wealthy passengers access to a music room, complete with a grand piano, and even a gym.

Today the Trans-Siberian offers passengers the chance to experience the vast expanses and diversity of the Russian landscape, with opportunities to break the journey in the historic cities of Irkutsk, Kazan and Yekaterinburg.

Celeste Neill