For the most part these days rail travel is simply a means of getting from A to B; hopefully on time, hopefully sitting down. But there was a time when rail travel was exciting, pioneering, even luxurious.
Powered by nostalgia for this bygone Golden Age of railways, more and more of us are seeking out opportunities to rediscover the joy of trains. Here are just a handful of trips from around the world to rekindle our love for the good old railway. After all, life is about the journey, not the destination. All aboard!
The Orient Express
Probably the most famous train in the world, the Orient Express is the embodiment of rail travel at its most luxurious.
Luxury trains first emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Long distance rail travel could be an uncomfortable business and companies saw an opportunity to tap in to a desire among wealthier clientele to travel in more sumptuous conditions. The Pullman Car Company was founded in America in 1867 by George Pullman to produce luxurious sleeping and dining cars. Belgian engineer George Nagermackers was inspired by the Pullman coaches and founded Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) to build similar coaches for the European market. The age of luxury rail travel had arrived.
On 10th October, 1882, George Nagermackers assembled invited guests at Paris’ Gare de Strasbourg. They were in for a treat, a chance to ride on the trial run of Nagermackers’ new luxury dining car – the Train Èclair de Luxe (lightning luxury train). The trip from Paris to Vienna, a distance of 839 miles, took twenty-eight hours.
The tables were set with porcelain and Baccarat crystal glasses, and passengers enjoyed a ten-course meal with champagne.
One year later, the newly christened Express d’Orient left Paris for Constantinople for the first time. On board were government officials from across Europe, businessmen, railway executives and prominent journalists. The train included three sleeping cars and a restaurant car, as well as baggage and mail cars. The sleeping cars featured mahogany panelling and damask drapes, with a speaking tube to contact the conductor. The dining car was divided into sections, providing a ladies drawing room, and a club room for the men furnished with leather armchairs. The dining area, lit by glistening chandeliers, seated forty-two. The tables were set with porcelain and Baccarat crystal glasses, and passengers enjoyed a ten-course meal with champagne.
In the 20th century, the Orient Express became a by-word for luxury travel. The trains were frequented by royalty and movie stars, and even made appearances in literature, most notably in Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express.
In 1918 the act of surrender was signed by Germany in a Wagon-Lits sleeping car, ending the First World War. Twenty years later, in 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered that the very same carriage be used when France officially surrendered to Germany. When it became clear that Germany would not win the war, Hitler had the carriage destroyed.
Railway infrastructure suffered heavily during the Second World War and much reconstruction was required afterwards. As the world was plunged into the Cold War, the Orient Express maintained one of the few links between West and East Europe. But travel restrictions caused routes to be compromised and services were cut back.
The Orient Express made its last journey from Paris to Istanbul in 1977. By now the service was a shadow of its former self.
But there was hope yet. In 1982 entrepreneur James Sherwood bought and restored a number of original Wagon-Lits carriages and established a service between London and Venice. The Venice-Simplon Orient Express continues to run, reviving the luxury standards of Nagermackers’ original vision.
London to Venice aboard the Venice-Simplon Orient Express costs from £2,365 per person.
Scotland, United Kingdom
The Jacobite 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, featured in the Harry Potter films. Travelling in 1950s era carriages and hauled by a vintage steam locomotive, the Jacobite sets the standard for the quintessential romantic British rail journey.
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. Construction of the line began in 1889. 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.
the Jacobite sets the standard for the quintessential romantic British rail journey.
The new route passed through remote and inhospitable terrain. Where funds would not stretch to viaducts or cuttings the railway was forced to contend with difficult bends and steep gradients. Even today, these challenges put the Jacobite’s steam locomotives to the test!
The line between Fort William and Glasgow opened in 1894, serving fifteen stations designed in an Alpine style. But the line struggled to make any money due to competition with other lines and the remote location of its stations. British Northern Railway was soon losing money on the venture but still agreed to partly fund an extension of the line to Mallaig. The extension involved building a viaduct at Glenfinnan at a cost of £18,904. The viaduct featured in three of the Harry Potter films and the Jacobite is a popular choice for fans wishing to imagine themselves travelling on the Hogwarts Express.
The Jacobite runs twice a day from May to October costing £35 per adult return standard or £59 return first class.
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 three 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). The goal was to extend all the way to the north coast but the expense was just too great.
When food supplies ran out, the driver hunted goats to keep his passengers fed.
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. It is even said that on one particular occasion in the 1930s, The Ghan was cut off altogether for more than a week by a flash flood. When food supplies ran out, the driver hunted goats to keep his passengers fed.
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 twenty 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 – a far cry from those poor stranded passengers who made do with goat meat for a week!
Adelaide to Darwin on The Ghan in high season costs from A$2069 per person for a Gold cabin booked in advance
The Blue Train
The Blue Train, running from Cape Town to Pretoria, is one of the world’s most luxurious train journeys.
The history of The Blue Train is inextricably linked to the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of the early 20th century. As thousands raced to make their fortune, the small mining community of Ferreira’s Camp was transformed into a booming settlement renamed Johannesburg. From 1923, two trains ferried thousands of prospective gold miners between Cape Town and Johannesburg. The Union Express took them northwards and the Union Limited brought them back. The trains were utilitarian, built to transport the eager masses. But as the gold boom continued, it produced a new class of wealthy elites. This new sector of society expected to travel in style. So 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”. The name stuck and The Blue Train was born.
In 1937 an order was placed with a Birmingham firm for twelve new all-steel coaches. The 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”. The name stuck and 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. All are ensuite, with luxury suites even boasting a full-sized bathtub! Passengers can relax in one of two lounges before dining on local produce in the restaurant car accompanied by a string quartet.
One way journey on The Blue Train costs from R14 625 per person based on two sharing a de luxe suite
The Trans-Siberian is the ultimate rail journey. The primary route, stretching 5,772 miles (9,289km) from Moscow to Vladivostok, crossing six time zones, is the world’s longest railway. Two other shorter routes link Moscow with Beijing via Mongolia and Manchuria.
In 1886, Emperor Alexander III approved a series of research projects to assess the viability of a Trans-Siberian railway. Siberia lacked the neccesary transport links to boost its development. There was plenty of foreign interest in constructing railway lines to solve the issue. But the Russian Tsars were wary of foreign interference and 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.
A first class ticket bought you access to a music room, complete with grand piano, and even a gym!
The new railway led to a boom in agricultural exports from Siberia and an influx of millions of immigrants. But while the peasants crammed into the spartan third-class carriages, the wealthier passengers enjoyed unrivalled luxury in carriages produced by the Wagons-Lits company. A first class ticket bought you access to a music room, complete with grand piano, and even a gym!
But the new train route had its limits. Its capacity was too low; it was too slow, and the wooden rails limited the size of carriages. These drawbacks were highlighted by the Russo-Japanese War, after which the line underwent improvements. The wooden rails were replaced with metal ones and the number of trains increased.
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.
The train between Moscow and Vladivostok runs very other day. Passengers can choose from third, second or first class coaches. First and second class compartments are similar but first class contain only two births whereas second class contain four in two sets of bunk beds. Facilities are shared for all passengers. For the luxury experience, the Golden Eagle is a privately owned train offering en-suite shower rooms and sumptuous dining and lounge cars.
One way journey travelling first class on the public train costs from £700
A trip on the Golden Eagle costs from £10,995 per person
Food on the Rails: The Golden Era of Railroad Dining by Jeri Quinzio (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014)