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 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.
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 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.
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.