You are currently visiting Journeys > Planes, Boats & Trains > Journeys by Train

 

The Romance of Rail

C
H

Step back into a bygone era with a train journey across some of the most beautiful and remote regions of the world. By Anthony Lambert


There has always been something romantic about train travel at its best: generations have found pleasure in watching landscapes roll past the window, perhaps tucking into a freshly cooked meal served on starched napery with glass and silverware in hand. Today, train travel has regained levels of popularity not seen since before the First World War, and each year new trains are developed for a tourist market.


Perhaps the most glamorous train in the world is The Orient Express. There are equally luxurious trains, but none has its aura of mystery, style and opulence that comes from such a long and fascinating history. Each coach has a story to tell and does so in a discreet panel outlining pasts that range from being part of a royal train to a wartime brothel in Limoges. Today, The Orient Express offers an unrivalled experience and sense of occasion, passengers stepping back to a time when the quality of food, wine and service matched the finest restaurants.


Pullman is synonymous with quality, thanks to the name of George Mortimer Pullman being attached to some of the most lavish railway carriages ever built. The new service between New Orleans and Chicago provided by Pullman Rail Journeys seeks to recreate the golden era of US train travel in its meticulously restored cars.


Emulating South Africa's pioneering Blue Train between Cape Town and Pretoria, India has developed some tourist trains so lavishly appointed that they veer towards bling. The Maharajahs' Express is the most relaxing and luxurious way to explore the cities of Rajasthan, and the spacious cabins make it more like a hotel on wheels than a train. A similar train makes its debut on the Japanese island of Kyushu this year, with off-train visits by coach to places and sights of cultural interest and scenic beauty.


The panoramic coaches of the Glacier Express in Switzerland and Inca Rail in Peru and the dome cars of the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada offer views of some of their most stunning landscapes. All provide food cooked on board, the Rocky Mountaineer to an exceptionally high standard.
Some train journeys feature on lists of 'things to do before you die' because they are extremes. No passenger train on earth goes higher than the service between Xining and Lhasa in Tibet, for example, reaching 5,072m (16,093ft) at the Tanggula Pass and requiring special supplies of oxygen. The Trans-Siberian Railway, operating between Moscow and Vladivostock, has captured the imagination like no other long journey, and the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express enables one to enjoy it in style.

 

Booking rail journeys the easy way


The internet has simplified buying train tickets, but many still want the peace of mind that goes with relying on someone else doing all the leg work. For them, there are several companies specialising in escorted rail-based holidays. The largest is Great Rail Journeys (01904 521960/www.greatrail.com) which offers rail-based tours on all continents, while its sister company Treyn (01904 734880/ www.railholidays.com) offers lower-priced itineraries.


Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030/ffestiniogtravel.com) offers a variety of general and themed tours by train, such as Indian Hill Railways and Castles of the Dordogne.


For those who want to travel independently, Railbookers (020 3327 2449/ www.railbookers.com) has a wealth of experience in devising bespoke holidays based on well-researched hotels and an impressive knowledge of railway travel.


Excellent advice on what to expect from a country's train services and how to buy tickets can be found at www.seat61.com. Demand management of ticket sales in many countries generally means that the further ahead one books, the better the price.


Often the cheapest way to travel is to buy a rail pass, which are available for most countries with a significant railway network, or a combination of countries in Europe with an InterRail pass. This is available for up to 27 individual countries, or a Global Pass covers 30 countries for a varying numbers of days. In Switzerland, for example, there is a range of Swiss Travel Passes giving unlimited use of public transport for visitors using it daily or for three, four, five or six days within a one-month period. They also give free admission to over 450 museums (020 7420 4908; www.stc.co.uk).

 

Natural high


Anthony Lambert follows his own advice, escaping British Columbia's tourist hotspots on Rocky Mountaineer's dramatic Sea to Sky train journey…

 

There are some train journeys that are so unexpectedly impressive that you wonder why they aren't better known. This is what I felt, taking Rocky Mountaineer's northerly routes from Vancouver to Whistler and then on to Prince George before turning southeast to Jasper. The variety and drama of the landscapes and the feeling that you are well away from British Columbia's tourist hotspots combine with the pleasure of being on such a well-conceived train to create an exceptional experience.


I marvelled at the tree-shrouded shoreline mansions as the Whistler Sea to Sky Climb train weaved along the coves of Howe Sound, not so much at the houses as the sublime view they enjoyed over the dark water to a succession of snow-fringed mountains.


I joined the photographers in the open-sided car as the train slowed for the cauldron of white water in Cheakamus Canyon, before reaching Whistler. While passengers returning to Vancouver wandered off to explore the famous mountain resort, the lucky ones boarded the two-day Rainforest to Gold Rush train to Jasper, with an overnight stay in Quesnel (as all the train journeys are in daylight, you sleep in hotels en route). The dome cars and their sumptuous seats are the perfect way to enjoy the journey, complemented in Gold Service, the top class of travel, by some of the best food I've eaten on a train. But I spent much of the two days on the open end-balcony, where you can feel more in touch with the places you're passing and inhale the scent of the forests.


A succession of highlights punctuates the days: trundling beside the waters of Anderson Lake with immense mountains lining the opposite shore; the sinuous climb out of the Fraser Valley; clearings of pasture among the woods in Cariboo ranching country. There were moments of high excitement as the engineer on the locomotive caught sight of a bear and it obligingly remained in view for all to see.
Next day, we turned southeast along the Rocky Mountain Trench, North America's longest valley, and I wondered what life was like in the tiny communities we rattled through, hundreds of miles from the nearest café latte. The fitting climax before Jasper was Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet and so vast it has its own microclimate.


As I reluctantly left the train at journey's end in Jasper, I felt that my sense of scale had been recalibrated, but perhaps that's a common feeling among those coming from a small island to a country writ large.

Related Features…

Night train to Narvik

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries take one of Europe's most remote and beautiful train journeys, from Stockholm to the snowy far north of Norway. MORE…

Enjoyed what you've read?

Then why not subscribe today, and ensure that the latest issue of Journeys Magazine is always available to read on your favourite device. MORE…