Get your rail sales on track with our pick of some of the world’s best train journeys, writes Katie McGonagle.
There’s something inherently romantic about rail. Whether you’re puttering up a mountain on an old cog railway as sweeping scenery unfolds below, watching the British countryside whizz by through wisps of steam, or being served champagne by a white-gloved waiter in a vintage dining car, it’s easy to see why this style of travel has come back into vogue.
Add the growing momentum for no-fly holidays and potential reluctance to travel by air in the immediate aftermath of coronavirus, and it’s a good time to brush up on your rail knowledge. Banish any thoughts of crowded commuter trains – these are rail journeys worth waiting for.
Best for… Winter
Famously the world’s slowest express train, the narrow-gauge Glacier Express reveals the snowy scenery of the Swiss Alps at its best. The journey takes passengers along winding mountain passes and mirror-like lakes from Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, via the dramatic Oberalp Pass, to St Moritz.
Arena Travel sales and business development manager Tim Fleming says: “The Glacier Express is one of our most popular trips, particularly among rail enthusiasts, but also with travellers who simply enjoy the chance to experience Switzerland’s beautiful Alpine landscape at a slower pace. Travelling the Glacier Express is a real ‘bucket list’ journey, with scenery that never fails to take your breath away.”
“The Glacier Express is one of our most popular trips, particularly among rail enthusiasts.”
Book it: Arena Travel’s five-day Glacier Express Winter Magic starts at £1,125 based on two sharing with four nights’ B&B accommodation in Interlaken, return Eurostar from London, excursions, connecting rail travel and tour manager, departing February 12 or March 5, 2021.
Or try: While it’s winter for us, it’s the height of the southern hemisphere summer, when South Africa is at its most appealing. Luxury train journey Rovos Rail is marking its 30th anniversary this year, and features original restaurant cars, observation carriages and sleeping compartments – plus a tempting South African wine list.
Best for… Local culture
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the ultimate goal for rail lovers keen to tackle the mammoth 5,750‑mile journey from Moscow to Vladivostok (or its branches to Beijing), passing highlights such as pretty Lake Baikal and the charming 19th-century architecture of Irkutsk.
For a real taste of Russia, Regent Holidays recommends booking a more cost-effective cabin. General manager Andrea Godfrey says: “By travelling in second class and opting for a four-berth cabin, Regent’s clients have a changing set of companions who will share their food, vodka and stories while admiring the passing landscape.
“The Trans-Siberian Railway is the ultimate goal for rail lovers keen to tackle the mammoth 5,750‑mile journey from Moscow to Vladivostok.”
“For travellers who prefer to enjoy the experience in style, we also offer the chance to travel in luxury on the Tsar’s Gold private train in a 1950s Soviet-styled ‘Nostalgic Comfort Cabin’, with Russian caviar and wine served en route.”
Book it: Regent Holidays’ 12‑day Explore Moscow to Vladivostok Trans-Siberian Railway tour starts at £1,350 including second-class travel, accommodation, excursions and transfers in Russia; international flights, meals and visas not included.
Or try: That second-class tip also applies on the train that winds through Sri Lanka’s hill country from Ella to Kandy, passing over the famous Nine Arch Bridge. While first-class passengers get air con and panoramic windows, swap for second and you’ll get windows that actually open, offering a real look at the terraced tea plantations and lush scenery of central Sri Lanka.
Best for… Bucket list
There’s a reason Rocky Mountaineer is beloved by clients looking to mark retirement, celebrate a special occasion or embark on an epic trip. It shows off the pine-forested slopes, jagged cliffs, glacier-fed lakes and towering peaks of the Rockies better than any other mode of transport, revealing more shades of green and blue than you ever knew existed.
All that clients need do is decide whether to see the scenery from the open-sided observation car – better for photos and feeling connected to the landscape – or from their seat, be that in spacious SilverLeaf or the two-level domed GoldLeaf carriages, which afford a higher position for better wildlife viewing. They might spot bighorn sheep, black bears and birdlife – or even a much-sought-after sighting of a grizzly – plus the food and drink is exquisite.
“It shows off the pine-forested slopes, jagged cliffs, glacier-fed lakes and towering peaks of the Rockies better than any other mode of transport.”
This month marks 30 years since Rocky Mountaineer opened, so look out for consumer press or TV documentaries that you can use to generate interest.
Book it: The Journey Through the Clouds Classic, from Vancouver to Jasper, starts at £1,277 including two days in a SilverLeaf carriage with meals on board, and three nights’ accommodation, in Vancouver, Kamloops and Jasper.
Or try: Hark back to the ‘golden’ era of train travel with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, where 1920s and 1930s vintage carriages – Pullman cars for the London to Folkestone leg, and period sleeper cars on the Continent – offer old‑fashioned glamour, albeit for a price. Expect piano playing in the bar car, plush fabrics and decadent dining in the restaurant, and impeccably dressed staff ready to attend to your every need.
Best for… Scenery
Every rail journey on this list could earn a spot for scenery, but the Bernina Express through Italy and Switzerland edges into the lead, curving along the shoreline of Lake Poschiavo, climbing above a layer of fluffy white clouds to Ospizio Bernina, the highest station in Europe, then down via the elegant arches of the Landwasser Viaduct to St Moritz. It’s a hit with train buffs too, thanks to remarkable feats of engineering including the Brusio spiral viaduct, where the train loops back on itself.
“The Bernina Express curves along the shoreline of Lake Poschiavo, climbing above a layer of fluffy white clouds to Ospizio Bernina, the highest station in Europe.”
Will Sarson, head of specialist product for Riviera Travel, says: “Rail journeys are on so many people’s must-do lists, and are always a popular addition as they are a great way of seeing incredible scenery from the comfort of your train seat. With rail itineraries, the journey is as important and as impressive as the final destination.”
Book it: Riviera Travel’s Lake Como, St Moritz & the Bernina Express is an eight-day escorted tour starting at £799 for departures from April to October 2021, with flights, seven nights’ half‑board accommodation, activities and tour manager.
Or try: Norway’s Flam railway often wins awards for its scenery, whisking passengers up from the edge of Aurlandsfjord to the mountain station of Myrdal, some 867m above sea level, passing by gushing waterfalls, wild countryside and snowy peaks along the way.
Best for… Epic journeys
It would be hard to find a more varied train ride than the California Zephyr, which carries passengers all the way from Union station in Chicago across the Midwest to San Francisco.
The pictures are enough to make you wonder why anyone would choose to fly cross-country, when they could instead be making their way over the Mississippi, through the Rocky Mountains and the steep-sided Colorado canyons – where the train snakes along the river’s edge, past pine-covered slopes and craggy, rock-strewn ridges – into the open plains of Utah and the heights of the Sierra Nevada, before drawing in to the mist-filled skyline of San Francisco.
“The train snakes along the river’s edge, past pine-covered slopes and craggy, rock-strewn ridges – into the open plains of Utah and the heights of the Sierra Nevada.”
Peter Traynor, managing director of Railbookers, says: “The views and the landscapes are constantly changing, from the beauty of the Rockies and the Colorado canyons to the Nevada desert and the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, before running along the famous Bay Area. It’s worth breaking the journey in the Mile High City of Denver, which is perfectly complemented by a trip to experience the scenery and wildlife of Rocky Mountain National Park.”
Book it: Railbookers offers a 12‑day Great American – Majestic Landscapes itinerary from £2,299 in March 2021, travelling from New York by train, with accommodation (eight nights in hotels, three on train), attraction passes, sightseeing in Rocky Mountain National Park and Napa; flights extra.
Or try: If transcontinental train travel appeals, try The Ghan, which cuts almost north to south through the heart of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. You can hop off the train for included excursions, from watching sunrise in the desert and exploring Alice Springs, to cruising through Nitmiluk Gorge and learning about the local Jawoyn people.
Best of the rest
The Polar Bear Express, Canada: This five-hour journey through untamed Ontario wilderness trundles along some of the world’s most isolated train tracks to James Bay, part of Hudson Bay, and 15 miles north of any main road. Ffestiniog Travel general manager Maria Cook says: “It’s great to travel in the fall when the landscape transforms to an autumnal yellow, orange and brown glow.”
The Jacobite, Scotland: This steam train from Fort William to Mallaig was made famous by the Harry Potter films – when it stood in for the Hogwarts Express, passing over the sweeping arches of Glenfinnan Viaduct – but there are other scenic highlights along the route, from Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, to its deepest seawater loch.
Palace on Wheels, India: India is famous for its railways, and while this luxury tourist train is a far cry from its ordinary rail network, it is a pleasant, hassle-free way to cover key sights including Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Agra. Plus you’ll get your own personal butler, en-suite accommodation and two restaurant cars.
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