The 10 greatest railway journeys in the world
Great train journeys provide a sepia-tinged return to more leisurely days, when travel was a decorous adventure rather than an irritant endured between home and holiday. Between them, our top 10 carve up the most spectacular scenery on the planet. While several will leave scorch marks on the plastic in return for ultimate style and pampering, others, such as the Glacier Express in Switzerland, Japan’s Bullet Train and Mexico’s Copper Canyon Railway, will charge you no more than locals pay when travelling from one town to another. All prices quoted are per person.
1 Glacier Express, Switzerland
A glorious misnomer if ever there was one: the express takes eight hours to cover the 180 miles from Zermatt to St Moritz. Boarded in winter, it’s the most relaxing and leisurely way to reach a ski resort. The train rises and plummets nearly 5,000ft, crosses 291 bridges, burrows through 91 tunnels (including the longest narrow-gauge tunnel in the world), crosses the Rhone and Rhine, and traverses the 6,700ft Oberalp Pass. It runs on narrow-gauge track, switches to rack and pinion and, when the going gets really tough, gains extra height with an intricate series of tunnel-and-pass loops. At lunch you’ll be beckoned in German, English and French to the lavishly upholstered dining-car.
Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, http://www.myswitzerland.com) sells reserved first-class single Glacier Express tickets from £84 and reserved second class from £51. Lunch on board costs about £16. Unlimited Swiss Passes for four, eight and 15 days are available from £157 for first class and £104 for second (Glacier Express seat reservation £6.50).
2 The Royal Scotsman
Mile for mile, perhaps the most expensive train journey on the planet. Relaunched in 1985, the Royal Scotsman (above) is also possibly the most exclusive, with just 36 passengers in private mahogany Edwardian state cabins. The observation car accommodates all 36 passengers in comfortable armchairs and sofas, and the two dining-cars have the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. When you’re ready for sleep, the train pulls over for the night. The four-night classic tour of the Highlands and Lowlands follows little-used lines past lochs, glens, waterfalls, mountain peaks and vast forests. Visits en route include a castle, a smokehouse, a distillery and a trip to Skye.
The four-day tour on the Royal Scotsman (0131 555 1344, http://www.royalscotsman.com) costs from £2,590 for a state cabin with private shower, table d’hote meals, all drinks and visits.
3 Trans-Siberian Railway
The train rarely breaks into a trot as it inches its way across the vastness of Russia, trundling 6,000 miles from Asia into Europe and crossing seven time zones. Carriages once used by the Politburo are fitted with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting/dining-room, complete with private chef.
The Imaginative Traveller (01473 667337, http://www.imaginative-traveller.com) has a 19-day first-class Trans-Siberian holiday, from Vladivostok across Siberia to Moscow (and then on by overnight express to St Petersburg) from £2,150. The price includes seven nights on trains and 11 in hotels, most meals and city tours. Flights extra.
4 Eastern & Oriental Express
This 1,200-mile journey links Asia’s best working city (Singapore) with its best shopping city (Bangkok) via lush tropical countryside dotted with palms, rubber plantations and paddy fields. Unlike on the Orient Express, dress is smart-casual rather than stuffy. Food is delicious – a fusion of international and Far Eastern influences – though portions can sometimes veer towards the minimalist. Fortunately, at Penang you’ll have a couple of hours to stretch your legs and graze the fabled hawkers’ stalls (some of the best food in Asia). Back on board, after supper, you may find fellow travellers singing round the piano in the bar. By the time you finally drag yourself back to your cabin, your steward will be waiting to settle you in for the night.
Magic of the Orient (01293 537700, http://www.magic-of-the-orient.com) offers a tailor-made six-night/five-day trip from £1,735 per person. The price includes return flight to Singapore, two nights’ room-only accommodation at the Singapore Shangri-La, the train journey (two nights – all meals included), two nights’ room only at the Bangkok Shangri-La and transfers.
5 Copper Canyon Railway, Mexico
No soft landings here. No gourmet food, no pampering butlers and no private bathrooms – you’ll even need to bring your own loo paper. Take your own hooch, too, and mix with the locals as you trundle through stupendous scenery. Find a seat on the right side and relax as the train stops and starts as if at whim, pootling from Los Mochis on the Pacific coast across the Sierra Madre and the Sonora Desert to Chihuahua. The package listed below is broken up with overnight stays in Divisadero and Creel, the main town of the Sierra, before the final leg up through the Tarahumara Mountains to Chihuahua.
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, http://www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a four-day Copper Canyon package from £383 including “tourist-class” accommodation, the railway journey, transfers and some meals. International and domestic flights (Mexico City to Los Mochis and Chihuahua back to Mexico City) can also be booked through Journey Latin America.
6 Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
If you want to go to Venice and are fortunate enough to have bottomless pockets, this is the way to do it. The Orient-Express invented the romance and pampering associated with the luxury train. The route comprises two separate trains and legs: the British Pullman and the Continental Wagons-Lits. Meals are banquets, staff are superbly obsequious and the rest of your theatrically dressed passengers will be as riveting as the French, Swiss and Austrian countryside whizzing past the window.
Italiatour (01883 621900, http://www.italiatour.co.uk) offers a three-night package including Orient-Express travel one way from Victoria station and Alitalia Prima Class the other, plus two nights’ b & b at the four-star Londra Palace in Venice from £1,755.
7 Great South Pacific Express, Australia.
The luxury train that zips along the eastern seaboard between Sydney and Cairns was launched in 1999. The trip is divided into two sections with an overnight stay in Brisbane. The more memorable leg is the lush Brisbane-Cairns one, which includes a helicopter trip to the Barrier Reef, where you’ll spend the day snorkelling from a pontoon. Although the food is superb and the staff friendly and fun, don’t expect unbroken sleep on board – the train rocks and rolls because the carriages are considerably broader than the old track. The open-air observation deck provides the best views. The journey ends beyond Cairns, at the delightfully old-fashioned tropical railway station of Kuranda, where you’ll take the SkyRail cable car through the densely forested hills before picking up your luggage in Cairns below.
Bridge the World (0870 444 1716, http://www.bridgetheworld.com) features the two-night Brisbane-Cairns trip from £1,170, including the excursions mentioned above and all meals but excluding international flights (London-Brisbane-Cairns returns from £854).
8 Palace on Wheels, India
The Palace on Wheels (below), resplendent in Rajasthani textiles, could have been furnished by the V & A. Handsomely dressed attendants graciously serve a succession of memorable curries (and continental dishes, if you want a break) as you’re transported at a dignified pace across the deserts of Rajasthan. Other elements contributing to the Raj lifestyle include an elephant welcome in Jaipur, lunch at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, a camel safari near Jaisalmer and an afternoon at the Taj Mahal. The only disappointment is that the Palace on Wheels is not actually a steam train, as its image suggests – it’s pulled in and out of Delhi by steam, then uses diesel.
Bales Tailor Made (0870 241 3212, http://www.balesworldwide.com) features the Palace on Wheels as part of a 10-day holiday costing from £2,755 per person, including flights, transfers, sightseeing and meals.
9 The Shinkansen, Japan
An altogether different encounter. Compared to our other great railway journeys, the Shinkansen is an unashamedly modern experience. The silver Bullet Train (below), as it’s better known, is closer to a rocket than a train. Having had its nose put out of joint by losing its title as fastest train in the world to France’s TGV, the Bullet Train has restaked its claim with its new Nozomi model, which devours the 325 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto in just two hours and 10 minutes. Although you could continue all the way to Hiroshima and the southernmost island of Kyushu, the trip between the modern and ancient capitals will probably be enough. The adrenaline rush is the train itself, not the bland, featureless countryside.
A one-way Tokyo-Kyoto Bullet Train trip with reserved seat costs about £84 (double for returns). Tickets are available from all stations. A better deal is probably the one-week Japan rail pass at about £178 (which can also be used to get into town from Narita airport). Further information (though not sales) from the Japan National Tourist Organisation (020 7734 9638, http://www.seejapan.co.uk). Tailor-made Japan tours available through Creative Tours (020 7462 5577, http://www.ja tour.co.uk) and ANA World Tours (020 7478 1933, http://www.anatours.co.uk).
10 Blue Train, South Africa
The new Blue Train, launched in 1998, eclipses all other great railways when it comes to indulgence. The train carries just 84 passengers, mollycoddled by 27 staff. Each compartment has its own en-suite bathroom, telephone, television and individually controlled air-conditioning, and professionally trained butlers are on call 24 hours a day. You could be seduced into thinking you’re not moving at all if it weren’t for the gentle rocking and the mouth-watering scenery speeding past your window (there’s even a special observation deck at the rear of the train with wraparound windows for a better view). The classic route is Pretoria-Cape Town – watch the moon rise over the Karoo and wake up in the winelands before pulling in to Cape Town beneath the drama of Table Mountain.
African Pride (01904 541000, http://www.african-pride.co.uk) features the Blue Train as an add-on to any of its tailor-made South African itineraries. The Pretoria-Cape Town two-day trip costs from £480 in a deluxe compartment, including meals and drinks. A typical 10-night African Pride package with return flight, car hire, luxury b & b accommodation in the Westcliffe (Johannesburg, one night) and Mount Nelson (Cape Town, seven nights), plus the Blue Train costs from £2,070.