As far as Burt Bacharach was concerned, when penning ‘Trains and boats and planes ….’ these forms of transport go together and from a cruise perspective, fly cruises make up a significant part of the cruise business. The combination of ‘trains and boats’ occurs less often, although with the advent of the Eurostar it has become easier for river cruise clients with an aversion to flying to take a ‘train (to) cruise’ along European rivers - made even simpler with the recent Eurostar extension to Amsterdam. It only takes 3.5 hours to get from London to Amsterdam now, just over 5 hours to Cologne (via Brussels) and only 3 hours from Paris to Basel. I have even known more intrepid travellers take an overnight sleeper train to Barcelona, embark on a cruise to Venice, disembark and then train back to the UK. Indeed, Venice to Rome by train is only 3 hours 33 minutes.
There is a synergy between trains and cruises both in terms of destination – a lot of the iconic train routes of the world are near popular cruise destinations, on many people’s bucket lists (so it can make sense to tick them both off at once) and also perhaps the psyche of the clients themselves: with interests in social history, geography, culture and travel, in particular.
This article is a general overview of some (but by no means all) of the world’s iconic tourist inspired rail journeys, with several featured closer to home (in Europe and the UK) which are just fun trips – like the Little Railways of Wales (my first childhood foray into train travel) and The Transcantabrico Gran Lujo (the ‘food and drink’ train, in Spain). I have divided them up by continent and where appropriate, added notes on potential cruise extensions – after all, if you are travelling to the other side of the world, you may as well see as much of it as you can in the time allowed!!
A train journey is probably one of the most agreeably comfortable and relaxing forms of long-distance travel. Whether you want spectacular scenery, luxurious carriages, heritage steam or epic long-distance journeys (perhaps aboard a sleeper), there is no greater perspective of the world to be gained, than from a railway carriage window. Even more workmanlike routes such as those seen in TV programmes like ‘Great British Rail Journeys’, ‘Great Continental Rail Journeys’ and ‘Great American Railroad Journeys’ introduced by Michael Portillo, complete with his Bradshaw’s (UK & Europe) and Appleton’s (USA & Canada) guide books, have fired the imagination of train and travel lovers alike.
But it is the slower trains (mainly) that are at the romantic heart of iconic rail travel. On board, it is all about deceleration, not speed, where the journey is a time to relax and a destination in itself.As A. P. Herbert once said: “Slow travel by train is almost the only restful experience left to us.”
In Europe, no other train journey evokes that sense of glamour, romance or adventure than the 5* Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Whether this is due to its setting in Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express” (even if the latest version of the film is less glamorous than its predecessor), or its beautifully restored 1920’s style art deco carriages (minus wifi, showers and private bathrooms), the haute cuisine and exemplary service on board or the piano bar in the evenings; the scenery on the one night journey from London to Venice is nothing short of stunning. Boarding the train at Victoria, London, the classic route travels via Paris, Innsbruck and Verona to Venice. In days of yore, if you had a penchant for lobsters, you would travel the westbound route, as the Head Chef reportedly always took possession of a crate of fresh lobsters in Paris, ready for brunch service, when the train reached Calais. Costs start from £2000 pp for the journey.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express also runs occasional trips to Prague, Budapest and Vienna as well as signature journeys to Istanbul.
The Orient Express, as a regularly scheduled train operated by SNCF, was withdrawn in 1997 and is now owned and operated by Belmond, as is The Royal Scotsman where travellers can choose from several round trips from Edinburgh, over 2 to 7 days. The classic journey is the 4-night passage to the Scottish Highlands, visiting castles and distilleries en route (with 2 or 3 excursions off the train each day). A two-night Taste of the Highlands itinerary from Edinburgh to Rothiemurchus and back, in July 2019 starts at £2850 pp. There are also golf themed journeys. The Royal Scotsman is the only luxury sleeper train running in the UK and has a bar stocked with more than 50 whiskies. Autumn is the most picturesque time to undertake this journey, as the resplendent purple heather is in full bloom. This type of itinerary, offered by the Royal Scotsman, is remarkably similar to a ‘cruise on land’ – stopping off for ‘shore’ excursions along the way, so it is not surprising that the train has strong travel links with the equally iconic and luxurious Hebridean Princess cruise ship and that in 2019, The Grand Hebridean will be partnering Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises.
Many people reading this may have memories of ‘Inter Railing’ round Europe in their younger days: with architecturally impressive stations like Amsterdam and Antwerp, or the surety of being able to get a decent meal in station restaurants. The geography of Europe lends itself to scenic routes running beside rivers: arguably one of Europe’s prettiest railway lines is the 60 mile stretch between Koblenz and Mainz, through the Rhine Valley. With few tunnels, there is a near uninterrupted view of steep vineyard-covered hills, fairy tale castles and half-timbered houses. Heading towards Mainz (from Koblenz) sit on the left hand side of the train for the best views. Also, along Europe’s 2nd longest river – the Danube – there used to be a privately run hotel train, with deluxe sleeping cars for just 65 passengers, a restaurant and dining cars (The Danube Express). Destinations included Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Belgrade, Budapest, Sarajevo and Trieste, with some carriages being a replica of the private train of the last Hungarian Communist President. The service terminated in 2014 and was taken over by Golden Eagle Luxury trains with a reduced service.
Other iconic routes on the other hand, travel over or through mountains, linking one country with another. Whilst low-cost air carriers may have enticed today’s young travellers away from trains, it is worthwhile to memorialise just a few of the many famous European rail journeys:
Switzerland’s railway system is the envy of the world, not just because of its renowned punctuality, but the sheer audacity of its routes – over, through and up mountains. Such routes include The Bernina Express – running from Chur in Switzerland, via St Moritz and Davos, across the Alps to Tirano in Northern Italy. It is arguably the most scenic journey in the world, mile for mile. The 4 hours, 90-mile journey travels through 90 tunnels, over 196 bridges and as high as 7000’ (Bernina Pass). Every carriage on the narrow gauge railway has vistadome style windows.
The Glacier Express is reputedly the slowest Express train in the world, linking the Swiss resorts of St Moritz and Zermatt (via Chur, Andermatt and Brig). The daytime journey crosses 291 bridges, travels through 91 tunnels and takes 7.5 hours (the perfect day trip!)
The Jungfrau Railway – runs along a metre wide gauge track, for 9 km, from Kleine Scheidegg (above Interlaken) to the highest railway station in Europe at Jungfraujoch (3,454 m above sea level). The train calls at Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and Grindelwald. Depending on when you travel, you could leave Interlaken in shorts and be met by a cold snowy white out at the top.
Riviera Travel offers a 'Switzerland, the Matterhorn and The Glacier Express’ escorted tour (which also includes a trip on the Bernina Express). The tour lasting 7 nights, starts from £1219pp
Of course, there are other mountain ranges in Europe with rail routes and worthy of mention is the Harz Railway in Germany’s Harz Mountains. It is Europe’s longest rail network with a daily steam operation (as well as the largest fleet of passenger steam locomotives with 25 engines). It travels 86 miles, stopping at 48 stations, with 3 interconnecting narrow gauge lines and runs north to south across the Harz Mountains from Wernigerode to Nordhausen. Unlike many ‘heritage’ lines, its proper timetabled services mean that it is used as a commuter train, just as much as a tourist attraction.
Similarly, one of Norway’s top tourist attractions is Flamsbana (the Flam railway). It is a 20km long railway line running between Myrdal and Flam in Aurland, a branch line of the Bergen line, which then goes onto Oslo. (Bergen to Oslo itself, is a 310-mile journey and the highest major rail route in northern Europe as well as one of the most spectacular, passing through mountain terrain at 4,000’, and running for nearly 60 miles above the tree line). The station at Myrdal is 866 m above sea level and the track is one of the steepest in the world with a gradient of 1 in 18. As the train traverses up the valley, it passes waterfalls (stopping for a photo opportunity at the Kjosfossen waterfall, falling 225 m down the mountainside), verdant, mountain pastures, birch forests, and snow capped-mountains in the distance, as well as travelling through a series of tunnels, the longest of which is the Nali Tunnel at 1320 m long.
Flam is a very popular stop on fjord cruise itineraries and the railway features on most shore excursions. This could be just as a return trip to Myrdal and back or as part of a longer journey with some cruise lines offering bike rides back down the mountain (a distance of 10km and descending 345 m), onward rail journeys to Voss or versions of the popular ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ trip: Flam Railway to Voss, then a coach journey along Stalheimskleiva (a 1.5km stretch of road running up a ridge between two waterfalls (so fantastic views) and one of the steepest roads in Northern Europe (1 in 5 gradient), with 13 sharp hairpin bends) and back to Gudvangen (and the ship). This journey lasts a breathtaking 6.5 hours.
If you just want to take the rail trip from Flam, there and back (approx 1 hour each way), it is far more economical to do it yourself! The station is a short distance from where the ships dock and although your cruise ship will have bought a lot of tickets for the train, it is usually possible to buy these independently. Return tickets cost 550NOK (£51.25 pp).
The ‘Polar Express’ also runs in Northern Europe and whilst the journey may not be as hair raising as that in the film of the same name, the 2-hour journey from Kiruna (Sweden) to the port of Narvik (Norway) in northern Norway, takes 3 hours each way. It is part of a regular service operated by Swedish National Railways (accessed by night trains from Stockholm), where you are likely to find both trappers and tourists eating reindeer stew and mash in the restaurant car. There are two daily trains between Kiruna and Narvik, with 12 stops in either direction. It is also an ideal route to explore by snowmobile and dog sled.
In Europe’s warmer climes, Ian Fleming’s quote ‘…… great trains are going out all over Europe’ is perhaps never truer than today, with the advent of high speed-trains and the need to link major cities to each other, in minimal time. Some of the more laid back rail options include:
The Transcantabrico Gran Lujo which is more of a 5* hotel on wheels than a train, partly because a lot of its journey is conducted by coach, taking clients on the daily sightseeing trips. It travels along Spain’s northern, Atlantic coast for 7 nights, from San Sebastian to Santiago (de Compostela), stopping at places like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the prehistoric cave and wall paintings at Altamira, the Picos de Europa National Park, Gijon, the La Hermida Spa and El Capricho for the colorful 19th-century house designed by Gaudí. The train has 14 deluxe suites (typically taking up half a carriage each), for up to 28 passengers and the tour is memorable for the exceptional food with select wines and excursion meals in top-notch restaurants, as much as the extensive sightseeing opportunities. A double suite in 2019 starts at €5,150 pp. The trains run on narrow gauge tracks with some of the coaches being restored 1923 Pullman cars and are stationary overnight to ensure a good night’s rest! There is a multitude of ‘social carriages’ including a Dining Car (for breakfast and evening meals, as most lunches are eaten at land-based restaurants), a permanently open Bar Car, a Tea Saloon, the Panorama Coach and the Entertainment Saloon, complete with nightly live entertainment.
If you saw or read ‘The Night Train to Lisbon’ perhaps you should snuggle down in one of the private Gran Clase sleeper compartments aboard the Lusitania Trenhotel, for the 11-hour journey to Madrid starting from Santa Apolonia Station in Lisbon and relive the experience. New Trenhotels (train-hotels) have variable gauges so they can travel on different width tracks, reaching speeds of up to 220 km/h. Each train has four carriages with reclining seats, four sleeper cars with Grand Class double cabins, one cafeteria car and a separate restaurant car. Although this is the only international route offered by Renfe there are several overnight routes available within Spain (eg. Barcelona to Vigo and Madrid to Ferrol).
Even just within Great Britain, there are a plethora of trains and railways of all shapes, sizes and track lengths, both public and private owned, offering a wide range of experiences from Santa Specials to wedding receptions, sumptuous meals to murder mystery parties. Belmond’s British Pullman leaves London Victoria on selected dates with visits to places of interest in southern Britain including castles and country houses, cities, sporting events like the Grand National and Glorious Goodwood and even weekend journeys to Cornwall, with overnight accommodation in hotels. Trips include different combinations of breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner served on board, some in the presence of celebrity chefs, in sumptuous art deco 1930s style carriages with large cheese boards that sit snugly across the aisles between two sets of diners. The sister train Northern Belle operates mainly in Northern Britain although my experience was a visit to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, from Crewe. Prices start from £300 pp for a day trip.
Companies like Great Rail Journeys, Leger Holidays, Newmarket Holidays, Rail Discoveries and Ffestiniog Travel offer dedicated holidays by rail where trains have a big part to play either in getting between places on the tour or in actually visiting different private and public rail lines.
In the UK this could be to:
Isle of Man (Snaefell Mountain Railway, Manx Electric Railway and the Isle of Man Steam Railway),
Yorkshire & Northumberland (The North York Moors Railway and the Settle & Carlisle line)
Norfolk (the Poppy and Bittern Lines near Sandringham, the Mid Norfolk Railway and the Bure Valley Railway)
Highlands of Scotland (Kyle Line (towards Skye), Strathspey Steam Railway, the Jacobite Steam Train on the West Highland Line and the Cairngorm Mountain Railway – Scotland’s only funicular railway).
Some of the Scottish itineraries also excitingly allow for north bound travel on The Caledonian Sleeper - the collective name for the overnight sleeper service that runs between London and Scotland and is one of only 2 sleeper services running in the UK – the other being the Night Riviera running between London and Penzance. Two trains depart from London Euston six nights a week (excluding Saturdays) heading north on the West Coast Main Line. New carriages are being introduced in 2019.
The Highland Sleeper departs at approximately 9pm calling at Watford Junction, Crewe and Preston to pick up passengers only. Six and a half hours later, in Edinburgh, the electric engine is replaced by a diesel and the train splits Fort William (front 2 sleeping coaches plus a further 2 seating coaches added), Aberdeen (6 coaches from the middle portion of the train) and Inverness (rear 8 coaches).
The Lowland Sleeper on the other hand, departs London Euston nearly 3 hours later and calls at Watford Junction to pick up further passengers and Carlisle to set down. The front part of the train goes to Glasgow, via Motherwell (including a stop at Carstairs), whilst the rear portion continues to Edinburgh.
The carriages may be somewhat dowdy, without private facilities, but there is something romantically pleasing about waking up in the ethereal world of the Highlands, unless like me you were awake earlier and enjoyed the views of sleepy stations and misty mountains along the way.
Take the aptly named Deerstalker Express (London to Fort William sleeper train, as above) and you will awake bright eyed and bushy tailed to truly enjoy.
Fort William to Mallaig (Jacobite Steam Train)
This “Road to the Isles” service was saved from Beeching’s axe and has thrived to become one of Britain’s best-loved scenic railways. It is a 42-mile journey, through mountain and glen, taking in Britain’s highest mountain and Europe’s deepest seawater loch, as well as crossing the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, more famous these days as a location for the Harry Potter films. Arrive by steam aboard the daily Jacobite train from £34 pp return.
Newmarket Holidays offer a 4 night trip (from £549 pp) which includes trips on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, the Strathspey Steam Railway and the Kyle Line (Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh).
Wales is a great place for train journeys be they, and their passengers, big or small!
There are ‘Eleven Great Little Trains of Wales’, all narrow gauge steam railways, with some over 100 years old. Each one is unique but they have a collective charm in their size, lots of polished paintwork and brass and the fact that many of them originally worked in the Welsh slate industry. The most well known is probably the 25 mile, 1ft 11½in wide gauged Snowdon Mountain Railway which runs through Snowdonia National Park and up the side of Mount Snowdon. It is Britain’s longest narrow gauge line and restored, like so many forgotten lines, by volunteers. You can even get a meal in one of the miniature Pullman cars. Others of note are the Ffestiniog Railway (the oldest independent railway in the world), the Welsh Highland Railway (running between Caernarvon and Porthmadog), Vale of Rheidol Railway (Aberystwyth to Devils Bridge) and the Bala Lake Railway.
Wales also has standard gauge steam railways at Llangollen, Gwill and the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway.
In the British Isles, miniature railways like Ravenglass & Eskdale and Romiley, Hythe & Dymchurch should also be remembered as should other standard gauge steam and diesel railways perhaps more accessible by independent travel, including the Isle of Wight Railway, West Somerset Railway (at Minehead), the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway and the Sussex Bluebell Line - all steam locomotives. The Swanage Railway in Dorset and The Severn Valley Railway in Shropshire operate both steam and diesel trains.
Not to be outdone, Austria also runs a plethora of Tyrolean vintage steam railways, from the Wendelstein Rack Railway in Bavaria (with the train climbing 1217m, through 7 tunnels and 12 bridges to the summit at 1838m) and the Achensee Train (Europe’s oldest rack and pinion railway at 120 years old, which climbs to the edge of Lake Achensee, known as the ‘Fjord of the Alps’), to the railway up Schafberg Mountain from St Wolfgang (a 40 minute journey to 1190 m over a distance of 5.85 km), the narrow gauge Zillertal Train from Jenbach to Myerhofen (the first train ran on 31st December 1902) and the Pinzgau Train (running up to the Krimml Waterfalls).
A good selection of these trains, as well as other Tyrolean sightseeing opportunities are offered by escorted tour companies like Leger, Shearings and Newmarket Holidays, with flight and coach travel options transporting you to and from Austria.
Please come back for the Rest of the World !!