The golden age of the train

Enjoy the ride, whether you're cruising through the deserts of Namibia or tackling a hair-raising route across Ecuador

By Sarah Barrell
Published 8 Aug 2013, 15:10 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:20 BST

Best for... Russian romance

The station is chaos. Suitcases stand shoulder high, stacked in impenetrable rows, people shove, engines smoke and standing by are officials with surly faces looming under the shadow of comically oversized hats. A web of giant concrete platforms stretch out like piers through this seething sea to meet equally giant trains. All liveries, signage and platform information, what there is of it, is in Cyrillic script. I haven't the foggiest idea which is my train. And even if I did, I'm not sure I could fight my way to it without a tractor.

Thank god for my guide. I'm not one to delegate when it comes to travel, and most mass transport experiences, be they Indian, Cuban or Cambodian, are all the better for getting into the thick of things but somehow I drew the line in Russia. And here, thankfully, a luxury train ride comes with a porter and guide at your disposal. In my case, one to hold my hand and lead me through the crowds to the correct train, another to collect my tickets.

Once on board, like many great train experiences, all is calm. Carpets, cushions, drapes and damask muffle the shrieks and rumble of the station, transforming it into a film soundtrack, the scenes suddenly fascinating framed by a window. At the end of the platform, where concrete gives way to tracks, a sketchy looking bloke is selling packs of 100 cigarettes to railway workers. But I'm not looking out the window for long. Inside my sleeper — I have splurged on a two-bunk cabin — there are too many enticing things to be unhooked, unclipped and unfolded.

This is a mobile Russian doll of a cabin, everything opening to reveal something else. Around me are lots of shiny hooks and racks and polished shelves that click down and snap out cleverly, recalling a 1950s yacht.

The Krasnaya Strela or Red Arrow train has been running between St Petersburg and Moscow since the 1930s, with service only once interrupted — by the Siege of Leningrad. Russia's premier train in Soviet times, it's now daily in both directions and is still, despite other luxury train additions to the route, the most atmospheric way to travel between Russia's two main cities.

The train's red and gold livery is mirrored inside. My compartment comes with puffy curtains trimmed with gold tassels that clink and twitch as the train grinds into motion. My imaginary Russian babushka — for I have inevitably slipped into a sort ofAnna Karenina fantasy — would undoubtedly travel like this. We depart exactly on time.

It's stifling hot, perfect for Russian winters but challenging in summer months. Some 5,000 miles east in Siberia, where I've just spent several weeks on a conservation project, the temperature hit the mid-30s. The wilting humidity in Moscow adds degrees to that but having been where no road or rail runs, it's exquisite to be cocooned among such opulence.

The lamps overhead seem to burn brighter as we pick up speed. A gaggle of Russian girls are using the corridor as a catwalk, parading around in their PJs, defiantly beautiful in flannelette. I wander to the loo, passing open cabins where glossy fashion mags are piled up like pillows on the beds and old fashioned vanity cases are strapped neatly into shelves.

After a quick teeth clean, admiring the frilly, fake carnation dressing the mirror frame, I go back to my bed, click my door shut to drown out the girls' chatter, and dig down under the starched sheets. The shunt and heave of departure has given way to a smooth swaying motion, with barely any discernable clickety-clack. I'm asleep in minutes.

Eight hours later and I'm woken by a perfunctory knock at the door. Tea is served to my cabin, sweet and lava hot. St Petersburg's grand imperial buildings line the horizon. Gone are the concrete greys and steel skies of Moscow. I appear overnight to have left Russia and arrived in Europe, and all in my sleep. Magic.

How to do it: Ticket office fares start around £125 for a two-berth, first class sleeper. Booking through an operator makes this process a lot easier. Regent Holidays' eight-day 'Moscow & St Petersburg' itinerary costs from £1,094 per person, including flights and accommodation. 

Best for... Tropical landscapes

Eastern and Oriental's 1,262-mile train journey from Bangkok to Singapore cuts a swathe through dense rainforest and lush mountain terrain, passing rubber plantations, remote, stilted villages and golden Buddha-topped temples. The sister train to Europe's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers a similarly luxurious on-board experience: gourmet dining, cocktails in the open-air observation car and three classes of cabin, all ensuite and rich with wood panelling, picture windows and 24-hour steward service.

The train's itineraries range from three days (from £1,310 per person), to seven-day rail adventures through rural Thailand or Thailand and Malaysia. 

See also: With butler service, a gym and a library, the Maharajas' Express is fit for a modern prince, and rolls through a series of iconic Indian sites, with itineraries starting around £5,000 for seven nights. 

Best for... A Highland fling

The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig is regularly voted the world's best train journey in travel polls. And while there's no question Scotland's West Coast comes tops for dramatic scenery, there is a question over which train or route to choose. Along with the London-Fort William sleeper service, and regular daily trains from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, the West Highland Line can be experienced on a daily summer steam train — the Jacobite — a Hogwart's Express-style experience that's become a favourite with Harry Potter fans, taking in scenery featured in the films.

The cruise train that's become synonymous with luxury rail travel has to be the Orient-Express-operated Royal Scotsman. The company also operates the lovely and lesser-known Northern Belle, a train that recreates the 1930s golden age of rail travel. The Northern Belle's 'Grand Tour' travels via York, Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands before returning south via Chester, Snowdonia and Bath. Seven nights from £2,850 per person. 

See also: As a bargain alternative, Northern Rail operates trains through some of the UK's most scenic routes, including one from Carlisle through the Pennines to the Yorkshire Dales National Park and onwards to Settle. From £35. 

Best for... Alpine Beauty

Possibly the slowest 'express train' on the rails, the Glacier Express is nonetheless a service with luxurious scenery… and very reasonable fares. The train travels on a narrow gauge route between two of Switzerland's ritziest ski resorts — Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn, and St Moritz — journeying 180 miles in seven and a half hours at average speeds of 24mph. Take your camera and, frankly, your watercolours to capture languidly moving Alpine landscapes through the train's generous picture windows and skylights.

The Glacier Express has been running since the 1930s but today offers modern carriages with good heating/air-con. There are two trains a day in winter, several more in summer and all come with a meal and wine. One-way from £96.

See also: The Danube Express comes with ensuite cabins for its trips, including the 10-day, eight-country Istanbul to Prague journey. From £4,990. 

Best for... Desert Wilderness

Namibia's Desert Express offers the wildest, weirdest African rail ride, taking wide-eyed passengers through a sand-blown landscape, which wobbles in the heat haze to reveal a lone bushman here, a ghostly, sun-bleached thorn tree there and very little in between once the highlands and Skeleton Coast give way to the desert proper. Then it's just you, the giant sand dunes and the clickety clack of the train; it's like riding the rails through Mars.

The route runs from Windhoek in the central highlands, across savannah, desert and plains to Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. Railbookers offers 11 days from £4,839 per person. 

See also: The brightly-painted, little-known Trans-Karoo is a bargain way to travel between Cape Town and Johannesburg, taking almost exactly the same route across South Africa as the luxury Rovos and Blue Train services but at a fraction of the price. From £47. 

Best for... European class

The recently relaunched Al Andalus, or 'Palace on Wheels', takes passengers on a six-day loop around Andalucia's most seductive settlements. Beginning in Seville, this mobile palace calls in at such stellar cities as Cordoba, Granada, Cadiz and Jerez, with plenty of rolling olive groves and Moorish architecture in between.

The 1920s sleeper carriages have been restored to their former opulence, with en suite cabins done out in belle epoque flourishes. There's time to stop off for sherry tastings, private tours of cobbled towns and market trips, making this a quintessential Spanish rail experience.

Distinguished Traveller has eight-day packages including flights from £2,599 per person.   

See also: Travel from Paris to Barcelona in just over six hours aboard two high-speed services. Factor in a Eurostar leg and a change at Figueres and you could leave London at breakfast and arrive in Barcelona for a late lunch. From £123.

Best for... Outback and beyond

The Ghan is as synonymous with Australian pioneer history as gold panning and cattle driving. With origins in the late-19th century, this train takes its name from the Afghan herders who crossed the country with their camels. The full route runs coast to coast from Adelaide to Darwin through the Australian Outback, a two-night, 1,846-mile journey.

Combine the Ghan with some classic Australian sights on an 11-night trip starting in Sydney. From the south, take a flight into the Red Centre for a five-star stay in and around Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayers Rock) before boarding the Ghan for a trip through the desert, ending with four nights at a coastal resort in Adelaide.

See also: Discover Australia aboard the Indian Pacific. Named after the two oceans it bridges, this train makes an epic 2,698-mile journey between Perth and Sydney. From £999.

Best for... That out of Africa experience

If not for Rovos, many of South Africa's teeny game reserves would be accessible only by plane. With the Big Five visible from your window, tickets to this train are even more coveted than for South Africa's acclaimed Blue Train. The Rovos trains come with exquisitely restored wood-panelled carriages decked out with Edwardian furnishings. It follows several itineraries through southern Africa ranging from two-day jaunts to two-week odysseys, with excursions from the train. Splash out on the Royal Suites and you'll have lodgings that take up half a carriage, each named after characters from Victorian South Africa, such as Cecil John Rhodes.

Take the Dar es Salaam Journey and follow an epic 14-day route through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, one of the most celebrated rail journeys in the world. From £6,745 per person. 

See also: The Blue Train, the original 'window to the soul of Africa', is the plush, all ensuite train that travels between Cape Town and Pretoria: 994 miles in 27 hours. From £792. 

Best for... High altitude routes

The Trans-Andean has always been one of South America's most remarkable railway routes, albeit one that had fallen into fragmentation and disrepair. With the Ecuadorean government fast rebuilding the country's railways, some of the continent's most hair-raising routes are relaunching: namely a new cruise train between Quito and Guayaquil that travels over the switchbacks known as the Devil's Nose. Next to Mexico's Copper Canyon, this is the best Latino runaway train experience out there.

Try the nine-day 'Ecuador: The Avenue of Volcanoes' tour organised by Great Rail Journeys, from £2,085 per person, including flights. 

See also: Let the train take the strain and travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu aboard the Hiram Bingham train. From £467 return.

Best for... Great American landscapes

Rocky Mountaineer's Coastal Passage is a new US outing for the Canadian operator. Launching this August, with a further 24 departures from Seattle slated for 2014, this brand new route for Rocky Mountaineer follows the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest with an overnight stop in Vancouver then a ride up into the Rockies, to Banff or Jasper. The GoldLeaf class comes with two-level, glass-domed observation coaches, floor-to ceiling windows and gourmet meals. Four days from £1,991.

See also: Take the Maple Leaf between Toronto and New York to view the fall colours and see the stars from the train's observation car. From £74 one-way. 

Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue

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