Paul Theroux wrote that “anything is possible on a train”. Rail can be a supremely democratic way to travel, bringing you in contact with locals of all walks of life and giving you a peek into the gardens and back lots running along the line, or it can be an epic journey, the height of luxury, harkening back to a more romantic age of travel.
A train can provide an intimate view of landscapes that you’d never see in the same way from a plane, and allows you to appreciate them in a more focussed, relaxed way that you ever could from a car. It’s one of the more environmentally friendly ways to get around, and though the pace might be slower than flying, it’s often more convenient, delivering you from city centre to city centre without the fuss of security and parcelling your toiletries into sandwich bags.
The options are extensive, covering a broad sweep of countries, landscapes and nearly every continent on the planet. And, perhaps best of all, a train tells you something about the country you’re travelling through even before you look out the window to watch the landscape, cities and towns flicker past. From the smart efficiency of a bullet train in Japan, the meandering pace of a grubby carriage clacking through southern Italy and the polite “mind the gap” at a British platform to the bustle and colour of India’s extensive passenger service, a rail journey provides a window on the world in more ways than one.
TRAVELLING IN STYLE
The names of the great luxury rail journeys are rich in associations with adventure and the glamour of a bygone era, and foremost among them is the Orient Express, which originally ran between Paris and Istanbul. These days, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express connects European cities including London, Paris, Venice, Budapest, Istanbul and Prague with lavishly refurbished 1920s and 1930s carriages. Options include shorter trips, such as an overnighter from between Venice and Paris (Flight Centre has a package including this, a night’s hotel accommodation in Paris and a city tour from $2699 per person, departing on May 6, at flightcentre.com.au), and range up to longer journeys, such as the six-day Paris to Istanbul itinerary (from $9080 per person direct through parent company Belmond; belmond.com).
Belmond also offers a number of luxurious rail options in the UK. Perhaps the best known of these is the exclusive Royal Scotsman, which carries just 36 guests from Edinburgh into the Highlands and beyond (options include the three-day Highland Journey, from $3570 per person). Also in Europe, the Al Andalus takes its name from the Moorish-era name for Spain and offers journeys primarily in Andalusia, in southern Spain. Railbookers has a 10-night package, including an Al Andalus journey from Seville to Granada, along with other rail connections and hotel stays in Madrid, Seville, Granada and Barcelona, from $3909 per person twin share (railbookers.com.au).
Germany is a perenially popular rail destination with Australian travellers. Picture: International Rail
In Europe, luxury touring and cruising company APT is also seeing for guests to combine a luxury rail journey with a river or small-ship cruise, according to chief marketing officer Debra Fox. An example is its 28-day Aegean Odyssey and Danube Express package, departing July 4, which includes a cruise aboard the luxury yacht MV Tere Moana from Athens to Istanbul with a hotel stay in Istanbul before a six-night rail journey on the Danube Express to Budapest, for another hotel stay before continuing on to stay in Prague. The package costs from $24,795 per person twin share (save $4000 per couple if booking by February 28; aptouring.com.au).
India’s opulent tourist trains provide a comfortable and easy way to see the country. The original is the plush Palace on Wheels, and WA company Travel Directors incorporates a week-long journey on the train through Rajasthan in its 22-day Rail Across India guided holiday from October 29, which also incorporates trips on other well-known Indian lines, luxury hotel stays and flights in the price, from $17,550 per person (traveldirectors.com.au). Other options include the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, which follows a similar route to the Palace on Wheels; the Deccan Odyssey, which offers a week-long round-trip itinerary from Mumbai; and the Maharaja’s Express, which is touted as the world’s most expensive luxury train – packages from Railbookers start from $4899 per person for a three-night journey, round-trip from Delhi visiting Agra, Ranthambore National Park and Jaipur.
Southern Africa is also known for its luxury rail travel options, particularly Rovos Rail and the Blue Train. The latter travels between Cape Town and Pretoria in South Africa, and Flight Centre has packages incorporating the two-day journey plus a bonus two-night hotel stay pre or post-rail journey or a night in a safari lodge, from $1419 per person, departing on March 14 or 25. Rovos Rail, meanwhile, is based out of Pretoria and offers various journeys ranging from a three-night trip to Victoria Falls to a nine-day Namibia Safari to 14 days travelling through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Africa travel specialist Bench International offers packages for both trains, such as a three-day Rovos Rail journey from Pretoria to Cape Town via Kimberley, from $1690 per person twin share, with departures available throughout the year (benchinternational.com.au).
Stretching the best part of 10,000km across Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway is billed as the longest rail journey in the world. A Trans-Siberian rail tour was the first escorted tour put together by Travel Directors nearly a quarter of a century ago, and these days the company still offers the 26-day Legendary Trans-Siberian tour travelling from Beijing to St Petersburg aboard the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Mongolian railways, with five days and nights spent aboard the train. The tour costs from $16,550, with departures in July, September and December both this year and next.
The Glacier Express makes the journey from Zermatt to St Moritz or Davos at a leisurely pace. Picture: Christof Sonderegger/swiss-image.ch
A more luxurious option on trans-Siberian routes is the private Golden Eagle train, and APT offers accompanied 12-night packages from Moscow to Vladivostock aboard the train as part of a 15-day Trans Siberian Express itinerary. Priced from $18,895 per person twin share, the package includes one night of hotel accommodation in Moscow and Vladivostock, a champagne reception at the railway station and sightseeing options including a private opera performance in Irukutsk.
Other rail journeys have an epic quality not for their length but for the grandeur of the landscapes they pass through. An example is Switzerland’s Glacier Express, which makes the journey from Zermatt to St Moritz or Davos at a leisurely pace – it’s said to be world’s slowest express train, all the better to take in the spectacular Alpine scenery. Tickets can be booked direct via the Glacier Express website (from 149 Swiss francs, plus seat reservation fee) or via an Australian agent such as RailEurope (raileurope.com.au). Less well-known but no less scenic is Norway’s Bergen Line, between Oslo and Bergen, which is frequently cited as the world’s most beautiful train journey. It’s a regular passenger service and tickets can be booked through Norway’s national rail company NSB (nsb.no), but it’s well worth combining the journey with a trip on the Flam Railway (one of the world’s steepest) and a cruise through the stunning Aurlandsfjord as part of a popular Norway in a Nutshell package (from 840 Norwegian kronor; norwaynutshell.com).
Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer is also renowned for spectacular scenery, and offers a number of routes through British Columbia and Alberta. Australian-based International Rail (internationalrail.com.au) books Rocky Mountaineer journeys, and managing director Jonathan Hume says one of the most popular is the First Passage to the West Route from Vancouver to Banff, which incorporates part of the historic Canadian Pacific Railway and takes in Kamloops and Lake Louise. Three travel classes are available on board, and the highest – GolfLeaf Service – is distinguished by its two-level, glass-domed coach designed to maximise the views. You can also book direct with the company at rockymountaineer.com, where prices for Rocky Mountains journeys start from $1407 per person for a two-day trip from Whistler to Jasper or Vancouver to Jasper.
Spanning distinctive cultures across Europe and northern Africa, Railbookers’ Moroccan Adventure from London also fits the bill for epic journeys, travelling from the British capital to Spain (Barcelona and Cordoba) and crossing over to Morocco to visit Tangiers, Fez, Rabat and Marrakech, before heading back to Ronda and Madrid in Spain. The 12-day independent holiday includes travel on the Eurostar to Paris from London, high-speed TGV and AVE rail journeys in France and Spain, and first-class train travel in Morocco, and costs from $2389 per person twin share.
The Rocky Mountaineer travels through spectacular scenery in Canada. Picture: Rocky Mountaineer
EUROPE AND BRITAIN
Europe and the UK remain prime destinations for exploring by rail, particularly for independent travellers, and travelling by train can offer good value and convenience compared with hopping from city-to-city by plane. International Rail and RailEurope both book European rail travel for Australian customers, and both find that France, Italy and Germany are popular destinations, with the Eurostar between London and Paris the most popular train journey.
Regardless of destination, though, the big question facing independent rail travellers in Europe is whether to buy a rail pass or individual point-to-point tickets. According to International Rail’s Jonathan Hume, passes tend to suit travellers who want flexibility and will book trains on the go. They allow for a certain number of days of rail travel within a certain timeframe and, at either end of the scale, travellers can choose from a Global Pass, valid in up to 28 countries (from $708 for five days travel within 10 days at eurail.com), or a One Country Pass for various popular destinations (for example, a Eurail Italy Pass costs from $322 for three days of travel within one month for an adult aged 26 years-plus). In between these are Select Passes for four neighbouring countries, and Regional Passes for two bordering countries, such as France and Italy, or France and Spain.
For 2015, Eurail has added Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Poland to the countries included in the Global Pass, which Ingrid Kocijan, Australasia manager for RailEurope, says reflects an increase in the popularity of those countries with travellers. Eurail is now also offering free travel for children aged 11 years and under – a significant bonus for families.
Some countries, such as Switzerland, also offer their own rail passes, while if you want to travel around the UK by train, a Eurail Pass is not an option – you’ll need to look into a BritRail Pass, which are available for various geographic areas in England, Wales and Scotland for various time periods (britrail.com).
If you know exactly where you want to travel, and the dates you want to travel on, and will only be making one or two rail journeys, it’s worth investigating the option of buying individual tickets. Mr Hume says that point-to-point tickets in many European countries have become significantly cheaper in recent times, and the further in advance you book, the cheaper the fare – he says a trip from Rome to Venice can cost as little at $35 if booked in advance. This means that travellers may find booking individual travellers cheaper than buying a pass, particularly if they’re travelling on trains that require a seat reservation. Booking through agents can offer considerable convenience, particularly if you’re booking tickets in various countries, but it’s also worth checking the price direct with the rail company’s website.
CLOSER TO HOME
Options for rail holidays in Australia are nowhere near as numerous as in Europe, there are a couple of popular train journeys that are well worth considering. Travelling north-south through the red centre of our continent, the Ghan is regarded as one of the world’s great rail journeys. Originally named the Afghan Express in honour of the pioneering outback cameleers, the original Ghan first departed Adelaide in August 1929, following the route of explorer John MacDouall Stuart to Alice Springs. These days, it travels between Adelaide to Darwin over four days with stops in Katherine, Alice Springs and Coober Peedy, and costs from $929 per person in Red Service, or from $3229 in Platinum Service, for the full journey, with shorter sections and other classes of travel available (greatsouthernrail.com). It’s also a popular option to join up a rail journey such as this with a cruise – for example, Flight Centre has a package departing November 20 combining a two-night Ghan trip with an eight-night cruise aboard Radiance of the Seas, along with hotel accommodation in Adelaide and Darwin, from $3894 per person twin share.
The green, undulating, agricultural region of Canterbury. Picture: The West Australian
Also owned by Great Southern Rail are the Overland, travelling between Melbourne and Adelaide, and the Indian Pacific, which – as the name suggests – crosses the country between Sydney and Perth via Adelaide, traversing what’s claimed to be the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world. The latter is a four-day journey with stops in Broken Hill, Cook, Rawlinna and Kalgoorlie-Boulder and costs from $939 per person twin share in Red Service, and from $3769 per person in Platinum Service. Across the Tasman in New Zealand, visitors can string together a rail journey all the way from Auckland in the north to Christchurch in the south by first riding on the Northern Explorer, connecting to the Interislander ferry between Wellington and Picton, and then taking the Coastal Pacific (note the latter runs only during summer). The third main option is the TranzAlpine train which traverses the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth. Travellers can book all three on the KiwiRail website at kiwirailscenic.co.nz, or get a package which strings together all three journeys and the ferry with accommodation, such as Railbookers’ seven-night New Zealand Explorer, from $1375 per person.
Rail travel in Japan, with its excellent network and good-value JR Pass, has been on travellers’ radars for some time, and travel by train in other parts of Asia is also growing in popularity. The team at International Rail say they are booking a lot more people on trains throughout Asia – particularly in China, where super-modern trains have been introduced. Popular options include journeys from Beijing to Shanghai or Hong Kong, and many Australian travellers prefer to pre-book tickets on these routes to mitigate any potential language difficulties on the ground. The Beijing-Hong Kong journey, for example, costs from about $160, while Beijing to Shanghai is from about $133.
Elsewhere in Asia, overnight rail journeys in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam remain popular with more adventurous travellers and indeed some tour operators will include overnight train travel as part of longer itineraries – as an example, Intrepid Travel’s eight-night Explore Northern Thailand tour (from $885) incorporates an overnight train journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Depending on your destination, pre-purchasing tickets online directly with the rail company can be tricky – again, many travellers will prefer using an agent such as International Rail – and there are some packages are also available, such as Railbookers’ six-night rail package for Vietnam aboard the Reunification Express, travelling the length of the country from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, from $1739 per person.
Travel in the United States tends to be more closely associated with highways than train tracks, and parts of the country are difficult, verging on impossible, to explore by train. But plans are afoot to expand and develop the American rail network, and while this remains very much a long-term proposition for travellers, in the meantime it’s worth considering the existing Amtrak network, which can be excellent.
There are various packages available – Travel Directors is currently working on a new Rail Across USA tour, to depart in September, travelling up the west coast from San Francisco to Seattle and across the north of the country to Chicago, Washington DC, Lancaster, New York and Boston, all by train – but US rail travel is also a good option for independent travellers. The north-east of the country has perhaps the most extensive network, and other notable routes include the scenic California Zephyr, from Chicago to San Francisco through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, and the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, which runs directly along Pacific Ocean for a stretch. You can buy point-to-point tickets or passes via amtrak.com.