Great rail journeys that exist only in fantasy
- 30 October 2013
A rail tunnel has opened under the Bosphorus, offering tantalising possibilities for rail anoraks, writes Tom de Castella.
"Anything is possible on a train," wrote Paul Theroux in the Great Railway Bazaar, "a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories." For fans of great train journeys the possibilities have just grown. A rail tunnel has opened under the Bosphorus, the strait separating Europe from Asia.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who opened the new line, declared it would connect "London to Beijing". The Turkish PM was perhaps getting caught up in the moment. At the moment it's a suburban railway linking both sides of Istanbul. And there's a much easier way to get to China - the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. A rail trip across Asia via Istanbul is intriguing though, says Mark Smith, founder of website The Man in Seat 61. Once bits of engineering work in Turkey are finished, you'll be able to board a train at St Pancras and - after a few connections - alight about 10 days later in Bangladesh. That's if you're not assassinated by bandits in southern Iran or al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he adds.
The Bosphorus tunnel offers other intriguing possibilities. Since the late 19th Century there's been a plan to build a railway between Cairo and Cape Town. There are now railways between Nairobi and Cape Town. If Africa's northern section was built, one could hop on a train in London, and via Istanbul, Syria - remember this is a train lover's utopian vision - and Egypt, reach the Cape some time later. The longest journey Smith has done is Moscow to Vladivostok, which takes seven days. "Even I was going a bit stir crazy by the end. There's an awful lot of birch trees."
Changing scenery is a must, says Matthew Engel, author of Eleven Minutes Late. So is interesting company. On that score Amtrak in the US wins, he says. Outside the densely populated north east, few Americans use the trains. "The people who do are a little bit, sometimes very, eccentric. And enormous fun." The trains are notoriously slow - "40 plus" hours from Chicago to LA. "It's like being on a cruise ship except no-one is boring."