Full steam ahead
Beyond Glenfinnan, the train climbs through forests of ash, carpeted in a tartan of bluebells and bracken. The peaks are hung with the fraying rope of streams in spate and the lochs look like slices of sky fallen to the ground. Trailing clouds of steam, The Jacobite clatters through this mythical landscape, breathing hard.
Then we round a corner and a door is thrown open to the sea. Suddenly, there is a view of islands out across the Sound of Arisaig, where Eigg, Rum and Muck crowd the horizon. Beyond Arisaig lie beaches, and water that’s an otherworldly Caribbean blue. And then there is Mallaig, with the Isle of Skye in the distance, and there’s me on the rain-soaked platform at the end of my journey, both past and present, then and now.
Your journey on the Caledonian Sleeper starts in London, ends in Fort William and takes 12 hours (from £60 one way for a berth).
From Fort William you take the Jacobite to Mallaig, a journey lasting two hours (from £26).
The Bernina Express
It is no easy matter running trains in one of the steepest, most topographically awkward nations on the planet, but the Swiss seem to take it in their stride. You name it, they have run a railway up it, by hook or by crook, by rack or by pinion and by Albula and St Moritz. Those last two are key locations for one of the country’s most spectacular trains, the Bernina Express, which clings to the side of the mountains like a lonely goatherd, before eventually breasting the highest railway crossing of the Alps and continuing down the other side into the intoxicating pastoral world of northern Italy.
The red flash of the brightly painted train is absolutely unmissable among the gentle greens, greys and blues of the mountains. Its journey begins as it departs from the platform at Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, where it makes a modest start alongside the baby Rhine and continues into the lower part of the Albula valley. But the Albula steepens quickly, and the river disappears into a dramatic ravine, forcing the train to criss-cross the gorge, creaking like a sailing ship in a full-bellied wind.
Uphill of the Alpine village of Bergün, the Bernina ties itself in knots as it negotiates a piece of engineering that has been recognised by Unesco, plunging repeatedly into the mountainside, completing slow, disembowelling circles in the darkness before emerging into daylight once again.
Ospizio is the highest point on the track, in an ethereal landscape scattered with strangely lucent meltwater lakes. These shining pools are the header tanks for a river system that now starts to descend into Italy, eventually to Lake Como, way down below. The railway, too, starts to descend rapidly, repeating its routine of hairpin turns, before entering a world of meadows, orchards and vineyards. Its final flourish before the end-station of Tirano is the viaduct at Brusio, which looks like two-thirds of a steeply banked colosseum as it delivers the train gently to the ground.
Your journey starts in Chur, Switzerland, ends in Tirano, Italy and takes four hours (£55 one way; rhb.ch).
The Venice Simplon Orient-Express (VSOE) is a train of unmatchable pedigree, with a legacy of appearances in films and novels, and a history that spans two world wars. Its heyday was the Golden Age of rail travel, during the first half of the 20th century, when royals and heads of state, writers and even spies would set out for the furthest corners of Europe, travelling in supreme style. Back then, the Orient-Express ran to Istanbul, but today’s VSOE sticks largely to a bread-and-butter route between London, Paris and Venice – a journey that lasts 31 hours.