There are few more memorable ways to travel than by train. From rail odysseys through the outback to day trips in Britain, here are five ways to get on board.
The luxury one: The Ghan, Australia
The Australian outback is a place that’s hard to grasp: a vast, ill-defined area mapped by Aboriginal people not on paper but in song. It was a mystery to European settlers until they started crossing it on camel, and its loose demarcations – the Red Centre, the Never Never, the Top End – still sound mysterious and remote. That it’s now crossable by train is something of a marvel; that the train navigates this extreme, other-worldly land in a degree of luxury is the icing on the cake.
The train is the Ghan, a long-established service that runs up (and down) the centre of Australia from one coast to another on a three-day trip of almost 2,000 miles. Though named after 19th-century outback camel drivers who hailed from Afghanistan, it’s a far cry from their tough desert treks. Dinners in the smart onboard restaurant have an unmistakably outback flavour, with kangaroo fillet on the menu, while Platinum Service passengers can order 24-hour room service and breakfast in bed. They could, in theory, never leave their cabins, which are decked out with en suites and oversized windows framing the passing landscapes.
The scenery is worthy of large windows indeed. On the northbound route from Adelaide, plains and russet mountains cede to the arid Red Centre, the outback’s heartland of cobalt skies, rust-red earth and haphazard fistfuls of scrub. For its first 75 years, the Ghan ended in the desert city of Alice Springs. It now continues on to Darwin on the north coast. The journey’s periodic stops are a chance to get off the train and into these landscapes, from guided walks to helicopter rides. There’s even the chance to go right back to basics on the original Afghan Express (as the Ghan was once called) – a camel trek through the desert.
The traditional one: The Orient-Express, Europe
‘Railway termini... are our gates to the glorious and the unknown,’ wrote novelist E M Forster in 1910, capturing a sense of the romance of train travel that the average peak-time commuter may struggle to relate to. But once upon a time train travel was a luxurious prospect that came with a frisson of glamour and adventure, not to mention fine dining, grand surroundings and impeccable service.
It’s this Golden Age of rail travel that the Orient-Express company seeks to evoke on its train services, most famously in its namesake Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) service that runs from Paris to Venice, and once a year as far as the traditional terminus of Istanbul. The same group also runs day trips in the UK on the sister trains of the VSOE – the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, which recreate the same Agatha Christie-era atmosphere without the need for a pair of £2,000 tickets.
Some of the Pullman’s ’20s carriages were used by the royal family, including the present Queen in the 1950s, and its steam-hauled signature journey is suitably stately. Within Art Deco interiors kitted out in wood panelling, mirrors and mosaics, guests are served a five-course dinner with wine and champagne; beyond the window, the rolling downs of the Surrey countryside speed past. On the steamless alternative, the train winds instead through the countryside of Kent to Whitstable and the sea before returning home.
The 1930s-style Northern Belle, which tours the north on a varying schedule of routes, offers a similar experience, with the addition of strolling musicians who serenade passengers as they dine. As well as food-based signature journeys, both trains run day trips to specific destinations, from a visit to Loch Lomond to a day exploring Bath. And there’s one trip that goes even further in conjuring the spirit of the Orient-Express – a murder mystery lunch on the British Pullman.