Train travel: The world's best new train journeys

In the second half of the 20th century, train travel went off the rails. Air travel was faster, more glamorous and eventually cheaper. Highways took over. Trains were for misfits and backpackers and travelling salesmen checking into heartbreak hotels, but a new generation of trains, including high-speed ones, is generating a buzz, with travellers realising that trains are reliable, convenient and full of the clackety-clack promise of adventure.

"Train travel is on the rise the world over," says Randy Powell, chief executive of Canada's Rocky Mountaineer, which tracked a 135 per cent increase in bookings in the second half of last year. It's part of an explosion in rail holidays that combine train travel with hotel stays and even cruises.

Rail journeys have become popular again because they cover vast distances across remote terrain, often offering stylish travel and comfort, while passing through rich landscapes and cultures, says Debra Fox, general manager for sales at the Melbourne-based APT. 

Some astonishingly luxurious train trips are now available. British-based specialist Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, co-owned by APT, offers train journeys through the Balkans and is introducing new tours in 2015 to Mongolia, the central Asian republics and beyond the Arctic Circle in Russia and Norway. 

Australian tour operator Captain's Choice also offers train tours in many countries, including along the Silk Road. "Touring by private train is like no other form of travel. It's like a cruise, but with far better scenery, and the interest is growing enormously," says managing director Phil Asker. 

It isn't all about luxury, of course. The pleasure of train journeys is their infinite variety. They can come with butler service and polished silver in the dining car, or be no-frills regular services through some of the world's best scenery. They can be long hauls across entire continents or modest day trips through the mountains. Here, from living it up to roughing it, are some of the latest choices. 

SLEEPERS IN SEATTLE

The train Coastal Passage, operated by Rocky Mountaineer.

The journey The Rocky Mountaineer's classic routes through the Canadian Rockies trundle past waterfalls, lakes and snowy peaks to resort towns such as Lake Louise, Banff and Jasper. In May last year, the company extended the service to Seattle in the United States. The journey to Seattle takes in landscapes such as Mount Baker, the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Northwest coastline. Packages range from five to 14 days.

On board In Gold Leaf class, bi-level, custom-designed, glass-domed carriages provide panoramic views, and travellers can enjoy personal service and gourmet meals in the dining carriage. Silver Leaf isn't quite as luxurious and features single-level domed carriages. Passengers do not sleep on the train, and instead stay at selected accommodation along the route.

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Essentials Travellers can add cruises from Seattle on Holland America or Norwegian to their Rocky Mountaineer package. About 24 departures are scheduled between May and October. Phone 1800 821 531. See rockymountaineer.com

IRANIAN REVOLUTIONS

The train Jewels of Persia, operated by Golden Eagle.

The journey Launched in 2014 and travelling from Budapest to Istanbul and then to Tehran, this two-week, 7000-kilometre journey through five countries, including Romania and Bulgaria, might be the most exotic luxury train route. Stops include mediaeval Sighisoara and baroque Brasov in Romania, the landscapes of Cappadocia and Lake Van in Turkey, the ancient ruins of Persepolis, and Iran's cultured cities of Isfahan and Shiraz.

On board The journey is made on the Danube Express, when it isn't visiting Europe's capitals on other luxury trips. It hauls two dining carriages and a bar. The wood-panelled cabins have en-suite bathrooms, armchairs and convertible beds that fold down at night. The heritage cars have bunk beds. Two nights off the train in Istanbul's Pera Palace hotel are included.

Essentials In 2015, there are four departures in either direction. See goldeneagleluxurytrains.com

FAST TRACKS

The train Harmony Express, operated by China Railways.

The journey There are few newer rail experiences than China's high-speed Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains on an ever-expanding network that is expected to be 50,000 kilometres long by 2020. The world's fastest trains have top speeds of more than 350km/h, reducing the Beijing-Shanghai trip to just over five hours. The longest journey is the eight-hour, 2298-kilometre Beijing-Guangzhou route from northern China's flat fields to the karst landscapes of the south. 

On board Complimentary meals and drinks are provided in first and business class. Elsewhere, packaged meals can be bought from trolleys. Recharging sockets and free Wi-Fi are available. Movies show on screens, with individual screens in first and business class offering more choice. Luggage space is limited. Large suitcases must be stashed in the luggage compartment.

Essentials On the popular Beijing-Shanghai route, EMUs run about every 10 minutes. Phone 1800 665 977. See travelchinaguide.com

STAR ATTRACTION

The train Seven Stars, operated by JR Kyushu Railway Company.

The journey Launched in late 2013, this train, hauled by a gleaming red locomotive, takes passengers around Japan's lush, volcano-studded southernmost main island on two-day (800-kilometre) or four-day (1200-kilometre) journeys. The round trip from Fukuoka stops at Nagasaki and Aso. The longer trip includes a night in a top-end, traditional Japanese inn, a great cultural experience.

On board This sets a high standard for other Japanese luxury trains coming in the next few years. Seven Stars has five sleeping cars for 28 passengers, a dining car and a lounge bar for relaxation, accompanied by the tinkling of a pianist. No expense is spared, with sinks designed by a pottery master, en suites fragrant with cypress wood, bamboo blinds and handcrafted furnishings.

Essentials Book well ahead: the new train is exceedingly popular. Both itineraries have weekly departures. See cruisetrain-sevenstars.jp

PEACE TRAIN

The train Queen of Jaffna, operated by Sri Lanka Railways.

The journey When this blue train pulled out of Colombo in October last year for the first time in a quarter of a century, it was cheered by crowds as a symbol of the end of Sri Lanka's long and bitter civil war. The six-hour, 398-kilometre trip, mostly on new tracks, connects the capital to Jaffna in Sri Lanka's once war-torn Tamil north. It makes stops along the way at new stations. The jungle-coated hills, rice paddies and villages of this beautiful island make for fine viewing.

On board This isn't a luxury train, but a regular scheduled passenger service. First class offers reclining seats, air-conditioning, patchy internet access and shared television screens for $12. Sit on the shady side, because there are no sun blinds, and bring a picnic, as the restaurant car is unpredictable. 

Essentials Services run daily. Phone +94 11 2432908. See railway.gov.lk

UNDER THE VOLCANOES

The train Cruise Train, operated by Tren Ecuador.

The journey This four-day, 280-kilometre journey between Quito and Guayaquil takes you from the Andes to tropical lowlands and the coast on perhaps the world's most spectacular ride. The train chugs among snow-capped peaks in the Valley of Volcanoes to a high point of 3609 metres, then negotiates the switchback Devil's Nose. The historic line reopened in 2013, with revamped stations that are already a hub of colourful local activity.

On board Lovingly restored steam engines haul luxury, air-conditioned carriages, and the dining and lounge cars have large windows. Open sections bring the landscape closer. Passengers stay overnight in lodges, with daily excursions to cacao plantations, colonial-era churches and passing towns.

Essentials The train runs from June-September and December-February. Shorter one to three-day trips are also offered. Starting in Guayaquil allows travellers to acclimatise to the altitude and enjoy increasingly dramatic scenery. See trenecuador.com

EMERALD EXPRESS

The train Grand Hibernian, operated by Belmond.

The journey Ireland's first luxury overnight rail experience, to be launched in 2016, will offer two, four and six-night rail journeys. Exact itineraries have not been announced, but they will take in Dublin, Cork and Belfast and sights in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Off-train excursions will provide the chance to play golf, visit historic estates and the Titanic Belfast centre, and discover more about Ireland's legendary writers, musicians and artists.

On board Belmond, formerly known as Orient Express, is transforming 10 carriages acquired from Irish Rail into an observation car with a bar, two restaurant cars and luxury sleepers with 20 en-suite cabins, four of which will be interconnected for families. Expect the luxury of other Belmond trains such as south-east Asia's Eastern & Oriental Express or Britain's Northern Belle. The designers have drawn on Dublin's classic Georgian architecture and Irish folklore for inspiration.

Essentials Phone 1800 000 395. See belmond.com

GOLDEN DAYS 

The train Chicago-New York, operated by Pullman Rail Journeys.

The journey Bookings are already being taken for this long-awaited overnight service between Chicago and New York, starting regular journeys in late 2015. The train will head through the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley and stop at Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Washington, DC. Various packages include New York accommodation, a Broadway show and station transfers.

On board The company's aim is to rekindle the golden age of train travel. It uses historic Pullman cars restored in considerable style. Some date back to the early 20th century and have Art-Deco design elements. There will be lounge, observation and dining cars, and passengers can will be able to enjoy four-course dinners. The service, if other Pullman services are anything to go by, will be attentive. 

Essentials The train will run weekly. See travelpullman.com

GO WEST

The train Great Western Explorer, operated by Uncommon Journeys.

The journey The Great Western isn't new, but Uncommon Journeys creates one-of-a-kind trips always a little different each season. The new 14-day Vista-Dome Great Western Explorer trip will pass through some spectacular scenery in 2015, as it does a round trip from Chicago, taking in the national parks of the south-west, Colorado Rockies, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, before heading down the California coast. Excursions include visits to Hearst Castle and Catalina Island. 

On board Restored Streamliner carriages have a variety of cabin options, most with en suites. Daily afternoon teas and cocktail hours are promised. The domed observation car offers panoramic views of the mountains and desert. Two-night hotel stays are included at Reno, Santa Fe and Los Angeles.

Essentials There are two departures in 2015, on May 9 and October 17. See uncommonjourneys.com

WELL TRAINED

Some well-travelled industry insiders share their thoughts on train travel.

INGRID KOCIJAN

Australasian manager, Rail Europe

What I like about train travel is its no-stress nature, while journeying from one city to the next. Amazing scenery along the way is a bonus.

My best train journey was the GoldenPass from Montreux to Interlaken in Switzerland past snow-capped Alps and herds of cows, with freshly made coffee and Swiss chocolate in hand.

The train journey I'd love to take is the four-hour high-speed Allegro from Helsinki to St Petersburg, because I've never been to Russia.

The best view from a train I've travelled on was along the Riviera between Genoa and Cannes, where the coast and passing towns provide great viewing. raileurope.com.au

PHIL ASKER

managing director, Captain's Choice

What I like about train travel is the way it brings countries alive: the people, the scenery gliding past, the backwoods branch lines that contrast with high-speed railways.

My best train journey was along the Silk Road, from Beijing to Moscow. Every day was a contrast and a highlight. Teaching a Chinese waiter to uncork a wine bottle was comic to watch!

The train journey I'd love to take is Capetown to Dar Es Salaam with Rovos Rail.

The best view from a train I've travelled on was through the deep gorges and valleys of northern Iran. Hard to beat, although there are many great train views. captainschoice.com.au

ALICIA PRIVITERA

consultant, Rail Plus

What I like about train travel is that it's usually hassle free, provides the chance to see the countryside, and often crosses locations inaccessible to cars.

My best train journey was this year, when I travelled on the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada. 

The train journey I'd love to take is through central Europe on the Golden Eagle, a journey that takes in mediaeval towns, contrasting cultures and Transylvania.

The best view from a train I've travelled on was the stunning scenery of the Rockies. The glass-domed carriages gave fantastic, uninterrupted views. railplus.com.au.

JONATHAN HUME

chief executive, International Rail

What I like about train travel has to be the comfort of modern, high-speed trains that provide first-class food, comfortable seats and amazing views.

My best train journey was on Switzerland's Glacier Express through the Alps, which provided spectacular scenery all the way. 

The train journey I'd love to take is the Rocky Mountaineer through the Rocky Mountains in Canada – Gold Leaf class, of course.

The best view from a train I've travelled on was of the distant Swiss Alps between Zurich and Lausanne. Breathtaking. internationalrail.com.au.

DAVE ATHERTON

international business development manager, Great Southern Rail 

What I like about train travel is that it's relaxing, social, so different from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and the views are always amazing and inspiring. 

My best train journey was The Indian Pacific [operated by Great Southern Rail] between Adelaide and Sydney. Enjoying breakfast while watching more than 100 kangaroos race across the bush is a moment that will always stick with me. 

The train journey I'd love to take again is Rovos Rail in South Africa. I love the Edwardian style of the trains, and the country and wildlife are fascinating. 

The best view from a train I've travelled on was of the tropical Top End from The Ghan [operated by Great Southern Rail], especially when coupled with an off-train excursion to Katherine Gorge. greatsouthernrail.com.au.

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